The New Gatekeepers

Smaller outlets reduce, scrap Facebook promotion over new ad rules

October 4, 2018
Nick Kratsas (left), digital operations director at southwestern Pennsylvania's Observer-Reporter, and Justin Channell, digital media editor. Photo: Holly Tonini.

When Facebook announced in April that it would create a public database of political advertising, it seemed like a meaningful step—something that might make it harder for Russian trolls and other bad actors to try to manipulate public opinion using the company’s self-serve ad platform. But it soon became obvious the move would cause problems for media companies: In a follow-up post, Facebook said that any news stories on political topics that were promoted or “boosted” to extend their reach in the News Feed would also be labeled as political ads and put in the database.

To promote political news stories, Facebook requires that publishers apply and be authorized as a political advertiser—presumably to prove that they aren’t a front for a Russian or Iranian troll factory. The process requires the uploading of official ID, such as a driver’s license, a passport, or the last four digits of a Social Security Number, along with receipt of a registered letter at an approved US address.

For larger media outlets, these requirements might be complicated and annoying. For smaller publishers, Facebook’s new rules can be so unwieldy and demanding—and the definition of what constitutes a “political news story” so capricious—that small newsrooms in four states told CJR they are either scaling back their Facebook usage or, in some cases, have given up on promoting their content there at all.

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Nick Kratsas, the digital operations director for southwestern Pennsylvania’s Observer-Reporter, went through Facebook’s approval process in order to promote his site’s political stories; he says his company gets a significant amount of traffic and engagement from the social network. About 55 percent of its monthly visits are due to Facebook links. (Like many other publishers, the paper has seen a drop after the latest algorithm changes, a decline that Kratsas recently estimated at about 8 percent.)

Kratsas says the platform’s tendency to flag any news story that mentions a politician or political topic has become so irritating that he wonders whether it is really worth the time that his company spends on it. The rest of the Observer-Reporter team hasn’t gone through Facebook’s authorization process, says Kratsas, and they are still finding their stories denied for allegedly political topics.

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“We appeal and in some cases they have turned them back on,” Kratsas says, “but then by that point it’s days later, so now I’m paying to promote something that’s old news.” In one case, a story rejected by the automated system was about a local woman who gained notoriety as a four-year-old following the attacks on September 11, 2001, when she was quoted by then-President George Bush. A profile of her was flagged as political advertising when Kratsas tried to promote it. When the paper managed to get through to a Facebook representative using the social network’s chat function, that person confirmed mentioning “Bush” and “9/11” was enough to get a story labeled as political (the company’s policies say content will be flagged if it refers to “a current or former candidate for public office”).

In another case, Kratsas says, the newspaper wrote about a shooting in which the gunman was eventually killed at a district magistrate’s office. Promotion of that story was denied as well, possibly because it mentioned a judge, whose identity was tangential to the story. “We posted the story on Facebook with updates throughout the afternoon, and attempted to boost the posts,” Kratsas says. “Included with this story were school lockdowns, roads closed, and people worried about the safety of those inside and around the district magistrate’s office. Obviously, this was important community news we needed to share. Unfortunately, the boosts on Facebook were denied.”

Sometimes, newsrooms have no idea what causes a story to be flagged. In one case, a story about a local police officer getting promoted to police chief was rejected as political. In another, a story about a local council meeting was flagged. In both cases, it was unclear to newsrooms what made Facebook label the stories as political advertising.

What makes the problem even more irritating, Kratsas and other small publishers say, is that Facebook has changed the way the News Feed algorithm works so that it is harder than ever to get content seen by an audience—which makes paid promotion a greater necessity for small outlets. Kratsas says his traffic has held up so far, but he thinks it is mostly because he has been spending to promote stories.

“Thanks to them, we have to boost our stories or people just won’t see them,” Kratsas says. “We don’t have the option of saying we don’t need this traffic—it’s a huge chunk of our traffic and we need that. I want to be a good partner with Facebook, and I think they want to be a good partner with me as well. It just seems like an unfair way of handling a problem that they created.”

A number of smaller media outlets says they haven’t found Facebook to be very approachable or helpful when they have problems, despite a pledge from CEO Mark Zuckerberg that the company wants to help users find more trusted sources of local news. A recent analysis by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia found many small publishers have seen a dramatic decline in their Facebook traffic since the most recent algorithm changes took effect in January.

