Dear Journalists: Facebook is Not Your Friend (It’s Just Using You…)

Ian Kennedy/Creative Commons

So, Facebook announced it’s tweaked its algorithm to “more favorably promote content posted by the friends and family of users.

The panic began, post haste—a Poynter headline wailed it was a “blow to publishers”—because so many news sites are addicted to the rich revenue milk they suckle off Facebook’s traffic-driving teat.

“Our top priority,” Facebook said in a blog post on the change, “is keeping you connected to the people, places and things you want to be connected to — starting with the people you are friends with on Facebook.”

That’s great—if aspirational memes from your well-meaning aunty, or cranky Benghazi-related posts from an old high school buddy who never left home are what you want to read over coffee in the morning—but for news sites, not so much.

I don’t want to say the media is in an abusive relationship with Facebook, but really, just weeks after getting serious with Instant Articles, look who just got stood up on prom night.

It’s time that news organizations—from publishers to ad reps to journalists—accept that digital news is a new kind of business and it’s time they began to act like it.

Since the advent of the Internet, legacy and digital news startups have danced around the whole issue of revenue; the fallback argument being they don’t want to cross the line between “Church and State,” between advertising and editorial.

And that’s fine.

I’m not asking news orgs to sacrifice their credibility; what I’m asking is they acknowledge that the medium has changed and it’s time to stop transferring pre-digital era advertising models into the new medium.

Content Marketing is nothing more than old print advertorial. Page Views may seem more accurate then “pass along” numbers, but thanks to bots and ad-blockers, they’re just about as inaccurate.

Digital and mobile have met, and the confluence has made it easier than ever for advertisers to communicate directly with consumers. Look at how Amazon is beating Google when it comes to searching for products.

Gone are the days when newspapers—dailies, weeklies and shoppers—once acted as the platform for advertisers; now the platform is a piece of hardware conveniently placed in the consumers’ pockets. As Gordon Borrell told me last year: advertising IS the news.


Now, you can surrender to the status quo if you like. (No, Facebook is not the Internet. It’s a utility which became a destination, like Yahoo and Google.) Even now, Facebook and its properties are aging out as younger audiences move to Snapchat.

But therein lies the opportunity for legacy and new media organizations to take back the reins, to own the modes and means of production (to co-opt a phrase) and return a bulk of the revenue to where it belongs: The original content producers.

While Facebook’s algorithm change—whether intentional or coincidental—solves the problem of accusations it’s biased towards progressives over conservatives by putting the onus on your friends and relatives political leanings—think of Facebook now as the ultimate uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner, but daily—it also forces news organizations to focus on creating organic audiences; to own their original content, and reap the revenue benefits.

Facebook, like Google, means well, but ultimately, it’s an independent company concerned only with its own overall revenue and stock valuations.

But like with a selfish, yet really hot, abusive boyfriend, the media just continues to enable Facebook’s bad behavior.

I love Facebook. I’m addicted to Google and most of its products. But I also love journalism and understand its role in keeping our democracy running and functioning and accountable.


The more and more news organizations opt to chase traffic and pursue “buzzy,” “viral” content—basically feeding social media’s addiction to immediate gratification over factual relevance and accuracy—the more journalism suffers.

If you’re an editor, publisher, new media investor or legacy media board member now frantically trying to game Facebook’s new algorithm, you’re missing the point.

It matters not if you’re a legacy giant (The New York Times), a desperate legacy outfit trying to pivot (TRONC), or an innovative startup (Times of San Diego): Being beholden to a third party platform that’s—quite literally— coming between you and your audience, is not a good business model.

The future of digital is not just personal mobile, it’s the complete integration into the consumers life. Technologies like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, or smart TVs and smart refrigerators, are creating, for lack of a better term, personal relationships between the consumer and the products, ideas and agendas the consumer is interested in pursuing.

The platform isn’t Facebook. It’s the hardware; and creating the app, the bot, the link that creates the personal relationship between the news site, its advertisers, and the consumer, is where journalism needs to be headed. Not fretting about Facebook’s next move.