Facebook and journalism. Part one

How Facebook turned into the world’s biggest news platform, with newsrooms and journalists paving the way.

Moh Hamdi
12 July 2018

Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Maurice Levy, CEO of Publicis Groupe leave Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on May 23, 2018. Domine Jerome/Press Association. All rights reserved.

On June 27, 2017, Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and current head of Facebook, announced in a post that his company had reached the threshold of 2 billion monthly active users worldwide, making Facebook the most popular social network in the world.

Despite recurring scandals such as the latest Cambridge Analytica affair and the ensuing calls to # DeleteFacebook, the number of active users rises continuously. As Sam Biddle from ​Gawker sarcastically put it with reference to a series of scandals involving Facebook in 2014, “the most valuable lesson for the company might be that it can keep creeping us out and violating its customers, over and over again, and none of us will ever delete our accounts”.

In fact, despite the recent wave of outrage leveled at Facebook and its leader, the figure of monthly active users has risen to 2.2 billion in the first quarter of 2018, which according to the British daily ​The Guardian represents an increase of 13% compared to the same quarter in the previous year. In terms of revenue, ​The Guardian states that Facebook “​made $11.97bn in revenue in the first three months of the year, up 49% from the previous year​”, which represents a record for the company.

“We’re making progress connecting the world, and now let’s bring the world closer together”, Zuckerberg added in his post of June 27. Zuckerberg has indeed been trying to connect the world with ambitious projects such as ​Free Basic and ​Facebook Zero which are designed to give internet access to the “5 billion people in the world” who are not connected. The altruistic motives behind Facebook’s ambitious projects have rightly been ​questioned​. But the initiative has also had the unexpected outcome, that to a considerable number of Facebook users in the Global South, the social network has become synonymous with the internet. According to several surveys, Facebook users in many parts of the world don’t know they are using the internet or are even mistaking Facebook for the internet.

According to several surveys, Facebook users in many parts of the world don’t know they are using the internet or are even mistaking Facebook for the internet (see Figure 1). Furthermore, a majority of participants have answered that they never follow links outside of Facebook. Leo Mirani, a reporter for ​Quartz and author of one of the above studies, ​concluded that “[i]f the majority of the world’s online population spends time on Facebook, then policymakers, businesses, startups, developers, nonprofits, publishers, and anyone else interested in communicating with them will also, if they are to be effective, go to Facebook. That means they, too, must then play by the rules of one company. And that has implications for us all.”

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Figure 1 (Source: ​https://qz.com/333313/milliions-of-facebook-users-have-no-idea-theyre-using-the-internet/​)

In fact, one of the fields where exactly this scenario may have occurred is journalism. As more people registered on Facebook, it was only a matter of time until the platform was going to be used for news publishing and consumption. Facebook has indeed become much more than merely a social platform where friends and family can connect. According to several studies by the Pew Research Center on the online news consumption in the US, a considerable amount of US citizens get their news on social media  – and first and foremost on Facebook. A study published in ​October 2013 found that roughly half of the US adult Facebook users (47%) get their news on the social network. According to several studies by the Pew Research Center on the online news consumption in the US, a considerable amount of US citizens get their news on social media  – and first and foremost on Facebook.

In the span of only two years, the number has risen to 63% according to a consecutive study issued in ​July 2015​. As a consequence, Facebook stood on a par with microblogging network Twitter, which increased from 52% of news consumers in 2013 to 63% in 2015. ​One year later​, Facebook even overtook Twitter. Whereas 59% of Twitter users said in 2016 that they would get their news on the microblogging network, the percentage of Facebook users consuming news on Facebook amounted to 66%. The difference is even starker when translating these numbers to the total US population. Given that 67% of US adults are using Facebook, the number of US adults reading their news of Facebook equates 44% of the general US population. As only 16% of US citizens use Twitter, the overall percentage of Americans getting their news on Twitter amounts to only 9%.

