In 2018, the Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions report revealed 44% of news publishers were more worried about the power of platforms than in the previous year. Is their worry justified? Let’s just see what happened with Facebook’s algorithm change.

In January 2018, the platform company announced it will favour posts from the friends and family on its users’ News Feeds. In the aftermath, news publishers traffic from the platform was predicted to drop, and, in some cases, dramatically.

Early findings reveal some publishers are bouncing back after Facebook’s algorithm changes.
Early findings reveal some publishers are bouncing back after Facebook’s algorithm changes.

According to Chartbeat, news publishers traffic from Facebook fell 6% from the start of the January to mid-February. The Social Media Index also demonstrates traffic decline. At the start of January 2018, Facebook drove 11.4% of news publishers traffic compared to 9.13% in mid-February. However, by mid-March, the traffic had started to bounce back, with 10.5% of traffic coming again from the platform.

My own research (yet to be published) about New Zealand news companies also shows that, in general, their traffic from social media sources (mainly Facebook) dipped between January and February 2018. However, it recovered again in March.

Is the trend similar elsewhere? I used data from SimilarWeb to check some facts.

In January 2018, The Washington Post (which has digital subscriptions) had 249 million visits to its Web site compared to 251.5 million in March 2018. Based on these figures, the news media company has seen a slight increase in visit numbers after the Facebook tweak. The Guardian (which has open access to its news site), had 325.5 million total visits in January and 337 million in March (an increase of 3.5%).

BuzzFeed, the digital news outlet, had its traffic decline from 210 million in January to 183.5 million in February. However, the volume of visits recovered slightly by March. BuzzFeed is more dependent on social media traffic than the two others; approximately 28.7% of its traffic comes from social media sources whereas 15.4% of The Washington Post’s and 14% of The Guardian’s visits are driven by social media.

So, what do all these figures mean? The Guardian has seen its traffic recovering faster than the two others. Is it because it has open access, is not behind a paywall, and has a fast-growing membership programme? Are publishers, in general, more resistant to Facebook’s algorithm changes than previously thought? I think we need a longer period of analysis to answer these questions.

In contrast, an analysis of 13 metro newspapers in the United States, conducted by the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), suggests some publishers are right to be concerned about Facebook’s platform power. In late January, Facebook announced it would support local publishers’ news content, and this was regarded as a positive move.

The CJR analysis found its metro publishers’ Facebook posts were “down by as much as 56% compared to the two years prior.” The posts of its newspapers, on average, had 211 “meaningful interactions” (shares, likes, and comments) two years ago. But nine weeks after the Facebook’s announcement, they had 153 of those.

According to the CJR, this shows Facebook has failed in its promise to promote local content. And as we know, at least some of these “meaningful interactions” drive traffic to the news publishers’ sites.