Author: Frederic Filloux
For Facebook, journalism has been a pain in the neck from day one. Now, bogged down with the insoluble problems of fake news and bad PR, it’s clear that Facebook will gradually pull the plug on news. Publishers should stop whining and move on.
Let’s admit that publishers have been screwed by Facebook. Not because Mark Zuckerberg is evil, but because he’s a pragmatist. His latest move should not come as a surprise. On Thursday, for the second time in six months, Facebook stated publicly that news (i.e., journalism) will appear further down in everyone’s newsfeed, in order to favor posts from friends, family and “groups.” Here is how Zuck defended the move:
“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”.
Consider us notified. Facebook is done with journalism. It will happen, slowly, gradually, but the trend is here. In this context, the email sent yesterday by Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, who states “news remains a top priority for us,” rings hollow.
Viewed from its perspective, Facebook has all the reasons in the world to get rid of journalism:
• As acknowledged several times by Mark Zuckerberg, news doesn’t share well, compared to friends and family posts, while the entire Facebook model is based on the speed of sharing, multiplied by its two billion users, and coupled to an unparalleled knowledge of each one.
• Maintaining a large newsfeed presence of information could become expensive for Facebook. A few weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg hinted that profits might be affected by the cost of hiring thousands of human moderators to fight misinformation. It is unclear whether FB will forgo this idea (most likely, it will hire some of them…)
• News has turned into a PR nightmare for Facebook. Fires erupted constantly, and they were hard to contain, as with the outrage triggered by the deletion of the Napalm Girl photograph from the Norwegian daily Aftenposten, to name just one incident.
• Most of the time, news is inherently dark, and Facebook wants to promote a positive view of society, fearing that gloom translates into disaffection. (This idea is highly disputable: Netflix original creations, for instance, are filled with scores of grim series that viewers love.)
- News doesn’t have a palatable business model for Facebook. We covered this already:
The cost of managing streams of information, developing & maintaining products, and dealing with publishers — compared to the revenue, is not worth the effort. Switching to entertainment will translate into more money for much less risk.
• Dealing with media companies is especially complicated. Three constant features characterize publishers: a deep sense of entitlement (“We are the news, you owe this and that to us”), a lack of technical competence (they expect FB to come up with ready-to-use products), and, in Europe, a propensity to call on Daddy (the government) and Mommy (Brussels) when things go awry.
The list could go on. I always thought that if I were Zuckerberg, given the hassles, I would have, slowly but surely, retreated from news. That is exactly what’s happening.
Facebook, for its part, made a solid collection of mistakes in dealing with news media. Some honest, others…less honest.
Facebook can’t help but consider the ROW as a giant test bed for its ideas. (ROW refers to Rest Of the World, i.e., countries outside the United States and more precisely, the world beyond Building N°10 in Menlo Park, California). Even if this is more a result of the ingrained insular culture of Silicon Valley than sheer cynicism, the consequences have been negative.
In the search for the right business model, Facebook lured the media industry with a flurry of novelties. Driven by a mixture of naïveté, herd mentality, Fear Of Missing Out (Fomo), and a burning desire to monetize journalism, publishers jumped on every bone Facebook threw at them, hoping for the magic infusion they were no longer able to find on their own.
Facebook came up with glowing new products like Newsfeed, Instant Articles, and Facebook Live, providing silly advice for thriving on the platform (“Play on emotion, folks, users love it! — Hem, this might be difficult, we are business news providers…”). Facebook promised a deluge of eyeballs. Caught in the headlights, deer-like publishers silenced their mental warning that said to look deeper, and gave up loads of content in exchange for nearly nothing.
After investing significantly in dedicated teams to produce, promote, and strategize their presence on Facebook, publishers of editorial quality were left with hemorrhaging viewerships and a trickle of revenue. (A group of profusely funded media innovators like BuzzFeed, Vice and others —who cleverly designed their products to blend neatly into Facebook—started out doing well, but now face disappointment).
Those who imagined Las Vegas, now find themselves stuck in Detroit.
Facebook killed the news media three times
First, it killed the notion of brand. Year after year, the percentage of people able to recall where they got their news, is dwindling. “I read it on Facebook” now applies to half the population of the United States and Europe, and much more in countries where Facebook embodies the Internet.
Second, the notion of authorship has also vanished. Almost nobody has a clue who wrote what. Gradually, the two pillars of the trusting relationship between the media and its customers eroded, before crumbling altogether. Facebook has flattened the news for good.
Third, Facebook annihilated the business model of news by opening the way to a massive, ultra-cheap and ultra-targeted advertising system that brings next to nothing to the publishers. The reality of Facebook’s revenue stream is harsh: a European publisher told me last week that its RPM (Revenue per thousands) for videos on Facebook was about 30 cents of a Euro (that is 37 cents on a dollar). A pittance.
Zuckerberg’s last message has the merit of clarity. It says: “Sorry guys, it didn’t work as expected, go somewhere else or face a slow but inexorable extinction in our ecosystem. Nothing personal, here. Just business.”
Even the timing of the announcement was not left to chance. On January 31, Facebook will release its financial results for the fiscal year 2017. Analysts are unanimously forecasting spectacular growth. (In passing, it will erase Friday’s 4.5% drop in FB’s stock that followed the announcement on the newsfeed overhaul):
Publishers now must move on
Once the acute pain is gone, the industry will realize that this is not such bad news after all. It is time to regroup and refocus on the basics. It will eventually mean disbanding or repurposing the teams assembled to deal with Facebook production requirements.
First, Facebook remains a formidable field to reach non-core audiences and do all sorts of marketing tests, thanks to its exceptional ability to pinpoint any group, and its incredible reach.
Second, all the resources that were diverted to feed the Facebook machine, can be focused on developing news products that directly impact the company’s activity — finding, retaining and converting loyal readers — as opposed to pursuing elusive cohorts who can’t remember the name of the news brand. The quest for quality readership will prevail over the mirage of a mass audience once promised by Facebook.
One final thought (for now). On Friday, Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s newsfeed chief, said to Wired:
“There will also be more group content. Group content tends to inspire a lot of conversation. Communities on Facebook are becoming increasingly active and vibrant.”
This vision could backfire terribly: an increase in the weight of “groups” means reinforcement of Facebook’s worst features — cognitive bubbles — where users are kept in silos fueled by a torrent of fake news and extremism.