Facebook changes could help the media kick its algorithm addiction

Changes to Facebook’s News Feed algorithm often have the air of a Biblical pronouncement: Media companies know they will face consequences because of their reliance on Facebook for traffic and advertising revenue, but just how serious those consequences will be is always unknown.

This week brought another in a series of such proclamations, triggering a wave of anxiety across the publishing industry. But there are those who believe the bad news could have a silver lining: It might force publishers to wean themselves off their addiction to cheap social traffic.

ICYMI: Bad news for Vice, Mashable and BuzzFeed

There have been rumors for some time that Facebook was planning to tweak its algorithm to de-emphasize content from media companies, and the social network confirmed Friday that it is doing so, with blog posts from CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Adam Mosseri, the man in charge of the News Feed.

Zuckerberg said users have told the company that “public content—posts from businesses, brands and media—is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.” So it is going to emphasize content that people find engaging (i.e., they comment on it) rather than posts they passively consume.

The result of this change in focus from information to sparking conversation, Mosseri said is that some professional pages “may see their reach, video watch time and referral traffic decrease.”

The changes aren’t likely to be quite as dramatic as the split-feed test that Facebook has been conducting in a number of countries such as Sri Lanka and Cambodia, where media outlets said their traffic fell by as much as 60 percent, but it could have a significant impact for some publishers that rely on Facebook traffic.

In particular, companies that have chosen to focus specifically on short-form video because that kind of content seemed to work well on Facebook—such as Mashable, BuzzFeed, and NowThis—could find their traffic impacted severely.

Some are hopeful that Facebook’s changes, while painful, could convince publishers that shallow traffic from a social network is no replacement for real engagement with passionate audiences.

If media companies are addicted to Facebook’s algorithm-directed traffic, Facebook is the one who helped get them hooked.

In The Atlantic, author Franklin Foer—whose new book is called World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech—wrote that Facebook is doing the media a favor. “It has forced media to face the fact that digital advertising and ever-growing web traffic will never sustain the industry,” he wrote, “especially if that traffic comes from monopolies like Facebook.”

While that may be true, the fact remains that if media companies are addicted to Facebook’s algorithm-directed traffic, Facebook is the one who helped get them hooked. The company has spent years pushing media outlets to integrate themselves into its network, via video, Facebook Live, and Facebook’s Instant Articles format for mobile.

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For awhile, this seemed like a win-win situation: Media companies got to increase their reach at low cost, and in some cases they even got a share of the advertising revenue from Facebook (if they were large enough and important enough to be partners).

Over time, however, some publishers say they have seen smaller and smaller returns from the social network, either in traffic terms or in revenue terms. And in order to achieve the same kind of reach they had before, some are resorting to paying for their content to be promoted. That’s a win for Facebook, and a loss for cash-strapped media companies.

Will these changes improve the misinformation problem that Facebook says it is concerned about, where “fake news” created by Russian trolls has reached millions of users and possibly affected the outcome of the US election? That’s hard to say.

In some cases, the focus on posts that encourage engagement could actually make the fake news problem worse, since hoaxes and conspiracy theories often draw huge amounts of engagement, as former New York Observer Editor Elizabeth Spiers pointed out on Twitter.

Facebook says it will highlight “reputable” news stories in the feed, but it’s not clear how it plans to define that term. The company has said one criterion is whether a publisher has a paywall or subscription model (based on the theory that if people pay for it, it is more likely to be high quality), which would help The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, but not other advertising-reliant outlets.

While it may be better in the long term for digital natives to rely less on Facebook-generated traffic and advertising revenue, the reality is that many of them are already in that situation, and extricating themselves from it isn’t going to be easy.

Even BuzzFeed and Mashable, two entities that seem purpose-built for Facebook and the algorithmic newsfeed, have found it difficult to generate as much revenue as they thought they would. BuzzFeed reportedly missed its 2017 targets by as much as 20 percent, and Mashable was forced to sell itself to Ziff Davis at a fraction of its previous value.

Moving from an advertising-focused model to one that relies on reader subscriptions may be the prudent move, but getting from point A to point B could be difficult, and some companies may not be able to make the transition. For them, Facebook’s latest algorithm could be what Mother Jones Senior Editor Ben Dreyfuss called “an extinction-level event.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.