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.

Sophie Benjamin — Former <em>Crikey</em> engagement editor

Sophie Benjamin

Former Crikey engagement editor

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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11 thoughts on “How Facebook is screwing over digital publishers (including Crikey)

  1. Tinatoerat

    You said “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.”
    That’s what we went to Facebook for! That’s what we want.
    Maybe fb has listened to its customers (maybe I am a super-optimistic fool).

    The Facebook iPad app crashes frequently when looking at non-fb sites so they are not even serving other sites well.

    Like many people I know I try not to click on ads on fb or google – even if they are for the site I’m looking for. I prefer to access the sites directly and avoid pointing ad-revenue to the giants.

    1. OwenM

      Over the years Facebook, intended or not, has become a primary source of news for many people. It needs to act like one.

  2. Chris Sanderson

    Any thoughtful climate change related Crikey story, I will happily post to my Facebook page. In particular any articles that throw a floodlight on the grip that the FFI now have on both our main political parties, that keeps both of them from enacting appropriate legislation on climate change (Lib/nat is self evident; Labor – just think Martin Fergusson and more recently Adani).
    The same applies to any article that exposes the neo-liberal/neo-con ultra-rightwing Lib/Nats for who they really are, is what I try to share via Facebook.
    There are probably other Crikey readers, with their own ‘Urgenda’s, who might feel the same way.
    PS: I also recomend some wonderful insights from two very bright minds into how the neo-Liberal (aka: neo-con, and fascist) philosophy is being implemented in Europe, US and around the world – including Australia by John Howard since the early 2000’s.
    Here is the link to 90 minutes of who really wields unelected, global power that you are unlikely to see anywhere else. Really worth watching.
    It looks like there’s a vein of other material here that’s worth exploring too: Noam Chomsky & Yanis Faroufakis New York Public Library- 2016

  3. AR

    I read this piece through then tried again but foundered half way through – most of the words seemed to be English but I understood less than nothing.
    I feel dumber for having tried to understand the point and the comments above increase that.

    1. Dubious Virtue

      Big international company with huge audience reach no longer promotes commercial stories unless they pay up.
      Bit like a national news company won’t let people read their material unless they pay up.

      Also, one can go to the company or band’s page and clicking on the like button will bring up options including “see first”.

    2. Bob the builder

      Google will have lots of links to sites that explain the meaning of common internet words to old people. Give it a go AR!

  4. Bob the builder

    I think facebook is becoming so boring and ‘curated’ that it’ll kill itself eventually. In the meantime, however, it’s dominant.
    I’m part of a small community organisation and we have a facebook page, but it’s becoming pretty useless in getting out info. We keep getting prompted to pay up (but don’t) to increase our reach – the corollary being if you don’t, no-one will see your posts.

    1. Scott Grant

      I have never indulged in twitface. I block both sites in the local hosts file on every device I use (along with, amongst other things, google analytics). I get very annoyed with “small community organizations” that expect people to sell their souls to gigantic international marketing machines just to stay in touch.

      1. Bob the builder

        We also do email. The facebook posts are a duplicate of the email info we send out periodically, because lots of people asked why we didn’t have a facebook page. We weren’t asking anyone to sell, or even rent, their soul.

  5. Inner Space

    AR was close to the mark. In regards to Crikey, it’s not just facebook being the problem. It’s the lack of broader appeal. eg, over the past 2 months,the main banner has gone from one boring election to another. People are sick of elections and politics in general because those stories generate a sense of political disconnectedness that renders them as distractions from more essential issues. People see the Lib/Lab – Dem/Repub as a Punch and Judy show with outcomes a “foregone conclusion”. Write about the reasons for the ” foregone conclusions” and watch subscriptions go through the roof.
    Sophie, give it a go. Get out there. Unleash your very talented journalists into the darker recesses of political, commercial and religious intrigue. This is at the heart of the community mind-set.

  6. Hyperstimulated

    Facebook is a news / media publish platform, regardless of how they are trying to spin it. it is time they are regulated in the same way.

    I know it’s unlikely to get off the ground but god it would be interesting to watch with popcorn.

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