Publishers suffer in spar between social giants

As competition among social media companies heats up, publishers are being taken for granted.

In the past two years, social media platforms rolled out a range of products designed to hook publishers. Snapchat Discover, Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, Twitter Moments, and Google AMP all provide a space to publish content directly within platforms. Publishers, which have been losing advertising dollars to companies like Google and Facebook for years, are adopting these tools in the hopes of reaching more readers and pulling in revenue.

Yet much of the social media action around news publishing, touted as earnest effort and welcomed by publishers, is just a boxing match between social giants vying for users and attention. Can publishers win in a fight that isn’t really about them?

The most public displays of aggression are between Facebook and Snapchat. Snapchat rejected Facebook’s $3 billion offer to buy the platform in 2013, and has now captured millions of the youngest social users—in other words, the future. In January 2016, rumors began that Snapchat planned to encroach on Facebook’s ad model, with an API allowing it to target ads to users at a huge scale. Within weeks, Facebook opened its Audience Optimization tool to publishers, allowing them to target stories at specific readers. This wasn’t explicitly in response to Snapchat, but the targeting capability, and the data behind it, were two things Snapchat didn’t yet have.  

For a complete list of platform changes since 2000, click here.

Facebook struck again in August, revealing a Snapchat clone on Instagram called Stories. Now, 200 million people use Stories daily, while Snapchat has a total of 158 million daily users. So obvious was this copycat move that Snapchat swiped, releasing a filter on April Fool’s that framed a user’s face as an Instagram post. Facebook doubled down during its developer conference F8, where founder Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s aim “to make the camera the first mainstream augmented reality platform.” In other words, putting graphics and filters over camera photos and videos, the entirety of Snapchat’s strategy. Stratechery founder and media analyst Ben Thompson wrote that F8 revealed a Facebook that “shamelessly” embraced “the audacity of copying well.”

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Facebook isn’t only fighting Snapchat. In the ad space, its rival is Google. In February 2016, Google launched Accelerated Mobile Pages–a wordy name for a product similar to Facebook’s Instant Articles. Both offered fast-loading mobile pages to publishers willing to let the platforms host the content, and the clicks. The difference is that Facebook is more restrictive with the number and format of ads, while on AMP publishers can have as many ads as they want.

As social media platforms find more ways to host content in their own walled gardens, this could be interpreted as a plea by Google to keep journalism on their turf: the open web. “Facebook passed Google as the top traffic driver back in 2015,” Thompson noted, “and as of last fall drove over 40 percent of traffic for the average news site.” Now, Google is creeping up; major US publishers get 7 percent of their traffic from AMP.

Platforms are also competing over video. Last year, Facebook doubled down on live video, prioritizing it in the News Feed and giving certain publishers a total of $50 million to create videos with their Live product. About a month later, Twitter signed a coveted NFL live streaming deal, one of many live video deals it would secure throughout the year, including with Bloomberg and Cheddar. Twitter’s lead didn’t last long: Amazon outbid Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for this year’s NFL contract.

Where does all of that leave publishers? Spending resources on this expanding arena and hoping the returns on investment outweigh the costs.

Our interviews with more than 70 social media managers and strategists for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s “The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley Reengineered Journalism” found that expensive news distribution strategies aren’t yet yielding enough consistent revenue for publishers to justify the costs or to know whether their strategies are working.

Some publishers feel they simply cannot opt out. According to Digital Content Next, publishers’ native strategies were yielding an average of $7.7 million each—disappointing, but not negligible—only two years in. Still, one head of social distribution from a broadcast news organization, which are particularly affected by the platform emphasis on video, said in an interview, “We would have a real detrimental effect to our business overall if we were not playing on all these different platforms.”

Many publishers noted the complexities of “how to optimize for competing platforms when what optimizes to one platform goes against what would optimize for another one.” If two different platforms permit or optimize for different video lengths, two versions must be created. Also, translating user data provided from platform to platform is not “apples to apples.” And it is resource intensive to populate every platform with high-performing content; not every newsroom can afford to staff around platform products, so they have to move around the pieces they already have, which are often already spread thin.  

David Skok, a digital media executive who has worked for, among others, the Boston Globe and Toronto Star, told us, “I feel as if we are collateral damage in the war between these platforms. They’ll give some publishers a chance to play, but not others. They’ll give favorable rates and treatments to some and not to others. They are already picking winners.” Such preferential treatment includes the roughly two dozen coveted Snapchat Discover deals, or the Facebook Live subsidies for a select group of publishers.

Some publishers may be able to leverage exclusive content in order to keep up with platforms’ shifting priorities as platforms compete for users. Organizations such as BuzzFeed, for example, or Time, Inc., which owns high-value brands like Sports Illustrated, Food + Wine, and Entertainment Weekly. Regina Buckley, senior vice president of Digital Business Development and Business Operations at Time Inc., sees platform competition as a good thing. “Over the past year or so, we have seen the various distribution platforms begin to compete for exclusive access to specific pieces of our content. This is a good thing for us because scarcity creates value, and value creates leverage for us as content creators,” she said. And leverage often means dollars.

For publishers with a budget only for text and a small readership, the future looks grim. The platforms’ focus on exclusive and premium content is unlikely to change anytime soon. Facebook is laying the groundwork on the advertising side: The company in November began moving toward fewer ads on its platform, which is likely to drive up the price, and quality, of each ad. While large publishers are able to produce premium content against which they can place high-value ads, small publishers don’t have such capability. As long as platforms are chasing users, it is inevitable that some publishers, as Skok put it, will be “collateral damage.”

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Nushin Rashidian is a research fellow on the Platforms and Publishers project at Columbia Journalism School's Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She is also the co-founder of the news organization Cannabis Wire. @nushinrashidian