Importantly however, while the majority of news consumers on Facebook say they get their news mostly by chance using Facebook primarily for other things (62%), a majority of Twitter users (54%) log in with the aim to read news. According to the same studies, the average news consumer on Facebook tends to be white, female, aged between 30 and 49 and primarily reading news related to entertainment. What also needs to be mentioned is that most people reading their news on social media also use TV, radio and – albeit to a lesser extent – print newspapers to keep up to date about the world. This being said, the majority (64%) of those who read the news on social networking sites tend to do so on just one such platform – most commonly Facebook.

Whether the demand for news was there before the supply or vice-versa, what is clear is that newsrooms and journalists today rely heavily on the social network. There are three essential reasons for this reliance on Facebook by journalists and newsrooms.

First of all, given the mass of information that is shared on the platform every day, Facebook has become a crucial research tool. Importantly, since public figures such as politicians or celebrities also use the social network to connect with citizens – according to Facebook​, “[s]ome 87% of governments around the world have a presence on Facebook” – Facebook became an important primary news source for journalists. A survey carried out by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) confirms that over three quarters of journalists worldwide use the platform for research purposes.

The second reason is related to the dissemination of news: by posting an article or video on Facebook publishers hope to reach and engage as many people as possible. Given the amount of active users around the globe and the high percentage of news consumers on the platform, the referral traffic – i.e. the traffic obtained through activities on social media – is likely to increase enormously when posted on Facebook. In fact, Facebook introduced the “Share” button in November 2012 as a reaction to Twitter’s successful “retweet” function in order to increase the reach of a post and push publishers to use the network for referral traffic. The above-mentioned study by the ICFJ points out that more than 80% of journalists who participated in the survey, in fact used Facebook to reach a wider audience. As figure 2 shows, Facebook again outweighs all other social media in a trend that cuts across all the regions of the world.

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One of the major strengths of Facebook are its micro-targeting algorithms. The activities of Facebook users on and off Facebook (such as likes, comments, page visits, posts, photo uploads etc.) are collected by the company to create individual profiles reflecting opinions, tastes, interests, preferences, political affiliations etc. Based on these so-called psychographic profiles, Facebook can target a user with custom-tailored, personalized posts. For publishers, distribution on Facebook can therefore prove all the more effective given that Facebook’s algorithms direct specific content from specific pages to a range of users who are most likely to be interested in the topic and will therefore more likely engage with the post. This, in turn, leads to the third reason why publishers have turned to Facebook: financial incentives. Publishers selling space on their websites to advertisers can get money on the basis of how many people click on or view the ad. By posting links on Facebook that direct readers onto the website of the newspaper or blog in question, publishers can thus increase the revenue gained from ads. Publishers were hoping to make more money from ads through the referral traffic on Facebook. The issue of online advertising revenue has become all the more crucial for publishers given that the revenue from ads in and subscriptions to the printed press is steadily declining.

In theory, publishers can also make money directly on Facebook and the social network has developed alternatives for publishers to facilitate on-site monetization. As more and more publishers move to Facebook instead of buying up advertising space on the publishers’ websites, some media outlets have no other choice than to use Facebook to keep afloat.

In 2015 the social network launched ​Instant Articles (IA) in order to entice publishers to post articles directly on the platform instead of only posting links that refer back to the publisher’s website. Facebook argued that articles would load quicker and publishers could benefit from wider reach and more engagement thanks to Facebook’s micro-targeting algorithms. The revenue from ads would be split 70/30 in favour of Facebook unless the publishers sold the ads themselves, in which case they could keep all the revenue. A year later, in April 2016 Facebook has also lifted its ban on branded content and allowed publishers to share posts that look like conventional content but which have actually been sponsored by a company and serve as ads. Furthermore, it encouraged publishers to create more ​video content arguing that videos get more engagement and that, as a consequence, publishers would make more money from embedded ads that are driven by Facebook’s algorithms. 

Contrarily to Google’s text-based advertising system, which relies on keyword searches, Facebook uses targeted ads. Exactly like the posts, ads on Facebook are directed to individuals according to their interests and preferences as determined by the collected data each user generates on the internet. On Facebook Ads Manager, advertisers can indicate what type of customers they are targeting and Facebook’s algorithm makes sure that personalized ads will reach users who are most likely to fit the customer’s profile. These ads constitute the bulk of the money Facebook makes (see Figure 3). In March 2016, Facebook ​announced that 3 million active advertisers from around the globe were doing business on Facebook. According to researcher ​Brian Wieser​, Facebook and Google together made up roughly 65% of the total US digital ad market in 2017 and now account for nearly 100% of the total growth in digital ad revenue in the US. According to researcher ​Brian Wieser​, Facebook and Google together made up roughly 65% of the total US digital ad market in 2017 and now account for nearly 100% of the total growth in digital ad revenue in the US.

