Media organizations grapple with Facebook’s new focus


Over the next few months, with the implementation of a revised strategy, Facebook’s 2 billion users will see less content produced by news organizations and more from their friends, if all goes according to the company’s plan. So what does that mean for the media companies that have come to depend on the Menlo Park social media giant to drive readers to the articles and videos they create?

Facebook’s announcement Thursday that it would deprioritize articles and videos may not have come as a surprise to most publishers, but it will almost certainly put a scare into them, even if it is not yet clear what the effect will be. As the company tries to return to its friends-and-family roots, news outlets such as BuzzFeed, CNN, the Washington Post and the Hearst Corp. will be watching closely.

The change casts a spotlight on the data and algorithms used to sort Facebook’s News Feed, which is core to its enormous digital advertising business. Every user sees a different set of content and ads, ranked and tailored based on their characteristics, what they click and what their friends do.

Although Facebook prioritizes certain posts, like those new baby and engagement announcements that quickly draw Likes and comments, there are no hard and fast rules for what a user sees first. In that vein, it’s unclear for publishers how Facebook’s rules on “meaningful” content will affect them.

“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,” Adam Mosseri, the head of Facebook’s News Feed, wrote in a blog post Thursday night.

As part of the shift, Facebook pages run by publishers and businesses may see a reduction in the number of people they reach and site visits, he wrote. The numbers will vary based on factors including “the type of content they produce and how people interact with it,” Mosseri added.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said in an interview with the New York Times on Thursday that he wanted the company to focus on “meaningful interaction.” With the changes, the company will prioritize posts that it believes are likely to spur discussion among people who know one another and reduce the kind of content that people simply scroll past or watch.

Raju Narisetti, the CEO of Gizmodo Media Group, the unit of Univision that operates Jezebel and other sites, said that he was expecting the changes any day but that he had not heard from Facebook about what it could mean for publishers.

“If Facebook downplays ‘low quality’ publishers, as is widely rumored, it could be a net positive for Gizmodo, Jezebel, the Root and our other brands,” Narisetti said in an email. “As always, it would be good to see transparency from any platform, particularly Facebook, as to how they are going about deciding what constitutes quality.”

Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade group that represents entertainment and news organizations, including Chronicle publisher Hearst Corp., was skeptical of the change in strategy.

“If this change is as significant as they describe it, news organizations will go out of business or succeed based on a change that they didn’t necessarily have input on,” Kint said. “It reads as something that will drive up engagement and probably push away policy risk, because they’re not allowing news properties to have the same sort of presence in their feeds.”

Facebook’s new direction comes at a time when political discourse is often heated in the United States and nationalist groups are on the rise in other parts of the world. In this charged atmosphere, agents working for a Kremlin-linked company, the Internet Research Agency, disseminated content that reached an estimated 126 million users in the United States in 2016, Facebook revealed to Congress during hearings last year.

The move away from news-related content may be a way for Facebook to step back from the political debate, which brings up issues known to ruin family get-togethers. But Kint said he had hoped that it would find another way to weed out hoaxes and made-up news stories without penalizing all publishers. Facebook accounts for about 17 percent of visits, on average, to the digital companies he advises, he said.

For media companies, a reliance on the company as a driver of traffic has proved an unreliable business model, given that it can change what it prioritizes in its News Feed at any time. Facebook’s battle against clickbait, for instance, sent click-dependent publishers like Upworthy into a tailspin several years ago.

Facebook recently paid millions to publishers to invest in making live videos for the platform, but it is unclear how successful the effort was for both Facebook and the news organizations who signed on.

Many publishers have already recognized that they must spread their content beyond Facebook. Referral traffic to publishers from the site dropped 25 percent from February to October, according to data from Parse.ly, a digital publishing analytics company. But forced to confront declines in digital advertising and online readership, many publishers have also staked at least some of their future on Facebook’s ability to augment their audience.

The algorithm changes will almost certainly affect ad-supported media companies like BuzzFeed and Bustle, which depend in part on Facebook to bring in an audience. But publishers that have lately shifted to subscription business models will also have to confront the likely declines in referral traffic that the changes will bring.

Almost half of U.S. adults get at least some of their news from Facebook, according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center.

The changes matter more for media companies, which can garner more exposure in people’s feeds based on how often their content is being shared or viewed, than for brands, which typically pay for their posts to appear there. Facebook’s annual revenue, nearly all of which comes from online advertisements, has more than tripled in the past four years, reaching $27.6 billion in 2016, when it posted a net profit of $10.2 billion. The company will report its 2017 results this month.

Mark Thompson, the chief executive of the New York Times Co., recently compared the relationship between the publisher and Google and Facebook to an “airport and airline.”

“You’ve got an infrastructure owner on which you depend for your business,” he said at a conference last month. “Both parties gain from a smooth operation. But the economic division of value is sometimes difficult and the operation is sometimes difficult.”

Robert Thomson, the chief executive of News Corp., which owns the Wall Street Journal, said that he had “algorithm angst” at a conference last summer. He complained that although algorithms are viewed as objective and scientific, they are in fact “throwing up content from parameters that you’ve set.”


Sydney Ember and Sapna Maheshwari are New York Times writers.

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