The Facebook Armageddon



The social network’s increasing threat to journalism

At some point over the past decade, Facebook stopped being a mostly harmless social network filled with baby photos and became one of the most powerful forces in media—with more than 2 billion users every month and a growing lock on the ad revenue that used to underpin most of the media industry. When it comes to threats to journalism, in other words, Facebook qualifies as one, whether it wants to admit it or not.

Facebook’s relationship with the media has been a classic Faustian bargain: News outlets want to reach those 2 billion users, so they put as much of their content as they can on the network. Some of them are favored by the company’s all-powerful (and completely mysterious) algorithm, giving them access to a wider audience to pitch for subscriptions or the pennies worth of ad revenue they receive from the platform.

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But while many media outlets continue to pander to Facebook, even some of the digital-media entities that have catered to the company seem to be struggling. Mashable, which laid off much of its news staff to focus on video for Facebook, is being acquired by Ziff Davis for 20 percent of what it was valued at a year ago, and BuzzFeed reportedly missed its revenue targets for 2017 and had to lay off a number of editorial staff.

Facebook continues to move the goalposts when it comes to how the News Feed algorithm works. In January, the company said that it would be de-emphasizing posts from media outlets in favor of “meaningful interactions” between users, and suggested this could result in a significant decline in traffic for some publishers.

The fact that even Facebook’s closest media partners like BuzzFeed are struggling financially highlights the most obvious threat: Since many media companies still rely on advertising revenue to support their journalism, Facebook’s increasing dominance of that industry poses an existential threat to their business models.

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According to a recent estimate by media investment firm GroupM, Google and Facebook will account for close to 85 percent of the global digital ad market this year and will take most of the growth in that market—meaning other players will shrink. “This is exceedingly bad news for the balance of the digital publisher ecosystem,” the firm reported.

While it may be tempting to see Facebook as an evil overlord determined to crush media companies and journalists under its boots, most media companies find themselves in this predicament because they failed to adapt quickly enough, so in a sense they only have themselves to blame.

“Did God give us that (advertising) revenue? No,” says CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis. “It wasn’t our money, it was our customers’ money, and Facebook and Google came along and offered them a better deal.” The problem, says Jarvis, whose News Integrity Initiative counts Facebook as a donor, is that “we didn’t change our business models. We insist on maintaining the mass-media business model, and that’s more of a problem than social media.”

Nobody believes Mark Zuckerberg woke up one morning and decided to destroy the media industry. His company’s behavior is a lot more like an elephant accidentally stepping on an ant—something that has happened while Facebook has gone about its business.

“Facebook is a threat not necessarily because it’s evil but because it does what it does very well, which is to target people for advertisers,” says Martin Nisenholtz, former head of digital strategy at The New York Times. The question, he says, is “has it become so dominant now that it’s become essentially a monopoly, and if so what should publishers do about it?”

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