“The Sell Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.
Today's column is written by Yaser Bishr, executive vice president of digital at Al Jazeera Media Network.
Facebook’s days as a major disseminator of hard news are coming to a close. And while that puts the traffic of many news publishers in uncertain – and thus frightening – territory, it also paves the way for a more sustainable Fourth Estate in the future.
Facebook hasn’t overtly declared its pivot away from the hard news space, but the writing is on the wall for those who care to read it.
For one, if the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the 10 hours of congressional grilling have taught Facebook anything – and let’s hope it has – it’s that the threat of regulation is much nearer than the social media giant cares to admit. Pivoting away from hard news and the inherent political and societal influence that comes with it is one way to lessen scrutiny of Facebook’s practices.
Mark Zuckerberg is also on record as saying the company’s January algorithm change was meant to elevate content that drives positive sentiment and engagement. Instead of helping users find relevant content, Facebook wants to help them find “more meaningful social interactions.”
Zuckerberg is after “happiness and health.” Unless we are The Onion or WebMD, news will not always be a neat fit with an algorithm that prioritizes entertainment and well-being. In the news business, our goals can’t always align with Zuckerberg’s. Publishers are about good news and bad news. Our goal is to “inform society,” and by sticking to our journalistic principles, our content is destined to be at the tail of the news feed.
Such an investment would suggest at least a passing commitment to news coverage on Facebook, but the endeavor faces an uphill battle for news outlets. After all, Facebook users are accustomed to the experience of passive discovery that comes with scrolling through a feed.
For the News tab on Watch to be successful, Facebook will have to change that deeply ingrained user behavior. Users will have to go from scrolling through the feed to actively clicking on the Watch tab before clicking on the News tab within Watch. That’s a considerable change in the user experience. Even if the News tab sticks around for the long haul, Facebook’s news feed is still the biggest traffic driver for Watch. Given its prioritization of “happiness and health,” content within the section would naturally flow to the lighter side of the news.
Publishers must pivot – but in which direction?
For news publishers, the question remains: If Facebook is pivoting away from hard news, where does that leave us?
To varying degrees, most news publishers have relied on Facebook as a key component of their distribution strategies. This relationship might persist to some degree, but future traffic forecasts and related monetization expectations need to be adjusted with the assumption that organic traffic coming through the social platform will continue to plummet.
With Facebook as a news-friendly platform out of the picture, content consumption habits and design philosophy don’t make Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube suitable for news either. Now is the time for news publishers to double down on building their owned properties into destinations versus mere jumping-off points for dissemination through other channels. As Facebook increasingly pulls back from hard news, publishers will have a renewed opportunity to attract the highest-value consumers to their own properties and build loyalty on their own platforms.
Of course, such a task can seem daunting to publishers that have now spent the better part of a decade evolving their editorial and technology strategies for a social world. Some may be tempted to pursue content partnerships with social platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Snap and others as a long-term solution.
The challenge: Content partnerships are increasingly being set up as exclusive distribution deals among the social giants. And the cost of episodic programing and building audiences that publishers can’t leverage across additional channels is monumental. At best, a publisher might be able to invest in one or two such arrangements. But before going down this path at all, they must ask themselves: Are these social platforms really where people go to discover the latest news?
News discoverability is a significant problem on social platforms. When it comes to live and breaking news in particular, there is no digital platform that can compete with linear TV. A key element in live streaming is predictability. Linear TV is predictable: A person can turn on the TV, flip to CNN and feel confident that the hottest live news will be featured. If not, it’s a simple flip to MSNBC or another major network.
Major online news platforms are similarly predictable. On Facebook and YouTube, it’s not that easy. If it is not readily featured on the news feed by the grace of the algorithm, it takes at least several searches and clicks to uncover live or breaking news, if they can be located at all.
A daunting but doable gauntlet
Facebook’s pivot away from hard news and toward engagement has set in motion forces that make investment in owned platforms a more viable – and necessary – strategy today than it might have been two years ago. Importantly, Facebook’s algorithm change in January marked a shift away from a volume-obsessed metrics mindset toward one that rightfully values meaningful engagement. This mindset can and should proliferate through the industry.
Social platforms will still play a valuable role within the news dissemination process, but they will no longer be an endpoint. Rather, they should represent the beginning of a relationship between a reader and a publisher. Publishers can use social networks to find the small percentage of readers who are interested in going deeper than a headline in their news consumption and invite them to their own platforms for a meaningful deeper dive.
As engagement becomes the new currency in online media, a single loyal reader who engages daily with content on a site will carry far more value to publishers than 100 readers who show up once and never come back.