Publishing has been swallowed up in the vortex of big data and the pimply-faced prodigies from Silicon Valley are to blame. The sentiment is overfamiliar, almost prosaic—its utterances are recurring conceits of most every critique and discourse on the Information Age. Yet, it’s not without reason: the fraught relationship between content creators and enablers is now poised to enter its second decade and neither side is willing to sign an armistice. Yet.
On March this year, The New York Times ran a scoop on itself; the report quoted anonymous sources confirming that the Grand Old Lady of journalism had been holding backchannel talks with Facebook to work out a business deal that would effectively allow the world’s largest social network to host the media giant’s content on its website. Two others—the highly adaptive National Geographic and Buzzfeed, the dark overlord of click bait—are the other media concerns which have joined NYT at the negotiating table. Details of the business plan haven’t been disclosed but there are strong indications that Facebook has offered to share revenue from ads which would be displayed alongside the publisher’s content. The deal, if inked, will not just prove to be a turning point in the new internet economy but could also bring about a paradigm shift in the ‘adapt or die’ environment of digital disruption that has, over the years, thrown the publishing industry into an existential crisis. More on that later.
First things first: Why is Facebook, a colossal player in the information economy, making overtures to NYT. Media gazers believe it’s because the world’s largest social network is facing the heat from suffering a steady loss in user base as newer social media platforms take hold. By hosting content within its contours, Facebook can limit the number of out-bound links and contain users within itself. Additionally, there is the time factor: according to Facebook, the average time it takes a news article to load on a third-party website is eight seconds; the lag period may seem innocuous but to Facebook, it is time lost in a breakneck digital environment where even milliseconds matter and impatient users can just as easily navigate to quicker alternatives. Sounds plausible enough but a closer look at Facebook’s recent activities shows the move is part of a bigger plan.
It all began a few months ago when it tweaked its algorithm to demote videos from third-party websites like Youtube and Daily Motion and lend more visibility to videos embedded on its own platform; the proposal to host written content from publishers is thus in step with Facebook’s larger plan of making all content native to its website.
Is the impulse to nativize all content an attempt to supersede the other but substantially larger news aggregator—Google, which, for all intents and purposes, exists as a kind of gateway to the web at large. Indeed, by cozying up to publishers, offering them access to its billion plus users and the ad revenue perks that come with it, is Facebook trying to undermine Google News? Already, Facebook has left Twitter and Reddit behind to become the second largest provider of referral traffic to news websites. Publishers, especially new media ones such as Buzzfeed have shown a 80% leap in referral traffic on the back of Facebook. In the case of Buzzfeed, Facebook has overcome Google as the leading provider of referral traffic: in fact, Buzzfeed, which has seen spectacular success over the last few years, would have stood scant chance had it been confined to Google News’ highly intransigent search algorithms which are given to promoting newsworthy content from established publishers over lighter content from start-ups. Over the years, Facebook’s quiet entry into the content space has reaped significant dividends for publishers, especially newer upstarts like Buzzfeed, Vox and Gawker which rely on high shareability and clickability of content to spread like virus across the social network. Indeed, both Vox and Buzzfeed have made much of their charmed association with Facebook, releasing fawning case studies of their lucrative partnerships.
One of the principal differences between Google News and Facebook’s newsfeed is that while the latter lets users decide what’s interesting, Google’s algorithm is a nod to the time-honored tradition of news publishing: Whoever breaks the scoop first gets visibility over and above the others. While Facebook’s algorithm has been a boon to newer publishers who, save a few exceptions, do not scruple to uphold substance over shareability, it has similarly given free rein to content farms. Only recently did it add strictures in place to prioritize high-quality content over memes and gifs. More crucially, unlike Google, Facebook is not a search engine; it merely makes visible an article, assuming it satisfies its pre-reqs, if your friends and the networks around them have liked and shared it.
It is no great revelation that news dissemination has become highly socialized—that more and more internet users receive their news from social networks instead of from search results. ‘If the news is that important, it’ll find me’ seems to be the general refrain among users, particularly younger ones. In the current state of the news business, it isn’t just publishers who are pitted against each other as they vie for ever more clicks. There is a bigger contest in progress: new battle lines are being drawn between search and social and social has staked its claim to Google’s numero uno position. By hosting content within its own platform, Facebook is coming after Google and seems determined to fight tooth-and-nail to eclipse its long shadow over online content.
Meanwhile, publishers are mere spectators, their mouths agog, as the big bears of Silicon Valley tussle it out. But now, Facebook’s offer to host their content has created a frenzy among insiders in media circles whose opinions are firmly divided between both sides of the spectrum. While NYT considers its options, The Guardian, which has, over the years, reinvented itself as a suave digital news publication with an international focus, is reportedly trying to band together with other publications to enter into an alliance with Facebook but only if it’s on its own terms; the same NYT report indicates that the British media company is trying to drum up support in order to cajole Facebook into letting news publishers retain control over advertising. This is a politic move on The Guardian’s part considering advertising control allows publications to collect and harvest data on users which is then utilized to bargain for more revenue from advertisers. It’s difficult to say if Facebook will bite the bullet because to many publishers, its offer, which, with privileged access to a billion plus users, offers gargantuan scale in place of advertising control, is already irresistible. Truly, the gains from leveraging such scale cannot be underestimated; moreover, even if Facebook withholds advertising control from publishers, it still helps publishers create optimally targeted marketing campaigns: for example, it unveiled new tools in December to give publishers access to specific demographics—premised on age and location and other parameters—from its masterful collection of detailed data on its legions of users.
