The Social Media Era Of News Is Over. It Probably Didn't Happen Soon Enough.
Thoughts on the news industry.
On Thursday, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti announced that the company is shuttering its news division. Starting in 2012 under the editorship of Ben Smith (then of Politico, now running Semafor), BuzzFeed News never made a profit but it did win lots of journalism awards and became a large part of the digital journalism ecosystem. More people than I can count worked there at some point in the last 12 years.
The writing has been on the wall for BF News for a while, but the speed with which this is happening is still sort of a shock to the system. Places don’t often just cease to exist. Rockets may experience "rapid unscheduled disassembly,” but newsrooms mostly don’t.
This post isn’t really about BuzzFeed, as I never worked there and have no deep insider knowledge about the goings on. But I do want to talk about this moment for publishers.
“It’s the end of the marriage between social media and news,” Smith told the Times.
That sounds right to me, and though it going to be hard for publishers, I find it difficult to say it’s a bad development for the world. It probably should have happened sooner, and I worry that it has now happened too late to be any good.
“This shutdown announcement for BuzzFeed News — a popular and Pulitzer-winning news organization — highlights the failings of the online information economy,” tweeted Kat Tenbarge. “People may *want* information that is newsworthy and accurate, but by design platforms don't value it.
On the one hand, this tweet is true. Some people do want some of these nice things. And many people ambitiously say they want them though they themselves will, in the quiet solitude of their own kitchen, forswear the broccoli and indulge in the KitKat.
But on the other hand, it misunderstands the relationship between social networks and news. That relationship is mostly not about giving people, in a meaningful sense, what they want. It’s about creating a false desire, getting people hooked on it, and then giving them the drugs they shoot up into their arms.
In Terms Of News, “Social Media” Means Facebook.
First off let’s be clear about something: this is all about Facebook. Twitter and Instagram et al. are important in different ways but when we talk about the actual business plan of digital media companies that prospered a decade ago and then waned towards the turn of the decade, we are talking about the traffic funnel that came from Facebook. None of these other platforms provide meaningful traffic to anyone. (They can be monetized in different ways, but not advertising revenue derived from digital ads on the site.)
Facebook was a game-changer for journalism not because it gave publishers a new medium to reach news consumers, but because it gave them a new medium to reach non-news consumers. The difference is important.
For as long as news has existed, there have been people who like to read it. They subscribe to newspapers, listen to NPR, and buy general interest news magazines. This group of people likes news and is willing to seek it out. At no point in history has this number of people ever been enough to actually make news profitable for an extended period of time. That is why newspapers also have “soft news” and advice columns and cartoons and movie listings; why magazines have interviews with celebrities and photos of beautiful women on the cover. That brought in enough other people to make publications sustainable and profitable for decades.
Then the internet disrupted everything and a lot of those people started to get that content in free-ways online, which caused a huge problem for publishers. These were the layoffs and contractions of the mid-aughts. Many very smart people thought that was going to be the end of journalism as we knew it.
But around that time, Mark Zuckerberg started a social media network that allowed you to keep tabs on your friends from high school and to see photos of your grandkids and to contact the crush you met at a party. The audience for this project was very large. It succeeded on a scale unheard of to any sort of operation in the history of the world.
The people on that site liked to share their thoughts and their photos and what they were reading. Instead of forcing you to go to someone’s specific page to get the latest updates, Facebook unveiled the Newsfeed, which took all of these things and, with algorithmic sorting, put it in one place, which you could scroll endlessly.
The GIft And Curse Of The Newsfeed
The Facebook Newsfeed was crack. You couldn’t stop scrolling. I like to think of it like an endlessly long highway with billboards advertising things at every exit. You can drive down it until a billboard really struck your fancy. Those billboards were based on an algorithm that sorted the activities of your friends and Pages that you indicated some affection for. It also would recommend some billboards that it thought you might like based on those other factors.
Most potential billboards—which is to say the updates of those pages and friends—are boring garbage that the algorithm doesn’t even bother to show you. But even of the posts that were engaging enough to make your feed, most of them you don’t click on. You don’t care. It’s a billboard for something you’re not interested in and you drive happily by. But some of them you do want just because of basic necessity. They’re context-specific. Some are billboards for gas stations or restrooms and when you need gas or to go to the bathroom, you are grateful for them. If this was all it was, that would be great. People getting what they want.
But what journalists like myself realized—and advertisers have known forever—was that giving people what they want when they want it is small potatoes.
Better than waiting for your organic wants and needs to, fortunately, match up with our content is convincing you that you want something you hadn’t thought about yet. Maybe it’s a tourist trap. Maybe you are actually interested in seeing the World’s Largest Cotton Ball, but no one had ever asked before. If you have time, might as well take it in. These are good billboards.
