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Final Destination: why Facebook won’t get the last word in news distribution

Olly Robinson
LDN - 23 Apr 2015
Olly Robinson

A lot has been written about Facebook’s offer to host content from news publishers. It could be a great opportunity for an industry going through a rough time, or another step towards the commoditisation of news. It might even be both. The only certainty is that it’s unlikely to herald a permanent state of affairs either way.

Why not?

1. Ok, so social media is our current destination for news

That used to be the job of newspapers. Part of daily routines, each page provided a guaranteed audience. Advertising flourished. The news industry thrived.

The early days of the internet were remarkable for how little changed. Newspapers created homepages, and a loyal readership visited them habitually. The medium had changed but the model endured; news publishers were the destination, and therein lay their value to advertisers.

Social media changed all this. Why bother checking the homepage if you've spent all day on Facebook clicking links to the stories?

2. The monetisation of news is also evolving

Advertising also didn't change much with the transition to digital. Early banner ads bore a pretty close resemblance to their print counterparts, with results generally insufficient to sustain business models.

More recently, sites like Quartz have had more success with native advertising; sponsored content integrated into the home page itself.

However, the integration of native advertising only works where people are already browsing. It doesn’t matter how artfully and effectively the advertising on your homepage is presented if nobody visits it in the first place.

3. On social, the user experience is built around a stream of information

We check it habitually. Refresh it voraciously.

If social is increasingly our destination for news, the news feed is the key destination for native advertising. If you’re going to drop content in-stream, do it where people are already swimming.

4. The compromise for news publishers is clear

Social provides the destination, you provide the content. The advertising revenue gets shared. Critics warn against ceding control of your audience, but user engagement has already shifted. The horse has bolted.

What choice, then? Why postpone the inevitable?

5. If we take anything from the recent history of technology, it should be wariness of behavioural status quos

A lot has been written about the growing importance of notifications.

Smartwatches will be almost entirely reliant on them, and Ben Evans describes them as the third runtime on smartphones, after the web and apps:

“More and more, one’s primary interaction with any app, social messaging or otherwise, is a little pop-up with a button or two”

How will this change our interaction with social feeds?

If I get a notification every time something relevant happens on Facebook, will I still visit it as a ‘destination’ with the same frequency? What does that mean for news feed advertising? What does it mean for news consumption itself?

6. Paradigms in how we interact with technology (and critically for news publishers: where we focus our attention) are increasingly short-lived

Newspapers were the status quo for centuries, the desktop web dominated for decades. How we interact with our mobile changes from year to year, if not month to month. In a constant state of flux the only certainty is change.

7. That isn't to say that social isn't well-placed to ride these changes.

Recent announcements about the future of Messenger suggest Facebook see notifications as both opportunity and threat. By allowing people to build apps and services within Messenger, they’re trying to bypass the iOS and Android notifications panels and put themselves back at the heart of our mobile interaction.

So, if notifications are owned by the operating system, Apple and Google are empowered and the primacy of Facebook’s news feed it at risk. If Facebook own them, they effectively own the mobile platform. The distribution and consumption of news is one small part of this story; the well-being of traditional news brands is an afterthought.

8. Traditional publications are by no means helpless in the face of our new tech overlords

Some are weathering the storm better than others.

In a great interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab, the deputy editor of the Economist talks emotively about “the feeling of being ahead of the news,” and unmet consumer needs like distillation and finishability.

In building their proposition around a strong understanding of their audience, the Economist is able to charge a premium and maintain their independence. Unfortunately, they remain the exception rather than the rule.

9. Ultimately, the motivation for Facebook is clear, and the logic for (most) publications is inescapable

What is less certain is how behaviour will continue to evolve in a time of constant technological change. The biggest challenge facing the news industry is not Facebook, it’s consumer understanding and agility in the face of this change.

10. It’s still too early to be writing obituaries.