As with any toxic relationship, the possibility of a breakup sparks feelings of terror — and maybe a little bit of a relief.
That’s the spot that Facebook has put the news business in. Last month, the social media behemoth announced it would once again alter its News Feed algorithm to show users even more posts from their friends and family, and a lot fewer from media outlets.
The move isn’t all that surprising. Since the 2016 election, Facebook’s been under siege for creating a habitat where fake news stories flourished. Their executives were dragged before Congress last year to testify about how they sold ads to Russians who wanted to influence the U.S. election, and so, in some ways, it’s simply easier to get out of the news business altogether.
But for the many news outlets that have come to rely on Facebook funneling readers to their sites, the impact of a separation sounds catastrophic.
“The End of the Social News Era?” a New York Times headline asked. “Facebook is breaking up with news,” an ad for the new BuzzFeed app proclaimed.
When a giant like Facebook takes a step — until recently, the social media site had been sending more traffic to news outlets than Google — the resulting quake can cause an entire industry to crumble.
Consumers, meanwhile, have grimaced as their favorite media outlets have stooped to sensational headlines to lure Facebook’s web traffic. They’ve become disillusioned by the flood of hoaxes and conspiracy theories that have run rampant on the site.
A Knight Foundation/Gallup poll released last month revealed that only a third of Americans had a positive view of the media. About 57 percent said that websites or apps using algorithms to determine which news stories readers see was a major problem for democracy. Two-thirds believed the media being “dramatic or too sensational in order to attract more readers or viewers” was a major problem.
Now, sites that rely on Facebook’s algorithm have watched the floor drop out from under them when the algorithm is changed — all while Facebook has gobbled up chunks of print advertising revenue.
It’s all landed media outlets in a hell of a quandary: It sure seems like Facebook is killing journalism. But can journalism survive without it?
It’s a question we’ve been facing here at NUVO. Like so many others we’ve used Facebook as a direct channel for reaching readers and sharing content. But with the constant changes to algorithms, Facebook is no longer a reliable tool for getting our message out.
You won't believe what happens next
When Facebook first launched its “News Feed” in 2006, it ironically didn’t have anything to do with news. At least, not how we think of it. This was the website that still posted a little broken-heart icon when you changed your status from “In a Relationship” to “Single.”
The News Feed was intended to be a list of personalized updates from your friends. When Facebook was talking about “news stories,” it meant, in the words of Facebook’s announcement, like “when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again.”
But in 2009, Facebook introduced its iconic “like” button. Soon, instead of showing posts in chronological order, the News Feed began showing you the popular posts first.
And that made all the difference.
Facebook didn’t invent going viral — grandmas with AOL accounts were forwarding funny emails and chain letters when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was still in grade school — but its algorithm amplified it. Well-liked posts soared. Unpopular posts simply went unseen.
Google had an algorithm too. So did YouTube.
Journalists were given a new directive: If you wanted readers to see your stories, you had to play by the algorithm’s rules. Faceless, mystery formulas had replaced the stodgy newspaper editor as the gatekeeper of information.
So when the McClatchy Company — a chain that owns 31 daily papers including the Tacoma News Tribune and the Bellingham Herald — launched its reinvention strategy last year, knowing how to get Facebook traffic was central.
“Facebook has allowed us to get our journalism out to hundreds of millions more people than it would have otherwise,” says McClatchy’s Vice President of News Tim Grieve, a fast-talking former Politico editor. “It has forced us, and all publishers, to sharpen our game to make sure we’re writing stories that connect with people.”