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Local news fails — in a good way
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Jan. 12, 2018, noon
Audience & Social

If Facebook stops putting news in front of readers, will readers bother to go looking for it?

The idea that the value of a piece of news is defined by likes and comments — that taking in information without getting into a back-and-forth with your uncle about it is somehow unworthy — is actually a profoundly ideological statement.

I gave a talk at NYU’s Studio 20 last month. It was a review of the year in journalism innovation; I’ve given it at the program’s graduation each of the past four years. It’s a nice opportunity to look back over the past 12 months and see what mattered.

I headlined the first section of my talk “OUR FRIENDLY NORTHERN CALIFORNIA OVERLORDS” and went through some of the highs and lows in Facebook’s relations with the news business. The evolution from “fake news on Facebook didn’t affect anything” to “sorry, didn’t mean to be so dismissive.” The steady decline in Facebook traffic to major news sites. The “experiment” where Facebook decided to screw around with the journalism ecosystem in six countries — each with its own relatively recent history of civil war, dictatorship, or just fragile democracy — by shipping most news out of the News Feed.

The last slide of that section was just one sentence: I kinda think Facebook wishes it wasn’t in the news business.

That felt at least a little controversial at the time. People forget that the “News Feed” wasn’t originally meant to be about news, at least as editors define it. Facebook (and its sidekick Instagram) today have literally billions of people creating #content, things their friends want to see or read, for free; meanwhile, real news was just one hassle after another. Publishers complaining about money! Conservatives complaining about bias! Its own employees complaining about electing Donald Trump! Facebook had become the single largest distributor of human attention in the history of the world, and it seemed like professionally produced journalism was almost more trouble than its worth.

You started to see this in 2015, when Facebook announced it would be boosting content from friends and family over content from Facebook pages, like news organizations. In 2016, a newly proclaimed set of “News Feed Values” emphasized that “friends and family come first.” In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg spent a lot of energy talking about Facebook’s role in building communities, writing that “I want to emphasize that the vast majority of conversations on Facebook are social, not ideological. They’re friends sharing jokes and families staying in touch across cities.”

And if the message wasn’t clear then, it should be evident enough now. Late Thursday, Facebook announced it was “bringing people closer together” by downranking content from publishers compared to from friends and family. “Because space in News Feed is limited, showing more posts from friends and family and updates that spark conversation means we’ll show less public content, including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses,” News Feed head Adam Mosseri wrote. Zuckerberg made it clear too: “At its best, Facebook has always been about personal connections. By focusing on bringing people closer together — whether it’s with family and friends, or around important moments in the world — we can help make sure that Facebook is time well spent.”

For publishers who have come to rely on traffic from Facebook — which for some still drives the majority of their traffic; for many others, 30 or 40 percent — this is awful news. It’s especially bad for those who have made a “pivot to video” (which was always really a pivot to Facebook), praying that some alchemy would soon turn a gazillion autoplay video views into money, underpants-gnome style.

So what will be the impact of the world’s largest real-time distributor of news deciding it’s not so into news any more? With the caveat that we don’t really know what the scale of the impact will be — is this a 5 percent tweak or a 50 percent catastrophe? — here are a few thoughts.

This is better news for traditional news brands than for digital-native ones. Grudgingly, most American daily newspapers of any size have come around to the idea that they’ll need to get more of their money from readers — in the form of subscriptions or memberships — than from advertisers. Google and Facebook have already eaten the digital advertising industry; now Facebook will even stop providing many of the sad pageviews that trigger the sad adtech that triggers the sad remnant display ad. Any publisher with any kind of meaningful cost structure whose revenue strategy relies solely or even primarily on bulk digital advertising was already screwed; this will make that more clear more quickly.

Note that this is not to say this change is good for newspapers. Oh, it’s not. But the better ones of them have the mix of established brands, distinctive content, and paid models that give them a comparative edge over the bulk general-interest digital natives. People have been predicting a major culling of that space for a while now, and we started to see it in late 2017 with the Mashable fire sale and missed numbers at BuzzFeed and Vice. Facebook’s move is going to accelerate that substantially. There are a lot of digital publishers seeking another round of venture funding right now who’ll face an even more skeptical set of questions about their pitches.

Will many Facebook users even miss the news that’s gone from their feed? We don’t know exactly how big of an impact this will have on publishers; even Facebook doesn’t. But let’s say 30 percent of the news that people currently see on Facebook disappears. (A lot of publishers in the six-country test saw declines of around 60 percent, but that was a more extreme shift than what Facebook just announced.)

How many people will even notice, much less miss it?

As our Shan Wang found in surveying hundreds of Facebook users, most are already seeing only a very limited amount of journalism in the News Feed. About 75 percent of users reporting seeing either just 1 news story in their top 10 News Feed posts or none at all.

(An aside: Are you a journalist, or someone who knows a lot of journalists? If you see a lot of news in your News Feed, be conscious of the fact that you are weird and your Facebook experience is unlikely to be similar to those of your fellow 2 billion users. Journalists can have a real blind spot about social media because they conflate, for example, Media Twitter with Everyone Else’s Twitter.)

