Facebook is the new paperboy

How news gets distributed is changing how newsrooms work

By Matt Carroll <@MattatMIT>

Disruptions are a way of life for newsrooms in the age of the internet. Take the uneasy, evolving relationship between newsrooms and social media platforms, from Facebook to Snapchat. The latest issue is the blowup over the revelation that Facebook’s “Trending” news feed was at least partially curated by workers, when the company gave users the impression that the list was compiled by an algorithm.

But that’s only the most recent concern — journalists have a Santa-sized bag of worries about where these relationships are going. They worry about everything from becoming too financially dependent on platforms to losing their relationship with readers.

More important, if less noticed, is that newsrooms are losing control of how news gets distributed. That’s an historic change. Platforms are increasingly taking over distribution, in the sense that people get their news on platforms, rather than the websites of newsrooms. It’s happening fast. One study last year found nearly two-thirds of Facebook users read news on the site — a big jump from two years earlier, when less than half did.

How news gets distributed may seem like a trivial, shoulder-shrugging topic. After all, what does it matter who drops off the paper on the digital front stoop? But it’s a big deal — in past decades, newspapers turned massive circulation and distribution networks into the basis of their financial empires. Controlling distribution is a big part of why platforms are so lucrative now and why newspapers used to be in the past.

It boils down to this: Controlling distribution means owning access to the audience, which opens a conduit to their wallets and pocketbooks. That valuable data can be used by advertisers, marketers, and anyone interested in selling anything and everything from real estate to toys.

What changed? Well, people have not stopped reading news. More people read news than ever before, and newsrooms have more readers than ever before.

But increasingly readers find their news through platforms. Partly that’s because readers post links to Facebook about the latest Trump speech or the new outrage by ISIS. Those links are well read because readers tend to trust news posted by friends or someone they follow. Also, more newsrooms are publishing directly to social media. This is especially true on mobile, where news readership is increasing rapidly.

Newsrooms post to platforms because working with them can be lucrative. Platforms can help provide newsrooms with unprecedented access to millions of readers and viewers. Many sites, including BuzzFeed and the Washington Post, are betting aggressively on Facebook by putting up all or most of their content, arguing that the audience has migrated to these sites, so they need to go where the audience is.

But working with the platforms is a double-edged sword. Publishers lose access to audience data they could collect if the readers went through their own site, their brand can get blurred when people think they read the story on Facebook rather than the New York Times, and terms of deals with platforms can shift abruptly, to the disadvantage of newsrooms.

An historical shift

How did newsrooms and platforms end up in such a complicate tangle? It helps to understand how newspapers fell into the distribution business and how important it became. In some ways, distribution was a cornerstone of their empires. Now that cornerstone, and its wealth, is disappearing like an ice cube in the sun.

The current system of “paperboys” and “papergirls” (now almost exclusively adults) grew out of the old newsboy system, a system in which youngsters hollered out the news of the day and sold papers while standing on city street corners.

Selling through newsboys was an effective way to sell as the country’s urban center’s grew through immigration and migration to the big cities, like New York and Philadelphia, but it had drawbacks. If news was strong — “War Declared” — sales were strong. But sales would sag on quiet news days.

Publishers wanted the highest sales possible, but they also wanted to know how many papers they would sell day to day. It’s difficult to calculate a budget if you don’t have a clue if your sales will be 200,000 or 400,000. It was a problem without a solution, until the Depression crushed the economy in the 1930s. Newspaper sales plummeted.

What to do? Some geniuses lost in the mists of history came up with an solution: Instead of selling on city streets, let’s deliver door-to-door in the suburbs. Our readers are moving there, and those homes are loaded with teenagers looking for jobs; they can deliver the paper.

It was a good idea, but posed problems. For instance, in an era before computers, news publications needed to build vast distribution networks, to ensure delivery to a widespread, complicated network of customers. It’s not the kind of problem that gets solved overnight, but it was solved. Publishers figured out how to deliver to thousands of households, through vast networks of teens on foot or bikes.

It was brilliant solution: People with home delivery did not need to be persuaded to buy a copy every day, as they did with newsboys. That meant a solid base of guaranteed sales every day. The days of wild sales swings were over.