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So Facebook monetizes on the posts and engagements on its platform without creating any content of its own. Newsrooms and journalists on the other hand have been generally dissatisfied with the low share they receive from the generated revenue on Facebook. As Facebook’s revenues reach a record high, publishers keep struggling financially. Referral traffic for news on Facebook has been in general decline since the beginning of 2017 (see figure 4).

On top of all that, none of the abovementioned initiatives launched by Facebook have proven satisfying to publishers. On January 25, 2018, Facebook ​changed its guidelines on branded content with more restrictive rules that took effect on March 1. Videos may create more engagement but they are also more expensive to produce and, up until recently, Facebook’s ad guidelines for videos were ​not conducive ​to publishers. Besides, Facebook has cut the subsidie​s it granted to a handful of publishers to create on-demand and live videos.

Lastly, a switch to Facebook's Instant Articles(IA) would entail a loss of control over distribution and reader’s data for publishers in favour of Facebook. Keeping the audience on social network is certainly in Facebook’s interest, but to publishers the costs may ultimately be higher than the benefits. Even though, in theory, IA may have advantages in terms of speed, engagement and targeted ads, in practice many publishers have experienced higher ad revenues as well as more subscriptions when the reader is redirected onto the publisher’s website.

For that reason, newspapers such as the ​New York Times and the Guardian ​have ​stopped posting ​content on IA as the initiative did not meet their expectations. Under pressure from publishers and eager to curb the casualties, Facebook has introduced paywalls requiring readers to subscribe to the newspaper after having accessed a limit of free articles on IA. While some publishers such as the French newspaper ​La Libération have been able to reap profits from IA, others keep struggling. While the reliance on Facebook entails a loss of control over revenue as well as customer’s data, news distribution, content and format, the crisis-ridden newsrooms have at the same time become dependent on the tech company to keep afloat.

In January 2017, Facebook hired Campbell Brown, former CNN host, to head its News Partnership unit. The unit tries to foster closer collaboration between Facebook and news publishers. “I will be working directly with our partners to help them understand how Facebook can expand the reach of their journalism, and contribute value to their businesses. That also means making sure there is ongoing feedback from publishers as Facebook develops new products and tools for news organizations,” ​Brown wrote on Facebook. As publishers struggle to monetize on the content they publish on the platform, the main bone of contention between Facebook and themselves remains the question of revenue. The election of Brown raised new hopes among publishers as the step was seen as a sign of good will by Facebook. “I view my role as being an advocate for publishers. I think our biggest challenge is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. This is a diverse ecosystem. There are so many different ways of telling stories. How you monetize is going to be different for different publishers”, ​Brown said​. Several projects did indeed see the light under Brown’s steering such as ​Facebook Watch​ or the ​Facebook Journalism Project​.

However, the expectations were hardly met, according to several ​news publishers​. Despite these initiatives, the relationship between Facebook and news publishers remains tense over issues such as monetization or data control. Yet, the newsrooms don’t seem willing to give up entirely on the social platform yet.

While the reliance on Facebook entails a loss of control over revenue as well as customer’s data, news distribution, content and format, the crisis-ridden newsrooms have at the same time become dependent on the tech company to keep afloat. Given the growing numbers of Facebook users who read their news on the platform, abandoning Facebook would imply a drastic loss of reach, and thus by inference of revenue, for many of publishers. Therefore a great number of ​newsrooms have adapted to the new realities and have set up social media divisions which devise strategies to maximise the reach in the digital sphere. These adjustments will however exacerbate rather than undermine the predominance of social networks like Facebook. This, in turn, has important ramifications for journalism as a whole, as well as on the principles of freedom of the press and media plurality. See Part Two.

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