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Sept. 15, 2021, 2:24 p.m.
Audience & Social
LINK: www.wsj.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   September 15, 2021

The phrase “pivot to video” has become a joke, shorthand for a media company’s last-ditch effort to turn things around before the layoffs begin.

“Today’s metrics are tomorrow’s punchlines, and yesterday’s pivot is today’s clumsy tumble,” Vice’s union tweeted on August 26, following the company’s elimination of 17 staffers across Vice and Refinery 29.

The layoffs were preceded, just a month earlier, by an announcement from Vice that it would “reduce the number of old-fashioned text articles on Vice.com, Refinery29 and another Vice-owned site, i-D, by 40 to 50 percent,” while increasing videos and visual stories on Instagram and YouTube “by the same amount.”

It all feels very five years ago. As we’ve documented, starting around 2016, Facebook executives including Mark Zuckerberg began pushing the notion that news video on Facebook was publishers’ bright future, a “new golden age.”

It turns out that the metrics that Facebook was using to measure engagement with news video were wrong, massively overestimating the amount of time that users spent consuming video ads. In 2019, Facebook settled a lawsuit with those advertisers, paying them $40 million (while admitting no wrongdoing). But it was too late for the publishers who’d already pivoted to Facebook video and then either made big cuts or shut down completely when it turned out people weren’t actually watching.

And now we have more proof that they weren’t watching, in the form of a tidbit from The Wall Street Journal’s big ongoing investigation into a trove of internal Facebook documents. In a story published Wednesday, Keach Heagy and Jeff Horwitz detailed how users’ engagement with Facebook started falling in 2017. Turns out that video did not slow the decline, but may actually have contributed to it:

Comments, likes and reshares declined through 2017, while “original broadcast” posts — the paragraph and photo a person might post when a dog dies — continued a yearslong decline that no intervention seemed able to stop, according to the internal memos. The fear was that eventually users might stop using Facebook altogether.

One data scientist said in a 2020 memo that Facebook teams studied the issue and “never really figured out why metrics declined.” The team members ultimately concluded that the prevalence of video and other professionally produced content, rather than organic posts from individuals, was likely part of the problem.

Facebook’s solution? Ratchet up the anger! It worked where all that Facebook Live did not.

There is one way that the video pivots and layoffs of 2021 are different from the earlier round: Executives don’t mention Facebook anymore.

“Across our news brands we see consistent global growth on text articles as a way to reach and grow new audiences,” Cory Haik, Vice’s chief digital officer, wrote in that layoff memo last month. “Alternatively, our digital entertainment brands like NOISEY and MUNCHIES have had a remarkable increase in views and engagement through our visual platforms (YouTube, Instagram) but a precipitous decline in text consumption over the last few years, roughly 75 percent.”

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