Advertisers were delighted, too. Ads were delivered straight to homes, where people could read at their leisure. A virtuous circle was created, where soaring circulation brought in more ads. Publishers — at least the ones with strong distribution networks — raked in cash.

It worked great for decades. Then the internet happened, followed by social media. Tough times followed for publishers, as advertisers didn’t need their distribution network and readers could find plenty of sites to read news for free.

Making it worse, newsrooms and publishers had forgotten how to innovate. They were stuck in ruts. They were great at doing what they had been doing for decades, but not great at change. At one point, newspapers had been innovators. They had developed high-speed presses and even managed to create those massive networks of customers in far-flung suburbs. But those innovations were long in the past.

Social media discovers “News”

Social media platforms changed everything, and newsrooms had to follow the lead of social media, which didn’t really care much about professional news, at least at first. For the most part, social didn’t seem to see much of a difference between “news” — pictures from niece’s birthday party — versus “News,” the professionally reported and edited content that comes from newsrooms.

Except history keeps changing. And platforms have discovered “News” over the past couple of years. Platforms have worked hard to create tools to cultivate publishers. They see newsrooms as worth cultivating.

For instance, Facebook rolled out Instant Articles, which offers fast-loading news articles. It also offers great advertising terms for publishers who buy into the program. The results have been generally positive.

Snapchat created Discover, a place for publishers to display their own content. Google created AMP, which allows faster-loading articles on mobile.

It’s somewhat heartening that social platforms are working closely with at least some publishers. Facebook is even paying newsrooms, like the New York Times and BuzzFeed, to use its streaming video tools. That’s a good sign for the future, at least for the larger publications. Newsrooms that scale — the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Washington Post — have some leverage cutting deals with social. Smaller regional papers, like the Boston Globe (where I once worked), face a much tougher time. They just don’t have the size to impress the platforms.

Facebook is also coming face-to-face with the realization that doing news is hard, as shown by the charge that workers curated “Trending” news stories, when the impression is that the picking was done by algorithms. There’s nothing wrong with curating stories — heck, newsrooms are all about picking what they think are the best and most interesting stories for their readers. But Facebook left the impression that its formulas did the heavy work, when it appears there was heavy human intervention. Deceiving the reader is a big no-no and Facebook is paying the price.

What should newsrooms do?

Platforms present a massive dilemma for publishers. Play ball or go home? Do you dive deep into social, or do you navigate on your own?

Jeff Jarvis, a frequent media commentator, a professor at CUNY and author of “What would Google do?”, argues that newsrooms need to be all in with social. That’s where the audiences are, he argues, so that’s where they need to be. OK, so the platforms control distribution — get over it. Oh, and by the way — journalists need to reinvent their business too. For instance, they need to build relationships with people if they want to survive, and shift from creating content to providing service, so we can better serve people’s goals and needs.

On the other hand, Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center Digital Journalism at Columbia and formerly of The Guardian, is far less trustful of the platforms, which she sees as interested in technology, not news, as she points out in “How Facebook swallowed journalism.” She sees Facebook as a behemoth with immense power, which has totally transformed the media landscape, but with little input or scrutiny from the public into how it operates.

In my talks with various newsrooms, I’ve found that most feel that they have no choice — they must work closely with the social platforms. That is where the audience is these days. One small indication: mobile readers spend about five times more time on social than on news. But just because they feel they must do it does not mean they like doing it. The level of distrust and concern towards social media remains high.

There’s an old saying: “May you be cursed to live in interesting times.” Well, for journalists these are truly interesting times, if you define “interesting” as “traumatic yet exhilarating.” But the opportunities for working with social media are huge. If newsrooms and social media can figure out partnerships or working relationships that offer stronger streams of revenue through access to more readers, that’s for the good. On the other hand, let’s hope the times don’t get too “interesting.” That would be bad for everyone.

Matt Carroll runs the Future of News initiative at the MIT Media Lab and publishes a weekly media newsletter called “3 to read.” He can be followed on Twitter at @MattatMIT.