“The potential impact on publishers will depend on the extent to which traffic from Facebook is a significant percentage of a publisher’s traffic and, more significantly, its revenue,” says Nicco Mele of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.
Yet Facebook also has said that it will surface content from “reputable publishers,” ranking news sources based on user evaluations of credibility. Experience has shown, though, that users are more likely to comment on and share sensational articles than dry, fact-based news. Publishers who have built their businesses on virality may do better, at least relative to their more staid peers.
That also raises a risk that the changes will amplify fake news, which could draw renewed criticism for the company.
In the six countries where Facebook tested news feed changes last fall—Slovakia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bolivia, and Guatemala—emphasizing posts from friends and family over news sites seemed to promote fake news. Meanwhile, professional news organizations reported a plunge in traffic from Facebook.
Publishers that invest in reducing their dependency on Facebook will be best positioned to weather social media’s shifting tides. Many already have begun to do so, as traffic from Facebook has steadily declined over the past year. Parse.ly, which tracks digital engagement, reported a 25% decline from February to October 2017 for 600 publications that it tracks.
In the long-run, finding ways to engage with consumers directly, rather than through a third party, will be better for publishers. “Publishers have known that investing time and effort in Facebook gives the platform an awful lot of power—more data about consumers and more control of the relationship,” says Brian Wieser, a media analyst at Pivotal Research. “They were responding to short-term benefits at the cost of their long-term interests.”
Now they will have to figure it out on their own.