One Website's Facebook Apocalypse Is Another's Opportunity to Shine

Digital publishers are reckoning with the potential impact of Facebook's planned changes to its news feed, with reactions ranging from trepidation to confidence to reflection on the folly of depending on the social network for web traffic in the first place.

Facebook on Thursday said it will introduce changes to the feed in coming months to promote content shared by friends and family that provokes conversation among users, and in the process will de-emphasize content pushed into feeds from news publishers, brands, nonprofits and others.

Even before Facebook's latest announcement, the company already had tweaked the news feed in ways publishers blamed for reducing the traffic they receive through the social network. The percentage of publishers' online traffic coming from Facebook fell from an average of 40% at the end of 2016 to 24% as of last month, according to analytics firm

The latest change could have an even more pronounced effect over time, some media executives say. Some are viewing Facebook's move as a wake-up call for publishers to wean themselves off their dependence on Facebook and build businesses -- even if smaller ones -- that can thrive and grow in other ways.

Turning to Facebook and its 2 billion users to find readers is tempting. But it shouldn't be Facebook's job, they say, to prop up a publishing industry that has struggled to find the right formula to build online businesses.

"People should chill out: Facebook is a public company that controls its own decisions and destiny," said Jim Vandehei, co-founder and chief executive of Axios. "Publishers should do the same damn thing."

It isn't clear which types of content and sites Facebook's change will hit the hardest, since those sparking what Facebook determines are "meaningful interactions" among users will apparently be in a better position.

Several publishers said the change would create a survival-of-the-fittest contest that would weed out low-quality content.

Ben Lerer, chief executive of Group Nine Media, owner of sites like NowThis and The Dodo that rely on distribution via Facebook and Instagram, said in an interview that the company can thrive under the new Facebook approach.

"There will be adjustment, but we aren't the folks that lead to people having bad experiences on Facebook," Mr. Lerer said in note to staff. "To the contrary, we are the most optimistic and beloved publishers on the platform."

Facebook's changes also have major implications for advertisers, who may have to spend more money to get their messages in front of Facebook users as the media content available in the news feed shrinks and content published directly by brands for free is pushed down in the pecking order.

Despite the public expressions of confidence by some media executives, others privately expressed frustration at Facebook's decision after having spent considerable time and money to gear their businesses toward attracting its users. One media executive expressed dismay with a perceived lack of transparency on the part of the social network.

"Facebook says: 'If you don't have meaningful interactions, you're going to be downranked,'" the executive said. "So we ask Facebook, 'explain what a meaningful interaction is.' And they say, 'we can't tell you that.'"

Adam Mosseri, the executive who oversees Facebook's news feed, explained on Twitter Thursday evening that Facebook has a multipronged approach to determine what constitutes a meaningful interaction on the social network. The company studies how users interact with one another on the platform and then listens to what they say about those reactions.

Facebook declined to comment. In a post announcing the change, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg noted that "some news helps start conversations on important issues."

Other publishers sought to seize the moment by directing readers to platforms they own. BuzzFeed News published an ad on Facebook directing readers to download its app with the caption "Facebook is breaking up with news."

BuzzFeed also released a statement saying the algorithm change is in line with trends the company was already beginning to anticipate.

"BuzzFeed's mission from day one has been to create shareable content that enables meaningful interaction among families and friends; meaningful social content is our sweet spot," the statement said.

No publishing executives can say for sure what the impact will be on their traffic. Sites specializing on hard global and business news may have a tougher time than those with lifestyle content under the new algorithm, depending on what users engage with.

In his note to staff, Business Insider Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Carlson called Facebook's decision "an opportunity to excel" because the company isn't overly reliant on any one social network.

Neil Vogel, CEO of the media company Dotdash, said the situation is reminiscent of a period about five years ago when Google made a series of algorithm changes that deprioritized low-quality content designed to game its search results. Then, as now, a major source of traffic was acting in its best interest to the detriment of some publishers.

"Facebook is not a public utility," Mr. Vogel said. "Facebook is going to do what's in the best interest of Facebook."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 12, 2018 17:42 ET (22:42 GMT)