Facebook, Apple, and LinkedIn and the fight for news

Release time:  2019-01-15 author:   browse:  166

As the author of the piece, I’m delighted you’re perusing my article anywhere, but a bit frustrated you probably aren’t seeing it on Facebook.

Before Facebook changed its News Feed last January, I could post my stories—or my colleagues’ or friends’ stories—on my timeline and watch as it was magically distributed across the platform. Comments and shares would roll in, not only gratifying my insatiable journalist’s ego, but also informing me, adding to my understanding of the subject matter, and maybe even helping me write better pieces down the road. Now when I post, no one sees. Not even my wife (a guaranteed “like.”) And so I’ve been putting my stories up on LinkedIn and people have been responding there. (Ditto with Twitter.)

Writer Andy Serwer is small potatoes of course. My bigger concern is as Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer, because the real issue is for news organizations writ large—from The New York Times to Buzzfeed to, and yes Yahoo Finance—as Facebook has cut back on the amount of news in its algorithm. That’s hurt news businesses. In fact Facebook’s policy shift is coincident with, and no doubt has in part caused, a recent significant decline in the value of digital media companies.

‘You had Facebook actively courting publishers for a long time’

So how much less news is there on Facebook?

A Facebook spokesperson told us the amount of news in the News Feed has declined from 5% to 4%, suggesting it’s a small drop (though I’m sure you realize that a one percentage point decline in this case is a 20% decrease). Personally though, I’m not seeing any news in my News Feed at all. High school reunion pictures, yes. Ads, yes. But no news. I’ve spent enough time in the internet news business to know that the people at Facebook who are in charge of the News Feed no doubt will tell me that I am mistaken, or that my experience is anecdotal, but I know what I see.

Facebook is free to change its policies any time it wants of course, but its fickleness has left many in my world vexed.

“You had Facebook actively courting publishers for a long time,” says David Skok, editor-in-chief at The Logic, a subscription-based business news website. “They paid publishers to be on their platform. Without notice they shifted. I think the lack of congruency on Facebook’s end about its intentions and motives were, wasn’t a good look for Facebook and in some respect they’re facing a backlash. They made enemies out of publishers.”

But weren’t publishers deluding themselves by basing their business models to one degree or another on a giant company’s whims?

Yes, says Martin Nisenholtz, former head of digital strategy at The New York Times, professor at Boston University and co-author of “Riptide,” a Harvard study about the digitization of the news business. “People like to call these things [Facebook and Google, etc] distribution platforms, but distribution in media terms is an agreement for three, five, 10 years. ‘I’ll do this for you in return for reaching these numbers of people over time.’ It’s a very specific agreement. [But] these are not distribution agreements in a sense they’re designed around reaching people through some kind of manipulation or presumed manipulation of the algorithm. That’s very changeable. Once Facebook changes the algorithm, your distribution falls apart. There’s no agreement in that context.”

Could this backfire for Facebook?

Like the honey badger, Facebook doesn’t care.

Publishers have figured out Facebook now has to figure less in their plans. “We’ve certainly seen a decline in the importance of Facebook as part of our overall blend,” says Matt Karolian, director of news initiatives at the Boston Globe.

Karolian points out this could ultimately hurt Facebook: “Facebook is supposed to be a relative reflection of real world. Core to people's identities are things they believe in socially and politically. Trying to mute political and idea expression on Facebook makes it a slightly less engaging place to be,” he says.

Or maybe not.

Last January Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company would deemphasize news because it was “crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.” (Oh and, by the way, the change also helped the company move away from a content category that is divisive and fraught with risks like fake news.) Has this hurt or helped investors? The stock dropped initially on the announcement last year (investors wondered if the company had weakening engagement), but RBC Capital Analyst Mark Mahaney says: “It was a useful change and I think investors have ignored it. Looks like satisfaction has risen at Facebook.”