Are Meta and the news industry done for good?

By L. Carol Christopher


Pleasant Hill, California, USA


In 2018, The Atlantic wrote: “Facebook has encouraged media to become dependent on it. When Facebook asked media to create Instant Articles, it submitted. When Facebook encouraged media to throw resources behind the production of short videos, media obeyed and shuffled precious editorial dollars into the pursuit. And now — after monkeying with media, after exploiting media’s abject reliance on it — Facebook has essentially told media to kiss off. By downgrading journalism in his News Feed, Zuckerberg is choking off a stream of traffic, and, therefore, a stream of revenue.” 

Fast forward to 2022, and Meta/Facebook is remaking its relationship to the news media industry — most recently the ending of both Instant Articles and human curation. The news has ranged from ambiguous to bad, depending on your outlook, where you publish, and what laws your country’s governing bodies have passed or is considering.

Some observers have seen a dissolution of this relationship coming for years. For example, in 2018, The Atlantic was already calling Facebook’s “radical overhaul” away from news a “concession of defeat.” 

The latest move is ending Instant Articles, which began in 2015 as a way to load news articles faster within the Facebook app and bypass publisher portals and logins from a user’s posted link. Instant Articles will end in April 2023. After that, news links will take users to a publisher’s mobile site. 

In a widely quoted statement this year, Meta spokesperson Erin Miller said: “Currently less than 3% of what people around the world see in Facebook’s Feed are posts with links to news articles. And as we said earlier this year, as a business it doesn’t make sense to over-invest in areas that don’t align with user preferences.” 

Of course, what people see in their feeds is largely up to Facebook to begin with. 

That notwithstanding, the Pew Research Center finds that in 2019, half of U.S. adults got news from Facebook, and it is the platform with the most news-oriented users, followed by Twitter and Reddit. That number dropped to 31% in Pew’s 2022 report. Pew also finds that while Twitter is a go-to source for journalists, it is less popular with the general public.

Nonetheless, with Facebook fading from the scene as a news agent, Twitter is left as the most likely social media platform for news, “despite the crazy changes coming to the platform,”said one source to Observer. 

This year was packed with Facebook news and actions.
This year was packed with Facebook news and actions.

Meta and news publishers: 2022 in a big nutshell

The relationship with Facebook/Meta has been challenging for news publishers all along, despite the contributions the Big Tech giant has made to the media industry.

Here’s what’s happened this year alone:

Meta revenues drop: Facebook revenues were dropping sharply by July. The Reuters headline tersely reports: “Meta posts first-ever revenue drop as inflation throttles ad sales.” The company expects its third-quarter revenue to see a year-over-year drop for the second time in a row, according to the Reuters article, with “mixed results” for user growth. Meanwhile, Forbes reports Meta’s stock is down 60% since the first of 2022.

User feeds change: Also in July, Facebook changed users’ feeds so that instead of seeing their friends’ posts, users began to see a feed composed by an algorithm. Friends will be moved to a separate page. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Zuckerberg wrote about the proposed changes in late April, “referring to the newsfeed change as one of the company’s ‘investment priorities.’” It was projected to affect about three billion daily users. Reuters reports Zuckerberg told investors in a July call that about 15% of content on Facebook and Instagram was recommended by AI at that point, drawing from “accounts users do not actively follow,” and that that number would double by the end of 2023.

Replacement of human curators: An early November TechCrunch report says, “Meta has confirmed that it’s ditching the humans and leaning entirely on algorithms for Facebook News in all markets where it’s available. … Although most of the surfaced articles were already determined algorithmically, there was a ‘top stories’ section curated by humans.” PressGazette reports that from early 2023 “the entire tab will be AI-generated.”

U.S. publisher payments and News Feed end: In February, the 16-year-old “News Feed” became, as TechCrunch notes, an anachronism. It is now simply “Feed.” Social Media Today says the purpose of the tabs was to fund agreements with publishers, which, Meta announced in June, will be allowed to expire in the United States without renewal. Australia’s agreements will begin to run out in the next year to 18 months, but they are still being signed in the European Union, according to INMA’s Robert Whitehead. Press Gazette observes that “many in the media industry expect Meta to close the Facebook News tab altogether in 2024.” This, in itself, was enough to make Nieman question whether Facebook was unfriending publishers and divorcing news, describing the end of the relationship as all but official in a November article. 

Creator monetisation: Meanwhile, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg began to speak enthusiastically about the company’s shift to creator monetisation options in a June post. Opportunities for “creators,” Affiliate Insider continues, include Creator Marketplace on Instagram, Brand Collabs Manager — also Instagram-based, while Facebook offers the Reels Play Bonus programme and Facebook Stars. NFTs are viewable on either Facebook or Instagram profiles. But Meta lures those creators with funds formerly allocated to the News tab and Bulletin, according to a memo from Meta’s Campbell Brown to employees, as described in a July story in The Wall Street Journal. These shifts reflect a company moving toward the metaverse and short-form video content creators

Last month, Meta laid off 13% of its staff, including key staff with the Meta Journalism Project.
Last month, Meta laid off 13% of its staff, including key staff with the Meta Journalism Project.

Layoffs, including news-related executives: In November, Meta, with no comment or confirmation, according to Nieman, laid off 11,000 workers — 13% of its staff, which included key personnel with their Meta Journalism Project accelerator, programme managers for news integrity, news communications, and local news partnerships, according to Nieman. 

