What happens when platforms turn into publishers?

March 24, 2015

If you’re a publisher, Facebook holds a lot of power. The social media giant is already responsible for directing up to 40 percent of some sites’ traffic, and 75 percent of BuzzFeed’s. Now, according to a report in The New York Times on Tuesday, Facebook is negotiating with a number of publishers to be more than a funnel that directs users to content on news sites. Instead, the story says, the company will partner with media companies (the Times, National Geographic and BuzzFeed are rumored) to host entire stories and journalism internally, “a leap of faith for news organizations accustomed to keeping their readers within their own ecosystems,” the Times writes.

This news shouldn’t come as a surprise. Facebook executives hinted in recent months that they intend to capitalize on their 890 million daily users by incentivizing publishers and brands to create content exclusively for the site. After creating a video-hosting platform, for example, Facebook tweaked its algorithm to favor the video content that used the tool. In February, Chris Cox, the company’s chief product officer, announced that Facebook intended to extend these services to all content. By hosting it, Cox argued, the platform could produce a better user experience than publishers—optimizing stories for mobile, for instance.

“Go where your audience is” is a basic tenet of journalism in the digital age—and one that has even storied paywalled news outlets, like The New Yorker and The New York Times, scurrying to create Snapchat accounts and interactive Facebook feeds to attract readers. But forgoing that click that takes readers away from a social site and back to their own creates a drastically different power divide. The content isn’t theirs anymore, at least in the traditional sense. The audience it draws, the user data it accumulates—all that belongs to Facebook.

But since Snapchat launched its journalism hosting site, “Discover,” back in January, publishers have been getting more comfortable with the idea of putting their content on other platforms. In its launch announcement, Snapchat argued that hosting content actually put the power back in the hands of publishers: “We count on editors and artists, not clicks and shares, to determine what’s important.”

Though many of the outlets that signed on to Discover appeared to be doing so to make a younger audience aware of a storied brand (I’m looking at you, CNN and Time), according to initial reports, in the short term there’s money to be had. Rather than directing traffic to news sites, Discover compensates publishers with ad sharing—publishers get 70 percent if they sell the space, 50 percent if Snapchat does. Facebook has long avoided compensating contributors through ad sharing, even as companies like YouTube have adopted the practice, and Snapchat’s experiment seems successful. According to a recent report in Re/code, ads on Snapchat’s Discover section are selling for $100 CPM, the standard advertising measure of a thousand readers, which is well over the rates that television, digital, print, or even the lauded podcast is going for. “I can’t tell you what the numbers are, but they’re fucking incredible,” an anonymous publisher told Digiday a few weeks after Discover’s launch.

Yet there’s no doubt that the company that stands to earn the largest gains from Discover is Snapchat itself. Snapchat’s greatest strength—its quick speed, its breezy audience, and the ephemeral nature of its content—are also its greatest weakness for attracting advertisers. After launching Discover, engagement on the messaging platform skyrocketed: According to a report from the mobile analytics firm 7ParkData, average data consumption jumped from 100-150 megabytes per week to 400 MB in Europe and over 600 MB in the United States. This engagement has also increased Snapchat’s value to a rumored $19 billion.

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Publishers seem to be coming out ahead financially, too. But content read—and ads served—on Snapchat lack the potential to create the kind of engaged audiences that visit a publisher’s site regularly, buy into paywalls, and consume news consciously.

“The biggest problem for news sites is that so much of the traffic that comes from Facebook—they read one piece and go away,” says Tero Kuittinen, managing director of Frank N. Magid Associates, a consulting firm that regularly surveys social media. Kuittinen has been studying the mobile sector since 2008 and sees the disassociation from a host site as a bad omen for publishers. “It accelerates the existing trend where people only graze at the news. News organizations want people to stay on their site and click around.”

For brands, Snapchat is a useful way to connect with consumers; according to Kuittinen’s research, teenagers are more than twice as likely to interact, by chatting or messaging, with a brand on Snapchat than on Facebook. On Discover, however, there’s no opportunity for this kind of interaction. There’s no way to share content with friends, or to comment on it. It exists entirely within the closed ecosystem of Snapchat, meaning that Snapchat is in charge of determining who sees this content—which is subject to change based on what’s best for Snapchat.

Social media was supposed to make journalism more democratic, the most optimistic technologists have argued, allowing the best stories to get to readers beyond the reach of a particular publication. But algorithms have already made this process less than perfect, allowing publishers to game these systems and social media companies themselves to determine what content shows up on people’s feeds. Users sharing good content with their social networks can happen, but usually with smart social media practices and outside intervention. The utopian idea of grassroots sharing is largely fantasy.

Producing content for social media platforms makes publishers relinquish another modicum of power. That power balance is rumored to be why BuzzFeed and the New York Times both dropped out of their initial deal with Snapchat. (Both declined to comment to CJR on the deal.) For brands hawking another product, like Michael Kors and Madonna—both have inked deals with Snapchat—getting a product in front of new audiences is a win/win situation.

But for publishers, where the content is the product, there’s more to lose by shifting from a home site to a social platform. In the case of Facebook, a shift in algorithm can already lead to a huge dip in traffic for a news outlet, and once Facebook starts hosting content it stands to exert even more control. What happens when the company renegotiates the breakdown of ad revenue, or promotes only content of a specific publication? (And how does all this affect outlets’ ability to report rigorously on Facebook without fearing retribution?)

With Facebook as a publisher, rather than a platform, we better trust that the company’s attempts at collaboration have journalism’s best interest at heart. Given what we know now, there’s reason to worry.

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.