My strong suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of users will barely notice a difference, and that an even more overwhelming majority will do nothing to change their off-Facebook news habits to make up for the loss. People who relied on the vagaries of the Facebook News Feed to get their news were never strong candidates to become assertive, forward-leaning, money-paying news consumers. They were the instantiation of that famous line from an old Brian Stelter story: If the news is that important, it will find me. If the news stops finding them, I doubt many will start hunting for it.

I don’t think publishers or journalists have ever fully internalized the degree to which, for a majority of people, friends and family content is a perfectly-acceptable-to-excellent substitute for traditional news. As Horace Greeley put it in 1860 describing what a good local newspaper should be, “the subject of greatest interest to an average human being is himself; next to that he is most concerned about his neighbors. Asia and the Tongo Islands stand a long way after these in his regard…Do not let a new church be organized, or new members be added to one already existing, a farm be sold, a new house be raised, a mill be set in motion, a store be opened, nor anything of interest to a dozen families occur, without having the fact duly though briefly chronicled in your columns. If a farmer cuts a big tree, or grows a mammoth beet, or harvests a bounteous yield of wheat or corn, set forth the fact as concisely and unexceptionally as possible.”1

Facebook does a pretty good job of that.

News consumption before the Internet was built around daily habits — reading the newspaper at the breakfast table, watching Tom Brokaw every night. It was time-bound (eventually you get to the end of the paper, or Wheel of Fortune comes on); it was ritualized; it was constructed around the tenuous overlap between a citizen’s individual interests and the economics of mass-media production and distribution. The web, the mobile phone, and especially social media broke down those rituals and made news something that snuck into your life irregularly. Will the loss of Facebook create space for new rituals to be built?

If I had to guess the sorts of formats that can push through this, I’d favor the ones that have some hint of ritual about them — whether because users subscribe to them (podcasts, email newsletters), because they grant permission to be interrupted by them (push notifications), or because they are tightly woven into technology platforms users are still deeply connected to (like Apple News on iPhones).

But in general, I think it’s more likely this change drives sound changes in strategy from publishers than it does sound changes in consumption by audiences.

What will this change do for the news that remains on Facebook? Any Facebook policy shift inspires apocalyptic visions in publisher heads, but the reality is this: At least some publisher-shared content will still show up in people’s News Feeds. And friends and family can still share news stories all they want. So how will that remnant be changed, if at all?

Mosseri and Zuckerberg both note that news stories will be held to a somewhat tweaked standard — whether those stories generate user engagement. In other words, whether or not people tap on a little thumb icon or a little speech bubble underneath the headline. Zuckerberg (emphases mine):

The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they’re entertaining or informative — may not be as good.

Based on this, we’re making a major change to how we build Facebook. I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions…

As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.

For example, there are many tight-knit communities around TV shows and sports teams. We’ve seen people interact way more around live videos than regular ones. Some news helps start conversations on important issues. But too often today, watching video, reading news or getting a page update is just a passive experience.

Optimizing for its own definition of engagement has, of course, been the core of Facebook’s model for years. But it sure is something to see reading or watching news described as bad for our health.

Reading, listening to, or watching information has been at the core of human knowledge transmission for literally millennia. We somehow survived.

The idea that the value of a piece of news is defined by likes and comments — that taking in information without getting into a back-and-forth with your uncle about it is somehow unworthy — is actually a profoundly ideological statement.

A denouncement of passivity by the company that, as much as anyone, has left us staring zombie-like at our phones all day is more than a little rich. A newspaper wasn’t defined by how many letters to the editors it got; a book wasn’t defined by how many notes were scribbled in the margins.

And, at a more practical level, it seems to encourage precisely the sort of news (and “news”) that drives an emotional response in its readers — the same path to audience that hyperpartisan Facebook pages have used for the past couple of years to distribute misinformation. Those pages will no doubt take a hit with this new Facebook policy, but their methods are getting a boost.

Last month, we ran this piece by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, as part of our annual Predictions for Journalism package.

I fear 2018 will be the year we will see a major platform decide that news is simply not worth the trouble and move to (1) reduce the role of news and systematically separate it from other content and (2) reduce the number of news organizations allowed to publish to the platform, strictly controlling who has the opportunity…

For those who see the relationship between platforms and publishers as a zero-sum game, having a platform like Facebook or YouTube stepping away from news might seem like a win…

This is the Snapchat-scenario future we may face, but in my view not one we should aspire to…Paraphrasing James Madison’s stance on the rambunctious and often wildly inaccurate and partisan press of the early American republic, we might say that some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything, and in no instance is this more true than in that of open platforms. I hope efforts to combat such abuse won’t involve systematically reducing and restricting the role of news.

Happy new year.

Notes
  1. My thanks to Aviv Ovadya for reminding me of this quote.
POSTED     Jan. 12, 2018, noon
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