The truth behind the publisher relationship with Facebook

By Earl J. Wilkinson

International News Media Association (INMA)

Dallas, Texas, United States


In my travels this year, one subject ties together newsrooms in love and anger like none other: Facebook. 

In a nutshell, Facebook sends the most digital traffic to news media Web sites — narrowly beating out Google. Traffic from Facebook’s closed garden is arguably higher quality than Google’s open garden Web traffic.

We love Facebook for being a clever traffic source and a beacon for constant innovation. 

Yet Facebook is the latest frenemy — years after Microsoft and Google occupied that space. 

The anger part is that as the relationship between publishers and Facebook has become more intertwined, bewildering emotional issues related to trust and control have emerged. 

On paper, the relationship revolves around: 

  • Facebook as a traffic source for publishers. 
  • Facebook as a host for publisher content via its Instant Articles programme. 

Yet inside these tangible programmes are many intangibles: 

Inconsistency and unpredictability: A leading Belgian media company tells me that maximising Facebook traffic and working around constantly wiggling algorithms is each day’s frustrating opening conversation by their editorial team.

I heard the same from national and regional German publishers. A leading Indian company. Brazil. United States. United Kingdom. Mexico. Australia. I could go on and on. 

We know that we are hooked: As many media companies have replaced chief marketing officers with chief digital officers, we have often shifted from a print world of 20+ points of sale to two digital traffic sources — and the CDO skill set is often wrapped up in maximising that traffic.

Facebook tells us it will de-emphasise Pages in news feeds, yet shared content will continue to be important — so we adjust within the parameters Facebook sets instead of diversifying audience sources.

Facebook is stealing our advertising: As Facebook’s scale grows, so does its advertising revenue. A common refrain is Facebook is taking away publisher revenue. It is true that Facebook advertising is rising. I’m not so sure that was “our” advertising to begin with.

The power relationship: We hate the nature of the Facebook relationship. Publishers are accustomed to top-down relationships with vendors. Yet with Facebook, we are a fly on the back of a wildebeest. And how a local publisher communicates with Facebook is a lot like a fly trying to tell the wildebeest to slow down.

Aftenposten CEO/Editor-in-Chief Espen Egil Hansen's open letter to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg prompted a change in Facebook policy over the Napalm Girl photograph.
Aftenposten CEO/Editor-in-Chief Espen Egil Hansen's open letter to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg prompted a change in Facebook policy over the Napalm Girl photograph.

Editorial control: Did you see INMA Board member Espen Egil Hansen’s recent letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in Norway’s Aftenposten over their algorithmic rejection of the famous Vietnam War photo of the naked child fleeing combat?

The algorithm unthinkingly said this was child pornography and wouldn’t allow the photo to be posted on Facebook. The Norwegian prime minister, in support of Aftenposten, tried to share the photo — and was also rejected.

Espen correctly and loudly (and cleverly) excoriated Facebook and, to its credit, the company quickly reversed course when the world’s media picked up the story. 

We don’t fear the algorithm. We fear the power — and the potential power. Over traffic. Over serendipity. Over size and scale. Over algorithmic mysteries. Over lack of ownership of an increasingly concentrated distribution channel. Even, worldwide, the Americanisation of editorial standards. 

And in a time of change and retrenchment, Facebook is the latest boogeyman for legacy media companies.

Given all of these intangible issues, here is my contrarian view: No matter how we got here, Facebook doesn’t exist to maximise media pageviews. Facebook wants to constantly make itself better — to foster community and conversations among friends.

Maybe that means an acceleration of the Pages programme in recent years. Maybe it means Instant Articles this year. Maybe it means, if sharing among friends is down, they have to make big changes in their algorithm. If we are going to ride on the back of the wildebeest, we had best count on unpredictability. 

The publisher relationship with Facebook is one of mutual benefit. As we often do, legacy publishers locked in to the “they need our quality” argument in recent years. Facebook flirted with us, and we called it love. Or at least indispensability. 

Here are some truths I discern from a lot of conversations about Facebook: 

  • All media companies — legacy and digital — need to radically diversify digital traffic sources. It is the fault of media companies — not Facebook — that we got hooked on this distribution channel. 
  • Distributed content concepts like Facebook Instant Articles are pieces to the larger audience puzzle — not the end-all, be-all.
  • Facebook is, correctly, looking out for Facebook. Media content and shareability of media content are pieces to their ecosystem, but they aren’t making strategic decisions based on it. 

If you don’t like dealing with a global behemoth with communication issues, then build a better mousetrap. Band together with fellow publishers. Create a power dynamic so publisher concerns are heard with greater clarity. Find new audience sources. 

Facebook is a valued partner to the news industry. The mistake is our over-reliance — and not putting the relationship in proper context.

About Earl J. Wilkinson

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.