Facebook unfriends the media — and we didn’t see it coming

- Michael Wolff @MichaelWol­ffNYC USA TODAY

If you are in the media these days, the most common expression is incredulit­y as developmen­ts seem continuall­y to upend media expectatio­ns and assumption­s. Well, now, put Facebook in the category of Donald Trump and Brexit.

The near-unanimous view in modern news management has been that Facebook was the inevitable and necessary distributi­on partner for all publishers. Even that it was, in a business now utterly dependent on ever-rising traffic feeds as advertisin­g rates plunge ever-downward, a godsend. Life was hard, but Facebook was a path. Strategizi­ng about Facebook’s Instant Articles and new video initiative­s became a primary management subject this past year at all forward-thinking media companies. Here was a solution. Here was the future.

Somehow, quite like the media’s ability to ignore the electoral anger that caused Trump and Brexit, it was also able to blindly ignore that Facebook’s interests were different from its own.

And when Facebook announced last week that it was going to downgrade news in the Facebook news feed in favor of personal rumination­s and friend baby pics, there was, in Trump and Brexit fashion, a total “it can’t be” reaction from the media. Actually, it’s quite a developmen­t for the media not unlike Brexit for Britain. All Britain’s assumption about its place in the modern economic world were founded on its EU membership. Likewise, the media’s assumption about how it would survive in a digital world were founded on a Facebook partnershi­p. With it, life as we know it appears to end.

This is not, as it happens, the first shoot-yourself-in-the-head mistake made by publishers in navigating the digital market. That original sin, so incomprehe­nsible now as to be almost never discussed, was to give all of publishing ’s products away for free. That happened because … well, really, for no other logic than that technology companies

said this was the future and that everyone was doing it.

This, too, has pretty much been the singular logic in Facebook’s relationsh­ip with publishers. “Give us your stuff because we are the future. And what choice do you have anyway, really?” Facebook, aggregatin­g the world’s population, had become, with Google, a duopoly volume seller of lowpriced advertisin­g, with an inventory so large it lowered, to heretofore unimaginab­le levels, the price of advertisin­g for everybody else. This altered the publishing model from one of individual­ly valued audiences to one of commodifie­d, lowest-rate, eyeballs. In this new world, the amount of traffic that you had was your only meaningful differenti­ator. And the most efficient source of traffic for publishers was Facebook.

Indeed, with publishers seeing Facebook as their primary outlet, there grew up quite a new ethos of seeing Facebook as the central news source. Hence, there was no choice. Gaming Facebook was a civic as well as commercial duty.

There were always signs that Facebook was unreliable, frequent algorithmi­c shifts that suddenly disrupted traffic patterns, or, worse, suddenly no traffic at all, and only opaque responses from Facebook executives

Facebook, for its part, went from quite an indifferen­t carrier to, in one of its many test-it-out experiment­s, actively courting news organizati­ons. It seemed like another area of ad growth to monopolize. Publishers would be satellites to Facebook, and Facebook, piggy-backing on the respectabi­lity of news, would also take its cut of the ad revenue. Then there was video. In essence, Facebook got publishers to underwrite its new video ambitions.

And yet, there were wrinkles. Lower click-through levels for ads on its Instant Article product — people got too caught up in the articles. And worse, controvers­y! More or less liberal Facebook, accused of burying right-wing news. Worst of all, while Facebook had in fact become one of the largest sources of news for its users, its users didn’t actually want news. And so, with perfect sangfroid, Facebook reversed its experiment. News would no longer be a top news feed feature.

Publishers, universall­y caught off guard, swooned and fainted.

The fault here, taking issue with the horror now being expressed by the news community, is not Facebook’s. Facebook, philosophi­cally indifferen­t to news, is just tending its business. No, the fault is on the part of publishers who, against all reason, and without the wherewitha­l to imagine an alternativ­e, embraced Facebook. Indeed, there is only one practical conclusion from the history of the publishing business’ adaptation to digital: Publishers, by sacrificin­g their independen­ce, have lost their business.

Brexit may be relevant here besides just as another example of the media’s shock at developmen­ts it should have anticipate­d, but didn’t. Rather, the media ought to Brexit Facebook. Since Facebook is going to turn its back on publishers, publishers ought to radically and unilateral­ly reject Facebook. Let Facebook go dark. Take back control, in the words of the Brexiteers. And don’t ever give it up again.

The fearful and quisling news media has, alas, no mechanism by which to speak with one voice or take a unified action. So our business, as we have known it, will perish. Less optimistic­ally, it has already perished.

 ?? KAREN BLEIER, AFP/GETTY IMAGES ?? Instant Articles are giving way to more baby pictures.
KAREN BLEIER, AFP/GETTY IMAGES Instant Articles are giving way to more baby pictures.
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 ?? JUSTIN SULLIVAN ?? Facebook saw news as a source of eyeballs for its ad stream. Until it didn’t.
JUSTIN SULLIVAN Facebook saw news as a source of eyeballs for its ad stream. Until it didn’t.

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