How to Make the Marriage Between Publishers and Facebook Work

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Illustration by Tony O. Champagne

Back in May, the satirical website The Onion published a story that cuts to the heart of Facebook’s complicated relationship with media organizations. Headlined “Facebook Clarifies Site Not Intended to Be Users’ Primary Information Source,” the story poked fun at the idea that many of the tech giant’s 1.6 billion active users are increasingly dependent on the site to stay informed with what’s happening in the world.

“Just look at our name: ‘Facebook.’ That doesn’t sound much like a site for important social and political information or commentary, does it?,” a fake Mark Zuckerberg asks The Onion. “I’m happy to show anyone how to get to a regular news site if you need a little help.”

It’s a problem many news organizations, especially newspapers, have been attempting to navigate with varying degrees of success. Facebook, while offering the promise of democratizing the Internet and giving everyone a voice, has increasingly become a monopolizing force in how billions of people actually receive their news.

That was made abundantly clear back in May, when Gizmodo broke the story (which Facebook denies) that journalists hired by the social media giant routinely censored conservative news stories from appearing in the site’s Trending Topics list.

Several former Facebook “news curators,” as they were known within the company, also revealed they were told to manually add stories into the Trending Topics list, even if they weren’t popular or trending.

The funny thing about this controversy is these curators were acting, more or less, like a traditional newsroom, where imposing editorial values and using human decision making to determine story placement is the norm. It’s just the latest way Facebook has shifted from being the site you visited to see kittens falling off a chair to where you go to stay informed about what’s happening in the world.


Who’s Really in Control?

“Facebook is a media company, but more than that, it is a utility, an integral piece of information infrastructure upon which hundreds of publishers and media companies rely to reach their audience,” Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic. A poll released in May by the Pew Research Center backs up that view, noting that nearly half of all Americans (44 percent) now get their news from Facebook.

This is rightfully a concern for publishers, who have been forced to increasingly engage their readers on sites like Facebook instead of their own websites. A new report from Digital Content Next, a trade organization that represents digital content companies, found that users split their online reading pretty evenly between publishers’ websites and apps (35 percent), search engines (31 percent) and social media sites like Facebook (34 percent).

Not only that, users are spending on average 50 minutes a day on Facebook, Instagram and the company’s other products. As The New York Times columnist James Stewart notes, people are spending more time with Facebook than just about any other leisure activity. It’s nearly as much time as the 1.07 hours a day people spend eating and drinking, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s long past time for publishers to stop asking themselves, “Is Facebook hurting or helping media companies?” As a media company, Facebook has grown increasingly dependent on the content produced by newsrooms to keep its readers so heavily engaged with its products.

So if Facebook has become so dependent on news, why do publishers and journalists often act like slaves, obediently (and expensively) following every whim and direction change the social media platform demands of us?

The question we really need to be asking ourselves is how we can better leverage the content we create in order to survive in a post print-centric world, and what ways can Facebook help us.

It should be clear to everyone reading this that the days of newspapers controlling the sole mode of distribution of their content are over. Like it or not, the industry has quickly moved toward “distributed content”—with newspapers publishing their stories, videos and everything else on a diverse array of different platforms they don’t fully control.

“With each turn of the screw, people began to realize, viscerally, that this is what it feels like to not be in control of your destiny,” Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg told The New York Times.

Social media sites like Facebook, with their large number of users, are at the core of this new strategy. What publishers gain is the ability to grow and maximize their readers, but where many fail is coming up with a coherent strategy of what to do with those readers once they get their attention.

Owning Your Social Media Audience

Most newspapers simply seem satisfied with the decreasing but still significant number of page views Facebook is able to drive to their websites. According to a recent report from the analytics firm, Facebook still drives more than 40 percent of traffic to the news publishers and websites they track.

But what are publishers doing with that traffic, other than serving them slow, ad-laden Web pages that crash their browsers and devour their mobile data?

It’s important for newspapers to have a coherent plan of what they want to do with those new readers, other than simply trying to increase traffic. Are you driving them towards purchasing a digital subscription? Do you want them to sign up for a niche email newsletter? Is your intent to sell them a print subscription? Do you have an eCommerce engine looking to pitch products or services?

Think of posting stories on Facebook as a form of basic advertising. Now that you have a new person in your store, what are you trying to sell them?

The New York Times uses a startup called Keywee to analyze hundreds of stories at a time to find keywords that are likely to be relevant to potential subscribers. Then, they either buy Facebook traffic against those users, or use the site’s special targeting abilities to push the content to a subset of followers likely to engage and then subscribe.

“It’s a little like a Facebook hack,” Mat Yurow, the Times’ director of audience development, told Digiday. “But I think it’s a smart marketing play. It’s unlocking those audiences nobody else is thinking about.”

By all accounts, the hack is working well for the Times. The newspaper has reportedly seen a 150 percent return on subscription revenue, and 50 percent of readers targeted by Keywee that end up clicking through to the Times’ website are first-time visitors.