The end of Instant Articles: Axios scooped the wrap-up of Instant Articles. The programme had its impact, according to Press Gazette: Meta claims 37,000 Facebook pages currently use Instant Articles, that Instant Article pages load nearly five times faster than mobile Web pages, and that those articles are 52% more likely to be opened when they are in that format. Gizmodo notes a Columbia Journalism Review analysis that found by early 2018, “more than half of the publications listed as original partners … three years earlier had abandoned the format.” Press Gazette says “news titles will monetise their Facebook traffic by their Web site programmatic or in-house advertising rather than the current options. In Instant Articles, publishers can either sell all their own advertising and keep the revenue or allow Facebook to fill the spaces and keep an estimated 70% of the income. … Publishers will still separately be able to monetise video content on Facebook using in-stream ads.”

Why it’s happening: Facebook under fire

There is no single reason for Meta’s series of actions cleaving it away from its long, if often imbalanced, relationship with the news industry. Here are a few:

The erosion of Instant Articles’ core value: Press Gazette interviewed social media consultant Mat Navarra, who said changes in the larger social media ecosystem, such as TikTok, short-form video formats and increased browsing speeds, have “eroded” Instant Articles’ core value for news publishers — and Facebook. “… Facebook’s role in content distribution on the social Web was/is so large, most publishers could not easily dismiss implementation of things like Instant Articles. The potential reach of content on Facebook is just too big to ignore … but I’d imagine the loss will easily be muted by the gains made switching back to direct traffic. I suspect most publishers will not be shedding a tear.”

TikTok changed what is expected from social media platforms, especially for young audiences.
TikTok changed what is expected from social media platforms, especially for young audiences.

Staying relevant — TikTok and the aging Facebook population: A Slate report cites internal research released by a whistleblower in 2021 that said young adults had told Meta that “its main app is irrelevant, negative, and undifferentiated.” Slate notes between 2013 and 2021, the door to TikTok opened because Facebook’s user age jumped by more than five years.

“TikTok has essentially changed perspectives on what social media can and maybe should be in its next phase, with a bigger focus on entertainment, as opposed to enabling people to share their opinions on every news story and topic that comes their way,” according to Social Media Today. … (T)he bottom line is that Meta is now moving away from what had been its bread and butter — in posts from friends and family, and news articles from publishers — in preference for entertaining video clips.” In short, Social Media Today points out, Meta has seen its usage decline and knows it needs to “realign” its tools. Doing so, says Axios, “shifts Facebook further from a social network and toward an entertainment and shopping platform like TikTok.”

“Do not track,” encrypted messaging, earnings and revenue, legal pressure: INMA’s Robert Whitehead wrote in August that Apple’s “do not track” policy, encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram, earnings and advertising revenue, and especially growing legal pressure have all played a role in Meta’s move away from news: “In many markets, the complexity of our partnerships is growing because of government regulation around news, wrote Meta’s Campbell Brown when explaining her team’s pivot toward digital creators. Upcoming legislation in Canada is expected to be tougher even than the landmark Australian regulation. In the E.U., however, a more traditional copyright law approach, according to Whitehead, has seen payment size trending lower. 

What’s next for news: pivot-to-video (again)

A significant portion of Zuckerberg’s April 27 post to his Facebook feed was devoted to short-term video, “which doesn’t monetise as well for now, but which we’re quite optimistic about over the long term.”

Tom Alison, who Slate identifies as a top Meta executive who runs the core Facebook platform, said in October: “We haven’t completely figured out the right way to integrate short-form video. It’s still a big kind of journey for us.”

Meta's pivot to a focus on short-form video may not be the best plan for media companies, although more video likely is.
Meta's pivot to a focus on short-form video may not be the best plan for media companies, although more video likely is.

Social Media Today argues Meta’s increased emphasis on short-form video means that “if you want to maximise your engagement, and likely your referral traffic, from Facebook and (Instagram), you need to be publishing video content as well, while acknowledging Facebook’s “pivot to video” campaign and how many publishers were left holding the bag when the company moved on to the next trend. “…[G]oing all in on video to align with Meta’s whims is probably not the best way to go. But incorporating more video is the key to maximising your reach and resonance in the app. At least for now.” 

Publishers may want to think carefully about investing heavily in that path. Reuters notes Meta is spreading itself across several major projects, “simultaneously carrying out several expensive overhauls … revamping its core apps and boosting its ad targeting with AI, while also investing heavily in a longer-term bet on ‘metaverse’ hardware and software.” 

Meta executives told investors that Reels is now generating more than US$1 billion annually in revenue, according to Reuters.

Yet there is more to the story: Reels, the executives told analysts, “cannibalises more profitable content that users could otherwise see and will continue to be a headwind on profits through 2022 before eventually boosting income.”

Reuters analysis suggests that “fortunes in online ads sales may be diverging between search and social media players, with the latter impacted more severely as ad buyers reel in spending.” Alphabet, for example, reported a quarterly rise at the same time Meta saw declines.

It’s been quite a ride for Meta in 2022. At minimum, the relationship with news publishers appears to be on pause as the company pivots to metaverse and video in an otherwise challenging regulatory involvement.

About L. Carol Christopher

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