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Aug. 13, 2018, 9:54 a.m.
Business Models

Facebook’s message to media: “We are not interested in talking to you about your traffic…That is the old world and there is no going back”

That firehose isn’t opening up again anytime soon.

The Australian — the Murdoch-owned national paper — has an interesting (and aggressively paywalled) scoop about Facebook today, based on comments Campbell Brown, the company’s global head of news partnerships, allegedly made during a meeting with Australian media executives in Sydney last week.

Here are the quotes attributed to Brown in the story:

“Mark [Zuckerberg] doesn’t care about publishers but is giving me a lot of leeway and concessions to make these changes,” Ms Brown said.

“We will help you revitalise journalism … in a few years the ­reverse looks like I’ll be holding your hands with your dying ­business like in a hospice.”

I should note that Brown denied making the comments to The Australian (“These quotes are simply not accurate and don’t reflect the discussion we had in the meeting”); I should also note that The Australian has five people in the meeting corroborating them.

Much of the attention given to this story by Media Twitter has focused on the “doesn’t care about publishers” bit and the work-with-us-or-die implication of the second quote. But the story has an attached illustration that includes an alleged Brown quote that didn’t make it into the final story, and in some ways that’s really the most important one:

“We are not interested in talking to you about your traffic and referrals any more. That is the old world and there is no going back.”

That’s the big reversal here, given that “traffic and referrals” were roughly 99 percent of what Facebook had to offer publishers over the past half-decade or so. It was that firehose of eyeballs that led to new editorial strategies designed for share-friendly content, as well as the thought that maybe digital advertising could pay the bills after all.

Facebook has spent most of the last year reducing the amount of traffic it sends publishers, first through unspoken tweaks in 2017 and then with a series of announced changes in early 2018. That’s led to charts like this:

…and turned charts that looked like this a few years ago:

…to this circa 2017:

…to this right now:

Those changes made it clear that Facebook was perfectly happy gutting the traffic it sends to publishers. And now Brown’s alleged quote would seem to make it clear that’s a permanent condition — getting more Facebook users to look at your content is “the old world and there is no going back.”

The still-coming-into-shape Facebook Journalism Project has thus far stood out most for a local subscription accelerator that aims to drive more subscriptions to metro newspapers. And yay, I guess — always good to share some best practices.

But news organizations are going to win or lose their subscription battles on their own, ultimately; getting people to pony up $10 a month for a news subscription depends on them having a strong enough relationship with and commitment to the outlet that they’re willing to say The giant sea of free content online isn’t enough, I want more. And that’s roughly the opposite of the Facebook ethos — it is that giant sea of free content.

In any event, if Brown’s quote is real and accurately reflects Facebook’s view, publishers should take it to heart. Facebook isn’t interested in sending you more traffic. That’s its right! But it’s a reminder that the responsibility for building a sustainable model for news is on us, not on anyone in Menlo Park, Mountain View, Cupertino, Redmond, or Seattle.

Photo by Thought Catalog used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 13, 2018, 9:54 a.m.
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