The Reactions To Facebook’s Changes Highlight The Privileged Status of News

Facebook made the announcement last week that it is going to prioritize the content of friends over content from publishers and news outlets. While we haven’t seen exactly what this will mean in practice, publishers and journalists are bracing for the worse.

Reading the reactions, I cannot help but think of the privileged status that journalists still embrace. I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense and I am not trying to take a cheap shot at hard working journalists, many of whom I know that do very good work. A well functioning information ecosystem with articulate journalists and commenters who are hostile to power is an important part of any democratic system. But that doesn’t grant the enterprise of news collection and dissemination a pass when the accountant comes calling. This is the kind of privilege I mean. News operations cannot be immune to consumer needs.

A while back I was reading Michael D. Reagan’s “Science and the Federal Patron,” which charts the early years of science policy just as the country was coming out of horror of the Second World War. In describing how the belief that government should support every competent scientist became so pervasive, Reagan, I think, lays out a useful framing for the changes of today:

…This claim arose successfully in the political arena only after World War II, as a kind of cashing in on the practical contributions scientists had made to aircraft, weapons, radar, and The Bomb. Since science had demonstrated dramatically what it could do for the government, it become possible to ask that government now do something for science. Not out of altruism, but as insurance that when the bank of scientific discovery had to be drawn upon again, the account would not be overdrawn.

One could read the ups and downs in Facebook over the past couple years within this lens. It is often said that Facebook expanded their consumer base using other people’s content, with news outlets being an important subset. And as the last election seemed to suggest, Facebook has overdrawn the account, becoming the platform for fake news and helping to contort democracy. The recent changes by Facebook don’t reflect a payment but a retreat from the deal.

Jonah Peretti, the chief executive of BuzzFeed, was quoted in the New York Times using similar language, “Google and Facebook are taking the vast majority of ad revenue, and paying content creators far too little for the value they deliver to users.”

Value is the key term. Journalists and reporters often talk about their value and, yes, news does have an important use. But that use isn’t the same as being widely demanded as a product.

To simplify a complex set of changes in the past two decades, newspapers have experienced unbundling, both on the content side and on the advertising side. When you bought a newspaper two or three decades ago, you got a bundle of content that couldn’t easily be consumed elsewhere. Sports, entertainment, weather, automotive, real estate, and travel content were likely the real drivers of attention, but they were packaged with the hard news standing front and center.

As for advertising, most revenues came from local retail, which contributed a little less than half all revenue. Classifieds were second and provided about a third of the total revenue. Newsstand revenues and national advertising made up the rest.

The advent of the web fractured both bundles. Sports, entertainment, weather, automotive, real estate, and travel sites came into their own with sites like ESPN.com, Cars.com, Apartments.com, and Weather.com. eBay and Craigslist pulled away the classified ads. One study estimated that Craigslist’s entry resulted in $5.4 billion in savings during 2000–2007.

What was left was arguably the most prestigious, but the least sought after content, hard news. Facebook’s research from 2015 hints at this. Only 13 percent of the stories shared on the platform could be considered hard news, meaning national news, politics, or world affairs. Soft content dominated the site, which includes sports, entertainment, and travel content.

Still, the overall number of stories is likely small compared to all of the other content on Facebook, like family photos, personal stories, and memes. In the only research of its kind, Neiman Lab found that news made up less than 10 percent of all the content in the News Feed. And that report used an extremely generous definition of “news” to count everything from celebrity gossip to sports scores to history-based explainers, across all mediums.

The pie chart below says it all :

If we were to hamfistedly combine these two stats, then hard news constitutes just 1.3 percent of all the content on Facebook. While there might be a massive and growing appetite for hard news that only comes from aggregation. For Facebook, the core product is clearly family content. Whittling news to a smaller share truly might be a good long term solution for Facebook simply because of the social baggage that news brings.

There’s another way to look at this, and its an opinion that doesn’t sit well with politically active folk. [For more on that, check out my Cato Unbound piece.] Hard news might just not be that important to most people. People go online to express sociability and maintain bonds, not debate and get informed. And even the news that is shared might still be a reflection of that tribe. As Judith Donath has convincingly argued, “In the world of social media, of Facebook and Twitter, news is shared not just to inform or even to persuade. It is used as a marker of identity, a way to proclaim your affinity with a particular community.” I know I do that and I’m sure you do as well.

Senior Research Fellow | Center for Growth and Opportunity | @WillRinehart