Facebook has so far resisted attempts by publishers, including the News Media Alliance, to convince the company not to put promoted news stories into its political ad database. Campbell Brown, the company’s head of global news partnerships, responded that removing an entire group of advertisers “would go against our transparency efforts and the work we’re doing to shore up election integrity on Facebook.”

The social network recently created a separate section just for news stories within the ad database, and now allows media outlets to apply to be accredited as news publishers so that their promoted content will always appear in the news section. But publishers still have to be approved to promote them, and they still have to pay to make sure their stories are seen—and they are still labeled as political advertising or sponsored content.

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Dylan Goforth, editor-in-chief of Oklahoma nonprofit newsroom The Frontier, says his site published a feature story about a charitable group earlier this year, based on records provided by a whistleblower, but “nothing that even hinted at politics,” he says. When The Frontier tried to promote the story—a process that usually takes 10 or 15 minutes—the team waited for two or three hours and then got a notification that it had been denied. “We went through the options on the form denial, and eventually we managed to speak to someone at Facebook and said, This is ridiculous, and eventually they overturned it,” Goforth says. “But it took a lot longer than it should have.”

A few weeks later, the site published a story about a political action group that didn’t register and lost their funding. That, too, was denied. The Frontier tried again to convince Facebook to allow it to be promoted, but was unsuccessful. “I thought about going through the approval process to get verified to promote posts, but it just seemed so intrusive that I didn’t want to,” Goforth says. “We’ve boosted things since then and had no problems, but it’s just weird how it flags things as political sometimes and not other times. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it.” Like other small publishers, Goforth says he finds it more and more necessary to promote content on Facebook because of changes to the social network’s News Feed algorithm. “It’s like we have to keep trying harder and harder to stay in the same place.”

Heath Haussamen, editor and publisher of New Mexico’s, says he has had so much trouble getting his promoted news stories and commentary approved by Facebook that he has given up on the platform altogether.

“I run a small news organization focused on policy and politics in New Mexico, so many of the articles I post are explicitly political, but I still think they shouldn’t be labeled as political advertising,” he says. “Most of the posts Facebook has rejected for financial boosting were issue-focused, not focused on candidates or elections. And it was happening often, on important topics like immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border. I protested, but my requests to reconsider were also rejected.”

Ultimately, Haussamen says, he stopped spending money on promoting content on Facebook. It wasn’t much money—maybe $70 or $80 a month—but the NMPolitics publisher said he thought it was an important symbolic move. Ironically, since he stopped spending money to promote posts, the amount of Facebook traffic to his site has been steady, while engagement on the site’s posts has actually gone up. “Whatever Facebook’s intent was, from my perspective, it has backfired on them completely,” he says. “I’m giving them less money and getting better engagement on their platform. It’s been a win-win.”

Candice Fortman, the marketing and engagement manager for Detroit’s WDET public radio station, says her newsroom recently tried to boost a story about chemicals in the Great Lakes, an important news story for the station’s core audience. “I had read a lot about the new political advertising rules, but it never really occurred to me that this would be seen as political advertising,” she says. Then she got a message from the social network that the promotion had been denied.

Fortman says she considered going through the process of being approved to promote political ads, but decided that the process was too laborious and too personally revealing “just for the occasional article.” In the end, Fortman says, “this has got me thinking about maybe focusing more on getting away from relying on Facebook so much, and getting back to more focusing on in-person engagement with our audience. Facebook is useful for stories where we’re trying to reach outside our normal audience, but I’m not sure it’s worth it.”

Jason Zaragoza, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, says he ran into Facebook’s political advertising roadblock when he tried to promote a message asking the group’s members to consider posting an editorial about protection of the free press. The experience has soured him on using Facebook for promotion at all. “We don’t promote very often on Facebook, but I thought this was worth promoting because of the importance of the topic, and I have to say I was kind of surprised when it wasn’t approved,” Zaragoza says. “Frankly, I wasn’t really interested in pursuing it. I was just disappointed, given their reach and their monopoly on attention, that they would make this decision.”

The group doesn’t spend much on Facebook, Zaragoza says—maybe $100 or $200 a year—so the loss for the social network isn’t huge. “But for me it’s more the principle of the thing,” he says. “It wasn’t really worth it to get verified or approved or whatever. I wasn’t sure what was required and frankly it wasn’t worth my time, so we’ve just used other methods to get the word out to our members.” On top of that, Zaragoza says, “the relationship between our publishers and Facebook is pretty fraught already, so I’m a little wary of spending money with them given what’s happened.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the National Media Association. The correct name of the organization is the News Media Alliance.

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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 by Reuters and Bloomberg.