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Nov. 22, 2019, 10:42 a.m.
Audience & Social
LINK: www.cjr.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   November 22, 2019

The era when publishers could be just mildly skeptical of platforms while continuing to work with them enthusiastically appears to be over. Bring on the “just kill me now” analogies — and a shift to, um, unenthusiastic partnerships.

“Before, we were just seeking a partnership,” one “interviewee from a digital native still reliant on dwindling eyeballs and therefore ad revenue from Facebook” told the Tow Center for Digital Journalism for the latest segment of Tow’s ongoing, multi-year study into platforms and publishers, released Friday. “Now it’s like we’re wounded animals and wondering if they’re going to shoot us or try to give us just enough medical help to keep us alive so we can continue to serve them.”

That’s so vivid! It’s also so different from the not-totally-despondent publisher remarks from even just a year ago, which were more along the lines of “It’s becoming, ‘How do we collaborate on new products? How do we do co-sale things together?’” and “We’re on Slack with the Apple editors every day. We’re pitching stories. They know what’s coming from us. They know our budget.”

Today, despite Facebook’s launch of a News tab that will pay some participating publishers and Google and Facebook’s outreach and financial support for local news publishers, the tone is darker. “This does not mean the end of their cooperation with platforms,” the report’s authors note. “It refers, rather, to the end of optimism that scale and ad-based platform products will bring about meaningful revenue and audience growth…This year, one of the most striking themes to emerge from our interviews was publishers’ tendency to answer questions about the current state of their relationship with platforms as if conducting a postmortem.”

Tow “conducted 42 interviews with individuals from 27 news organizations (representing national and local legacy outlets, national and local digital natives, broadcast, audio, and magazine), six platform companies, and one foundation” for this report. Here’s some more of what those folks said:

The basic premise of platforms for publishers has changed significantly​. The second-order effect of monetizing traffic that came from posting your story to Facebook—this past year has proven that that model ​cannot​ sustain. There’s no way that any publisher who is reliant on Facebook, and increasingly on Google, will have a sustainable business model. There’s no correlation, in almost every case, to actual money. A digital media brand that relies on advertising is almost impossible. Almost zero chance of succeeding today.

We didn’t have money to throw at it. In this case that worked out because…we didn’t see some of the higher returns that some of the other outlets did that ended up informing larger overall strategy and how dependent they got on the platforms.

A year ago…[our attitude was], ‘Hey, why not? Let’s give it a shot. [It’s a] 50/50 call, but let’s find out.’ I would say now somebody would have to show me pretty clearly that the benefit was likely, rather than 50/50, for me to make the change.

If we’re having a conversation with a platform that does not involve revenue or retention, it’s not a conversation that’s worth having, to be honest.

It just frustrates me because I feel like they’re giving us just enough where we’re not fully letting go and trying to pursue a different strategy. They’re feeding the beast just enough to keep [us] hooked onto Facebook. So here I am with a social media team that is getting smaller and smaller every year. And my Facebook traffic keeps shrinking, but…I’m still forced to make sure they do spend a ton of time posting to social media…when there’s a million other things that maybe we could be experimenting with, or finding time for some innovation, or freeing that team up for more strategic initiatives instead of just posting to Facebook all day. But we’re hooked just enough where I can’t tell them, ‘No, you don’t have to post to Facebook all day, every day anymore.’

The platform stuff was a distraction. It was a good lesson, an objective lesson in: Listen to your audience.

We looked back and thought, ‘Oh my God, we cut all these beats purely off of one factor, and that’s page views.’ We didn’t consider, ‘Do they drive loyalty and retention? Do people subscribe off of these stories more than the other ones? We don’t know. We didn’t do the analysis. We don’t have the data. We weren’t tracking it.

There is something lovely about feeling like I have much more control of my own fate than was the case before.

Facebook is not as popular as it once was but it still has millions and millions of active users. We’re still just going until something explodes.

You can read the full report here.

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