‘Media is collateral damage’ - publishers respond to Facebook’s News Feed changes

Lindsay Bennett
By Lindsay Bennett | 15 January 2018

Publishers received a rude, but not unexpected, awakening last week when Facebook announced it would be deprioritising publishers’ content in its News Feed.

Facebook tells AdNews typically, less than 5% of what is in News Feed is news content, and has reiterated that users will still see news content, but it comes as another blow to publishers, many of whom have built their distribution strategy around Facebook and relied on the platform to build huge audiences.

While Australian publishers’ have expressed concern to AdNews about the change, many anticipated the move after seeing significant drops in Facebook-referred readership in recent months, as well as a steady drop of organic reach since its last algorithm update back in 2014.

Publishers still have many questions about the impending News Feed change as the initial announcement provided little detail.

Pedestrian TV co-founder Chris Wiransinha said it’s too early to comment on the overall impact for publishers and brands, but added the type of content shared by Pedestrian will hopefully continue to thrive.

“We're significantly more engaged than any of our direct competitors and our reporting and tone weaves into the fabric of our audience's social activity,” Wiransinha says.

“We've thrived under similar changes in the past that prioritise user engagement with content their friends are posting or sharing and we're looking forward to working through any changes over the coming months."

A spokesperson from BuzzFeed, which built its entire business model around creating viral content for Facebook, told AdNews it doesn’t expect to be negatively impacted by the changes as it already focuses on creating shareable content that is propagated by users sharing it.

“We expect to continue to fulfill that mission and transcend these News Feed changes, which confirm trends we’ve seen over the platform in recent months and have already taken steps to evolve alongside."

Junkee Media CEO Neil Ackland echoed this sentiment, adding that both Junkee and its sister site Punkee will continue to focus on what he sees as their point of difference.

“This isn’t the first time Facebook has changed its algorithm, and it won’t be the last,” he says.

“Publishers are very aware this will have an impact on our businesses, but none of us are clear how yet."

As part of the update, Facebook said content from reputable publishers will also be surfaced. It didn’t specify how it would define “reputable publisher” or how their traffic would be impacted, though.

Social media networks bring 'immaterial' amount

Chief digital officer a Seven West Media (SWM), Clive Dickens, says over the last few years it has prudently invested into its direct to consumer digital products and company strategy. He says its owned assets are the driver of traffic, with traffic from social media being “an immaterial amount”.

“We continue to have a close commercial relationship with Facebook and all the other leading social networks and welcome any improvements and innovations to their News Feeds - especially ones that prioritise meaningful interactions and quality content,” Dickens tells AdNews.

“In January alone almost 19m Australians will come directly to SWM’s broadcast, publishing and video content across The Seven Network, Yahoo7, Pacific brands and The West Australian.

“An immaterial amount of these interactions come to our powerful stories ‘solely’ from any social network.”

The worry for publishers is that such an approach will have the unintended consequence of hurting high-quality content because a lot of legitimate news articles, while they may get read, tend not to get shared or commented on.

Bauer Media CEO Paul Dykzeul said the changes will be a “leveller for all publisher”, with some more affected than others. He maintains he's confident in the future of niche publishing.

“Trusted brands that cover special interests and passion points, such as magazine brands, are likely to find audiences in more diverse ways online if they are missing from news feeds. Our audiences have a great propensity to seek us out because our content is strong.”

Australian publishers are remaining positive, but Vice global executive editor Derek Mead took to Twitter to share his thoughts in the wake of the announcement. “Facebook is dramatically reshaping its business in response to the first real existential risk since gaining dominance,” Mead said. “And media is collateral damage.”

One Australian media exec, who wished to remain anonymous, says the move has been over exaggerated in the media and really it's just Facebook's way of legitimising the platform following its fake news sagas in 2017.

"It Facebook's way of fixing fake news, but they can't come out and say that because it would be an admission of guilt," he says.

"It has a lot more to do with fixing fake news than penalising publishers."

Another top media exec says it will weed out those publishers that have been mainlining "the sugar hit of social media", such as youth-focused publishers.

A News Corp spokesperson tells AdNews while it welcomes changes that reward quality and confront clickbait, it is too soon to say how these proposals will play out in the real world.

"We intend to monitor the impact closely to determine their effects," a News Corp spokesperson says.

We will also be looking for any signs that the weighting of news sites is politically motivated.

"In the meantime, we will continue to negotiate with Facebook on developing a subscription model that can help expand the audience for and viability of quality journalism.” 

Will publishers turn their backs on Facebook?

The relationship between publishers and Facebook is complex, as many media companies rely on Facebook for audiences, but, as this latest move proves, Facebook holds the power to render their distribution strategy obsolete.

Its Instant Articles tool, which many publishers use to offer a better experience for users reading their content and a way to monetise on the platform, will also now be subject to the new Meaningful Social Interactions ranking methodology. 

Often, publishers are reluctant to speak out against Facebook, in fear of biting the hand that feeds them. Both Fairfax and Nine declined to comment on the recent move when contacted by AdNews after it was revealed on Friday.

While the full impact of the News Feed change is yet to be seen, the shift in strategy from Facebook could finally see publishers completely refocus outside of the platform, as has been the subject of debate for some time.

Facebook has been slowly reducing organic reach for years and even tested a feed comprising purely posts from family and friends in several countries in 2017 as part of its standard test and learn activities.

Back in the early days of Facebook's commercial journey, many brands and publishers flocked to the platform to build a community of fans, only to have the rug pulled from under them and a 'pay to play' model introduced that subverted organic reach and channelled them towards paid options to get content in front of users. Something that raised sceptisim of Facebook's motives at the time and is playing out again now.

It's not all doom and gloom for publishers, despite many seeing the move as a negative one, as many publishers have already taken steps to diversify their revenue and audience streams.

“We’ve been through these changes before and we’ll adapt and evolve again,” Ackland says.

Facebook explains

Facebook tells AdNews is in "open communication" with all its media partners and will "continue to work with publishers to help people to form meaningful engagement". 

A spokesperson continued: "Facebook is, first and foremost, a place for friends and family to connect with each other.  News is a relatively small part of what people see on Facebook — for many, links from news publishers comprise less than 5% of posts seen in News Feed — but we take our role as a global platform for information seriously.  We have a responsibility to the news ecosystem as well as to the people who read, watch, and share news on Facebook. This change does not mean news will disappear from News Feed.  

"We know people want to share and connect around news stories on Facebook, and our communities are stronger when those stories come from authentic, trusted sources.

"Our commitment to being a good partner will not change, but the approach and strategies will be different. Going forward, our products and partnerships will focus on supporting publishers that help people form meaningful engagement around news.  We must partner more closely than ever with these high-quality news organisations — not just the national names, but also local newsrooms, who are the cornerstones of informed communities."

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