Let’s be real: Facebook doesn’t give a fuck about publishers and the journalists they employ
Isn’t it nice that Facebook has offered free online courses on how to use Facebook to journalists? It’s so great that they want to engage with us, right?
Well, it’s not that simple.
I work as the engagement editor for the Australian independent news website, Crikey. We’ve broken some huge stories and helped foster the careers of some of Australia’s best journalists and writers.
Ever since the site was founded in 2000 — long before Facebook and Twitter — 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 dependant on word of mouth to drive awareness and free trials for new subscription and the biggest megaphone for that word of mouth 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 (ie. articles posted directly on Facebook instead of on their own websites) saw a drop in traffic of around 20%. Every media outlet is feeling the pinch. Hell, even the Australian Broadcasting Corporation 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 who 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.
These 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 honestly, 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. Every post made by a media outlet which links to its website content drives traffic away from Facebook. Why would Facebook want to encourage its users to leave the platform? It makes no sense to them. 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 it all, and for them 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: I get the irony of publishing this piece on a platform like Medium, which is hoovering up the space where independent blogs used to be.
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