“One of the challenges for newspapers today is how to own this social media audience so they come back to your website and are your audience at the end of the day,” Keywee CEO Yaniv Makover told the Newspaper Association of America. “If they’re just reading a story and then going back to Facebook or Twitter, then you’re losing an opportunity.”

In addition to subscription sales, another new revenue stream newspapers can potentially open up with Facebook is to act as the social media marketing and advertising manager for businesses in their local markets.

This is an especially intriguing option for smaller and mid-sized newspapers, who cater to small business owners that don’t have the staff and resources to devote to a proper social media strategy. Many don’t even know where to start, and are overwhelmed by the day-to-day duties required to run their business. Do you think they really want to be bothered keeping up with the constantly changing world of social media?

It seems like a natural fit for newspapers, with their social media managers, trusted community presence and devoted ad staff, to slide in and help guide these businesses, which might represent a lucrative and recurring source of revenue for newspapers struggling how to monetize their social media acumen.


Status Update

As with anything, it’s important to examine your newspaper’s own needs before diving headfirst into any new venture Facebook is trying to promote. We only need to look back a few years to witness how much time was wasted by publishers on Home and Paper, two Facebook ventures that are barely an afterthought today.

For one of its newest ventures, Facebook has fully committed to live video broadcasting, and many publishers have already taken the plunge. BuzzFeed netted as many as 800,000 concurrent viewers for a live video featuring an exploding watermelon. As of April, that video had nearly 11 million views.

So how much advertising money did BuzzFeed rake in? Not a single penny.

Yes, Facebook is paying some publishers, like The New York Times and the Huffington Post, to use its live streaming video service. But to everyone else, Facebook sounds like the mysterious voice from “Field of Dreams,” promising publishers,” If you build it, money will come.”

After all, if publishers devote precious resources to Facebook Live, it means those resources aren’t being put to work in other areas that might better help your organization bring in real revenue.

I know we’re in a mode of experimenting and trying anything, but there comes a point where publishers have to make real cost/benefit decisions on Facebook’s offerings. Maybe it means creating live videos with mid-stream cuts to sponsorship messages, or calls to readers to sign up for email alerts to future videos that can be properly monetized.

Whatever the individual solution, it’s important to not blindly follow every new, shiny Facebook offering, especially if it doesn’t make much sense for your organization.

Take for instance Instant Articles, Facebook’s latest publishing offering to newsrooms. This relatively new initiative, recently opened to all media companies, allows publishers to host their content directly on Facebook.

There are many obvious advantages to newsrooms. First, Facebook wants to keep readers on its site, so allowing their users to read your content within Facebook offers the potential to reach a larger audience. And with Facebook’s favorable advertising terms for publishers (for now, at least), it could open up a new revenue stream at a time when newsrooms need it most.

But using Instant Articles can also be a double-edged sword. Suddenly the line between the source of content on Facebook has been blurred, and all that precious audience data remains off-limits to publishers. Also, with Facebook’s recent history of abrupt algorithm and platform changes, it’s not hard to image the social media giant’s terms changing rapidly in their own favor.

Yet media companies have put themselves in the position of being forced to accept this “Faustian bargain,” as Fortune’s Mathew Ingram described it, because they’ve been so poor when it comes to the performance of its own Web pages. Facebook isn’t wrong when they say they can deliver better mobile pages much faster than most media organizations, and users overwhelmingly agree with them.

Clearly Facebook values its users, and thanks to the Instant Article program, it’s crystal clear its users value news. About 70 percent of Facebook users get their news from the platform, according to a study by the Knight Foundation.

When the Honeymoon is Over

Remember, Facebook’s mission isn’t to help journalism; it’s to help their own business, which at the moment is mobile ad dollars. As long as its users depend on Facebook for news, the social media giant must depend on the journalism that publishers create to keep their users satisfied.

Instead of quietly protesting about Facebook taking advantage of newspapers, why can’t publishers unite and demand better terms out of the behemoth?

Imagine if representatives from the 20 largest newspapers in the country banded together to ask Facebook to release some audience data. It’s fine to complain that they’re hoarding that valuable information, but has the media industry as a whole made any real attempt to ask them for it? Has the case ever been made that access to data would allow news organizations to better serve readers on Facebook, which in turn helps them better engage with their customers?

Not that I know of.

Third party platforms really do want to work with newspapers, and it’s incumbent on publishers to convince companies like Facebook that it’s in their own best interest to support journalism. The British think tank ResPublicia believes platforms like Facebook should pay a 1 percent levy on the enormous revenue they’re able to collect off the backs of publishers, noting “They currently pay nothing for the news that they use.”

I don’t know if a levy is an answer, but it’s important for publishers to rethink their relationship with Facebook. We have the leverage, and we certainly have the content. We only seem to lack the guts.

After all, we’re the ones supporting Facebook’s business. Isn’t it time for them to help support ours?

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