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It's Not Clicking

News outlets' quest for Facebook likes may destroy them

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PLEASE LIKE ME  Media companies built strategies around Facebook ‘likes,’ only to have the social network - change the rules on them—and put them in financial peril.
  • PLEASE LIKE ME Media companies built strategies around Facebook ‘likes,’ only to have the social network change the rules on them—and put them in financial peril.

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.

In January, 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. Ever since the 2016 election, the Menlo Park–based company has 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. In some ways, then, 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.

In an open letter to Zuckerberg, San Francisco Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper decried the social media company's sudden change of course on Jan. 12. "We struggled along, trying to anticipate the seemingly capricious changes in your news-feed algorithm. We created new jobs in our newsrooms and tried to increase the number of people who signed up to follow our posts on Facebook. We were rewarded with increases in traffic to our websites, which we struggled to monetize."

The strategy worked for a time, she says.

"We were successful in getting people to 'like' our news, and you started to notice," wrote Cooper. "Studies show more than half of Americans use Facebook to get news. That traffic matters because we monetize it—it pays the reporters who hold the powerful accountable."

But just as newspapers learned to master Facebook's black box, so, too, did more nefarious operations, Cooper noted. 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.

Now sites that relied on Facebook's algorithm have watched the floor drop out from under them when the algorithm changed—all while Facebook has gobbled up chunks of the print advertising revenue that had always sustained news operations.

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 perhaps the perfect summation of the internet age: a website that started because a college kid wanted to rank which co-eds were hotter became a global Goliath powerful enough to influence the fate of the news industry itself.

When Facebook launched its News Feed in 2006, it ironically didn't have anything to do with news. This was the site 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. 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. Well-liked posts soared. Unpopular posts simply went unseen. 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.

With digital ad rates tied to web traffic, the incentives in the modern media landscape could be especially perverse: write short, write a lot; pluck heartstrings or stoke fury.

Mathew Ingram, who covers digital media for Columbia Journalism Review, says such tactics might increase traffic for a while. But readers hate it. Sleazy tabloid shortcuts give you a sleazy tabloid reputation.

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