Scale is paramount, but is it enough? NYT, which, until recently, was in dire financial straits before being rescued by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, has fought a long and hard battle to weather digital disruption. Both NYT and The Guardian have concentrated considerable resources to stabilize their online presence and have managed to import their print legacies into the digital space so much so that advertisers have finally begun to take notice and pump considerable money into their coffers. NYT went a step further and, against market wisdom, introduced a paywall to milk its brand value. How does it expect to transplant its content into Facebook without risking its robust subscription model? Is Facebook’s offer a Faustian bargain that cannot be accepted without jeopardizing all that NYT has accomplished in the last few years?
But unlike NYT, BuzzFeed, inarguably one of the largest content spewers in the World Wide Web, does not have to contend with such problems. Evan as Facebook has been on a silent crusade against click-baiters over the last few months, it still continues to be BuzzFeed’s largest traffic driver. But—and this is where the long established rules of online publishing get tossed out of a moving car— BuzzFeed couldn’t care less if users stopped visiting its website. Yes, we have arrived at the pearly gates of a new epoch; months before Facebook advanced its new business proposal, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti had announced his company’s grand plan of channeling content across different platforms. It’s important to keep in mind that BuzzFeed gamed the new internet economy while it was still a bit player; unlike other publishers, it does not rely on display ads or advertisements native to its platform, rather it has built its own species of advertorials: editorial products crafted to market its client brands. And it has already embarked on a campaign to entrench these products into as many platforms as it can. Peretti has said that so long as it reaches hundreds of millions of readers, he does not care where his content lives. Indeed, in January this year, BuzzFeed received 420 million views via referrals from Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook. But it generated a whooping 18 billion impressions on those platforms. When it comes to BuzzFeed’s unique operating model, advertisers don’t care where the content is being consumed, as long as it’s being consumed. In fact, as Peretti points out, organic social shares of their content qualify as earned media as opposed to viral hits, which can be easily obtained by buying cheap traffic.
For BuzzFeed, Facebook’s offer is a no-brainer. But when it comes to legacy publishers such as NYT, The Guardian and the other old-timers, the rules of operation are markedly different. With their rich publishing histories, their cultural capital is inextricably tied up with their brand appeal. The crucial reason why BuzzFeed and its like work best with Facebook is because they are digital natives: they are in the business of floating individual stories to rake up hundreds of millions of numbers. But, the old guards are institutions in and of themselves; the emphasis is on the whole rather than on one isolate story. Granted, the imperatives of social media have put an end to newspapers’ age-old practice of slot fillers or token stories published to merely fill space; but, legacy publishers still exist as whole entities even as their reliance on social media increases. To neglect their platforms in the face of an inexorably changing digital landscape is tantamount to undercutting the very fundaments of their traditional publishing model.
Notwithstanding all the ominous talk, it is still possible for them to come out unscathed. In NYT’s case, the outcome pivots on their online subscriptions. One of the reasons why online subscribers are important is because they fetch more advertising money. How would its online subscribers react upon finding that the story that they have paid good money to read is being freely shared on Facebook? Will they unsubscribe? Will we ultimately witness the fall of the paywall? It’s equally possible that there won’t be a backlash at all. Paid subscribers, especially in an environment where everything is free, exhibit an unyielding brand loyalty and reverence for august publications. The Financial Times, which has performed numerous experiments with its paywall, can attest to that.
There are no authoritative answers to these questions largely because no one is privy to the back room deals that are in progress at the moment. But one thing is manifestly clear; online publishing is in for a seismic change. Whether the old guard chooses to jump aboard or stay marooned in its own platforms, there’s no denying that Facebook is on a single-minded mission to overshadow Google. Even if it fails to win bigger publishers over, it will go after smaller fish. The game is about to change and those who change first will have a heads-tart. Once again, the writing is on the wall: Sooner or later you’ll have to join us or you will perish.
Facebook May Host News Sites’ Content, New York Times
Facebook turns 10 but are its days numbered?, BBC News
Why you may never need to leave Facebook ever again, Digital Trends
What the Rise of Native Video on Facebook & Twitter Means for Brands, Adweek
Facebook Reminds Media Companies: We Still Really, Really Like You, All Things D
Facebook Is Totally Dominating Google In Referrals … For Buzzfeed, Social News Daily
Finding Political News Online, the Young Pass It On, The New York Times
BuzzFeed’s New Strategy: Fishing for Eyeballs in Other People’s Streams, Recode
Is the Financial Times the perfect digital model?, The Guardian
How Vox.com approaches publishing on Facebook, Vox
Why ad buyers are upbeat on The New York Times’ digital transformation, Digiday