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Media could be facing a haves vs. have nots situation on Facebook

Image: Getty images/Tara Moore

Another day, another chapter in Facebook’s love/hate relationship with the media.

Facebook announced on Wednesday that it has once again changed the secret recipe that decides what to show its users in their Newsfeeds. What might mean a few more baby pictures for the average users could mean a serious decline in audience for media companies that rely on the social network for distribution.

This isn’t the first time that Facebook has tweaked its algorithm (nor will it be the last), but it seems poised to be the biggest change since July 2015 when Facebook became the top Internet traffic referrer a title it could conceivably give up if the change is as dramatic as some seem to fear.

The news announcement was enough to trigger a wave of fear and schadenfreude in the media world.

At this point, nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen or to what degree. Representatives for web analytics firms Parse.ly and Chartbeat both did not find a significant decline in Facebook recent referral traffic, although detecting changes across their networks can be difficult.

The warning sign came in the form ofFacebook’s efforts to address these changes before they happen. Facebook is constantly tinkering with the algorithm without much fanfare. This time, the company went to the trouble of publishing numerous blog posts on its own pages as well as giving embargoed news and interviews to some news outlets with a clear indication that traffic is about to decline.

Facebook’s reasoning for the change is that it wants to encourage people to share more on the platform, so they’re going to do that by showing you more of what your friends and family are sharing.

Josh Elman, a partner at venture capital firm Greylock Partners and a previously a product manager at Facebook, noted that the social network faces growing competition in this space.

“So much is happening on Snapchat, group messaging and other things that aren’t getting shared on Facebook like they used to. Facebook has to get more people sharing,” Elman said.

Elman struck an optimistic tone for publishers, noting that media companies could still benefit.If more baby pics mean more sharing and more time spent, publishers could find an even larger audience.

If the pie gets bigger, there will always be more opportunities every time they make changes like this,” Elman said.

Some in the media world mirrored that sentiment, noting that media companies that are able to take advantage of the change could reap rewards.

Or at least stay afloat as other competitors sink.


If everyone had faith that all Facebook wanted was for publishers to produce better material, Wednesday’s news probably would have been greeted with open arms. Making Facebook into some sort of meritocratic media utopia seems somewhat doable and even something Facebook has taken steps to do, most notably figuring out ways to limit clickbait and favor stories that hold readers’ attention.

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, said that she’s seen a concerted effort by Facebook to not just draw more media directly onto its platform (Instant Articles, native video) but also to work with publishers more closely on a personal basis.

At the same time, Bell noted that some publishers had begun to see traffic declines. That’s the kind of contradiction that publishers are growing used to.

“I think that’s kind of symptomatic in some ways of the problem or the tension at the heart of the relationship that Facebook has with publishers,” she said.

That tension exists because Facebook is not in the business of creating a media utopia. It’s in the business of making money.

How does Facebook make money by reducing the reach of its media partners? Just ask the brand managers that spent years building pages on the social network only to see their ability to reach that audience decline sharply.

Those brands had to start paying Facebook for reach, or at least paying them more than they had before. That’s a looming example of how Facebook can push companies to begin paying for something that was once free.

The idea that media companies could soon begin pumping more money into Facebook is particularly interesting at a time when the social network recently started shelling out cash to some bigger partners to embrace its live video efforts (Mashable is one of these partners).

If the result of Live is that Facebook has become cozier with some of the biggest media brands, then the algorithm tweak is theoretically a way to scuttle smaller publishers who can’t afford to pay for reach.

Whether that’s a result by design or not, Facebook isn’t saying. The company declined to comment for this piece.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in late 2012, when Facebook began sending gobs of traffic to digital media websites, the playing field was relatively level.The lack of much difference between the haves and the have nots on Facebook meant the platform once provided the opportunity for new media entrants to quickly find an audience, helping give rise to the digital media explosion that has included companies BuzzFeed, Refinery29 and even newer entrants like such as Little Things.

Those days now feel very long ago.

It’s now worth wondering, once Facebook’s new algorithm takes over, whether the next BuzzFeed will face much of a chance and whether niche publishers that can’t afford to pay for reach aren’t about to take a massive hit.

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