On Facebook's "support of independent voices"

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice—you can't get fooled again."

On Thursday morning, Facebook announced it was “committing $5 million to support local journalists” through a new initiative aimed at attracting more independent writers and creators onto its platform.

In exchange for a multi-year licensing fee that would allow writers to “build a relationship with [their] audience” on the platform, monetization tools, and “experts, information and services designed to make it easier to start and build an independent business,” Facebook is asking participants to “regularly publish written, public-interest journalism focused on a local community” and to engage with their audience through its tools.1

Today’s release is an extension of Facebook’s previously announced support of “independent voices” by giving writers and journalists self-publishing tools to create individual websites and email newsletters, as well as support and integration with Facebook Pages, Groups, and other monetization tools.

More broadly, it’s Facebook’s attempt at competing with the likes of Substack, Ghost, and other self-publishing platforms independent writers have turned to directly monetize their audiences.

Here’s why I don’t think it will work.

A brief history of Facebook media initiatives

Over the past decade, Facebook has launched multiple initiatives aimed at partnering with news organizations big and small. And over the past decade, those initiatives have left the media world worse off, led directly and indirectly to mass layoffs across the industry, and in many ways created an environment in which some writers and journalists have come to believe they are better off going it alone as opposed to working for media organizations that didn’t know what they are doing.

Instant Articles

In 2015, Facebook unveiled Instant Articles, which was a way for publishers and news organizations to natively publish their content directly into a user’s news feed. This was back during the days when clicking a news item on Facebook opened a whole new browser, an experience that was particularly janky on mobile apps due to lousy mobile processors and constrained bandwidth.

The pitch was that readers would get a better user experience, publishers could keep their ad revenue and analytics, and if Facebook happened to sell an ad unit against one of those Instant Articles, it would take a 30 percent cut of the revenue. The initiative launched with great fanfare and launch partners like BuzzFeed, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and BBC News.

Even at the time of launch, there was some trepidation among publishers, but they went with it largely because they felt Facebook was where their audience was.

Check out this quote from the New York Times on the day Instant Articles launched:

Publishers have little choice but to cooperate with Facebook, said Vivian Schiller, a former executive at NBC, The New York Times and Twitter who now advises media companies and brands. “That’s where the audience is,” Ms. Schiller said. “It’s too massive to ignore.”

Or this one:

James Bennet, editor in chief of The Atlantic, one of the project’s initial publications, said that the fear is that publishing pieces through instant articles means “losing control over the means of your distribution.” On the other hand, he said, “we’re trying to get out stories to as many people as possible, and at the same time, continue to build a core, loyal, enthusiastic audience.”

So it’s no surprise, then, that Instant Articles got off to a slow start. After the initial buzz, a month went by before another Instant Article was published by any news organization, despite its bevy of launch partners.

And it wasn’t long before publishers began abandoning Instant Articles en masse. Less than two years after their introduction, launch partners like the New York Times, The Guardian, BBC News, and The Wall Street Journal had either pulled back on their production of Instant Articles or given up on them altogether.

The reason was simple: While Instant Articles created additional production work for new organizations to fit articles into the Facebook format, publishers reported low monetization and less control over their ads. It’s no wonder that established media companies who could afford to gave up on the format, but they likely never recouped the investment they put into the partnership.

Pivot to video

Around the same time that the Instant Articles debacle was unfurling, Facebook also began reporting massive amounts of video being watched on its mobile apps. And, understanding that more video meant more engagement and more engagement meant more ad revenue, the company began tweaking its algorithm to put more moving content and less text into users’ News Feeds.

In an early 2016 interview explaining the push, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even predicted that its business would be dominated by more and more video over time:

“We’re entering this new golden age of video,” Zuckerberg told BuzzFeed News. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook and are sharing on a day-to-day basis is video.”

Of course, the media world took notice. For many fledgling online publishers who relied on social media in general—and Facebook in particular—as the primary distribution channel for their content, the message was clear: Get on the video train or risk being left behind.

The result was a predictable industry-wide “pivot to video” driven in large part by Facebook’s promise of huge—and growing—video metrics reported quarter over quarter. One trope of the era was the strategy of laying off writers to focus on producing videos, largely with the primary intent of capturing Facebook eyeballs.

And the result of the pivot-to-video strategy was also largely predictable: Outside of Facebook, the audiences for those publications cratered. They abandoned their own brand equity and web audiences in the hope of raking in some of Facebook’s video ad dollars.

Beyond just being a bad business strategy, the industry’s pivot to video was based on a lie. You see, Facebook had been inflating its video metrics for years while trying to attract both publishers and advertisers to invest in the platform. The advertisers sued, alleging fraud, and Facebook eventually settled that lawsuit for a reported $40 million.

Publishers, meanwhile, were left to twist in the wind. And the employees of those media organizations who pivoted to video were left even worse off—by one accounting, the whole video debacle cost hundreds of journalists their jobs.

A revamped News Feed

In early 2018, Facebook made its most significant change to users’ News Feeds in years, an adjustment that would paradoxically reduce the amount of “news” from their feeds. At the heart of the change was a shift that would put posts shared by friends, family members, and groups ahead of brand and publisher content.

In explaining the change, Zuckerberg wrote, “[R]ecently we've gotten feedback from our community that public content -- posts from businesses, brands and media -- is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.”

But for all those media companies and brands—many of which had come to depend on Facebook for reach and engagement—the change was yet another unpredictable move from a fickle and unreliable partner. As Charlie Warzel (then at Buzzfeed) reported at the time:

For publishers, the change is a reckoning of sorts — a potentially massive shift in the way that media and news organizations have been building or courting audience, and, in many cases, the way they create and present their content. And it’s been broadly met with everything from grave concern and outrage to reluctant optimism.

Reporting from the New York Times echoed that sentiment:

As a result of Facebook’s attempt to distance itself from an overheated news cycle and make a return to its friends-and-family roots, publishers who depended on it for traffic are likely to find themselves in trouble.

News outlets that have built a strong bond with readers and viewers through other means will be watching closely, to see whether the size of their audiences — and corresponding advertising dollars — will shrink in the coming months.

While in retrospect the News Feed changes didn’t have as drastic of an impact as some other changes the company has made to the media landscape, the sudden reversal to the way it does business just served to underscore the feeling that Facebook, as a partner, is not to be trusted.

Why this all matters

Now, picture this: You are a journalist who has lived through the last five years of this social media reckoning. You have worked for one or more newspaper, magazine, or online publisher in that time and you have seen the way resources are allocated and diverted away from the work you do to serve the Facebook master. You watch as your bosses try—and fail—to ride the tiger and harness its energies toward expanded reach and higher top-line revenue.

Maybe you’ve lost a job along the way, maybe you’ve lost several. Maybe you’ve somehow remained gainfully employed all the while but you’ve seen your friends and colleagues struggle due to the constant whipsaw of some overpaid media executive trying to predict what part of their business might be most profitable—and therefore most important—to Facebook in six months, let alone a couple of years.

You’ve built an audience for yourself. You have finally worked up the courage and self-confidence to believe you can build a sustainable living by self-publishing. Maybe you’re tired of the overpaid media executives, maybe you have been lucky in that regard but you’re worried your luck might run out. Regardless, you’re ready to set out on your own.

You’ve seen businesses rise and fall on broken promises. You’ve lived through all of this. You’re tired of it.

And after all that, you think Facebook will be the best platform to partner with?

Give me a fucking break.

1

While there are some terms and conditions for applicants, the amount a participant can expect to be paid or how often they would be expected to publish or use Facebook tools were not disclosed.