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Media

Oct 28, 2016

How Facebook is screwing over digital publishers (including Crikey)

Facebook is no longer sharing news articles for free. Why? Because it wants publishers to pay for them.

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Isn’t it nice that Facebook has offered free online courses on how to use Facebook to journalists? It’s so nice they want to engage with us, right?

Well, it’s not that simple.

I am the engagement editor for Crikey. We’ve broken some huge stories and helped foster the careers of some of Australia’s best journalists and writers.

Since the site was founded in 2000, it’s been paywalled and primarily funded by subscriptions. While the hard paywall has irritated many “information wants to be free” fanboys, the fact that we’ve had this subscription base has been crucial to our survival since the collapse of the display ad market and its associated revenue. Inside our hard paywall is high-quality journalism and analysis and a very dedicated and engaged audience. Still, there’s no offshore tax haven, government grants or wealthy benefactor funding our endeavours. We’re dependent on word of mouth to drive free trials and new subscriptions, and the biggest megaphone is Facebook.

I’ve been running Crikey’s social media since 2013 and doing deep dives into trends and traffic for the last few months. For years, Facebook was the biggest single non-search referrer of traffic to the site. It was much bigger than Twitter, even for us, a site whose audience is made up of media and politics enthusiasts who are basically the only people left on Twitter these days. However, in the last month or so, our organic reach has plummeted. Compared year on year, our reach is down 30%, despite the number of “likes” of our Facebook page increasing by nearly 10%. This means despite our audience getting bigger, the proportion of people in that audience actually seeing our stuff has decreased. It’s definitely been worse since Facebook fired its trending news curators and replaced them with computers.

We’re not the only ones. Earlier this year, Digiday reported that publishers who’d worked with Facebook to implement Instant Articles (i.e. articles posted directly on Facebook instead of on their own websites) recorded a drop in traffic of around 20%. Every media outlet is feeling the pinch. And why? Because Facebook wants to force publishers to pay to promote their content instead of sharing it for free. Hell, even the ABC has had to fork out for sponsored posts. If a media outlet as beloved and respected as the ABC can’t get its stuff seen, what hope do the rest of us have? Every brand, media outlet and fan page admin I speak to complains that their reach and traffic has plummeted, but nobody wants to publicly admit it. Outlets that have deals with Facebook are concerned Zuckerberg and Co will see it as insubordination; those without deals are worried their competitors will see it as a sign of weakness; marketers are afraid about losing their jobs.

When I look through my own Facebook feed, I see posts from my friends and family. I see posts made in Facebook groups that I follow. I see pictures and videos uploaded directly to Facebook by meme pages and brands. I see see all of those things far more frequently than I see posts by the Facebook pages of news and current affairs publishers. I see bugger-all posts by the musicians, artists and writers whose fan pages I’ve “liked” because I wanted to keep up with their work and activities. More often than not, the posts I do see from publishers and musicians/writers/artists bear the light-grey “sponsored” tag up the top, which means they’ve had to pay money for it to be included in the news feed. Often it seems the only time I see content from a news outlet in my feed is when they’re using Facebook Live to stream a press conference or a round-table of journalists discussing current events. If I never saw a Facebook Live video of something that wasn’t visually compelling breaking news ever again, I’d be a happy woman.

The courses Facebook has launched are all about teaching journalists how to spend more time on Facebook by using Facebook products: Signal, Facebook Live, 360 Videos and Instant Articles. These are all useful tools, and it’s important for at least someone in every newsroom to know how to use them well and teach their colleagues where appropriate.

But we need to look at why Facebook is doing all this in the first place. 40% of people list Facebook as their primary source of news and every post made by a media outlet that links to its website content drives traffic away from Facebook. Why would Facebook want to encourage its users to leave the platform? Facebook wants publishers and their audience to spend more time on Facebook, not more time on external sites. That time? That revenue? Those eyeballs? Facebook wants them all, and for the social network it is a zero-sum game.

I’m not against Facebook. There are plenty of good things about it, and it worked well for us and many other people for years. But as publishers, we need to be realistic about what Facebook wants from this relationship. We’re not friends. We’re certainly not equal partners. We’re just another source of revenue for the platform.

PS: If you’ve been dithering on subscribing to Crikey, you should stop that and just do it. It’ll cost you less than $4 a week, and for a limited time only, if you use the discount code SCREWFACEBOOK at the checkout, you’ll get $20 off. You’re welcome.

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