A great billboard is different still. A great billboard is so compelling that it gets you to change your plans. Some of these are obvious: it’s a casino. People love casinos! It’s Ozempic. People love weight loss!
You are not a monk, and eventually, you will click on one of these Facebook posts. You will take the exit and get off the highway. Facebook will then infer that you like posts like that and start showing more of them to you. You will end up Liking Pages unthinkingly and then see more of their content and over and over again until you can’t get where you’re going because there are too many exits filtered and sorted to appeal to some part of you.
And once you like a page and start engaging with any of its content, you’re done. Churn Is pretty low. You probably won’t unlike it.
You do not know how many things you click on. People are terrible at reporting their own smartphone usage and their own clicks.
So far, this is not really news-specific. This is just how the Newsfeed works. But for social media editors at publications, this was very important.
Imagine it’s the 1960s, and you aren’t someone who subscribes to the New York Times or any other paper. You pick up a copy at the newsstand when the headline above the fold is really a big deal. “JFK ASSASSINATED,” you buy. “APOLLO 13 SUFFERS CATASTROPHIC FAILURE,” you buy. But the other basic daily ones you ignore. The entire decision of purchasing that paper—and gaining access to pages and pages of other stories—really rests on the A1 section above the fold.
The other analogy here is a magazine cover. You buy it when it looks like it has something you really want. But you don’t subscribe.
Now say it’s 2014, and you drive down the Facebook billboard highway. There will be dozens of news stories a day, and none of them will be as important as “JFK shot” or “Apollo 13 saved,” but people will have put as much energy into optimizing the packaging of those posts as they used to for A1 newspaper headlines. There are many elves working to make each individual story grabby enough to get you to click.
And click you did! And click you do! And you don’t know why or how many times. People are famously bad at self-reporting their smartphone usage and their clicks
.Facebook turned people who had never deliberately sought out the news before into news consumers.
You had become a news consumer. Millions of others had too. This may have been a thing that made journalists a little queasy but it also meant that suddenly people weren’t anticipating their imminent demise as much. Facebook had tricked non-news consumers into caring about the news and that newly inflated group meant that news could survive without classifieds.
The smart people in the room knew that this would not last forever. It couldn’t. No one knew when but eventually, Facebook would decide x y z and this would stop. So everyone talked about using Facebook as a funnel to drive audiences to become subscribers ideally. Some places succeeded at this, but other places failed completely.
Now, if you go back and look at this era, you will find that not all news publications benefited from this in the same way. Some categories of news were more likely to experience rapid growth from these audiences. Here’s why:
The best billboards will make you take a detour even if you are driving your pregnant wife to the hospital. Those billboards are ones that play on your identity. Those billboards are political. And everyone turns off for them.
The Facebook Era Of News Supercharged The Culture War
The historian Barbra Tuchman described the Renaissance as when “the values of this world replaced those of the hereafter,” and you could say something similar about this era in which the values of the internet became paramount. If that sounds like an exaggeration to you, I agree, but also, look at Instagram. Better yet, go to any beautiful place in the world and watch people experience that beauty. They come to create the content that they share online.
The internet has become the smithy in which our identities are forged and the battlefield on which they are deployed. And if it is a battlefield—which it is—then it’s one of those World War I battlefields where trenches were dug and lives were churned for no discernible gain.
Take an ounce of societal pessimism, two squirts of internecine partisan warfare, a jigger of self-righteousness, shake it up, add two olives, and you get a culture war. A culture war is something that doesn’t matter unless you squint and have a drink.
The culture war is a pyramid scheme of emotion and grievance. At the top are media personalities and politicians with direct interests in it. Every following level decreases in participation until, at the bottom rung, you have people who are caught up and consumed in it but don’t have really any true agency in it. Think of someone who watches MSNBC all day, doesn’t work in politics, and has a life completely unrelated to it. They gain nothing from caring about politics as much as they do. It stresses them out. It occupies their time. But it has no ends. They are not soldiers in the culture war so much as they are casualties of it.
But the internet allows people to climb one rung up the pyramid. You can post your opinion on Facebook or retweet your favorite news anchor. At this point, you become someone who, in some very small way, is actively participating. This is a good feeling! You have purpose! You are a part of something larger! There is a war raging, and your contribution is a little bullet you’re firing for your side. But now you bear a responsibility. You have decided that you are doing something meaningful, and if you stop doing it, something bad will happen.
So everyone got politicized and everyone became addicted to political news.
But addiction to the news makes people stronger partisans and the strongest partisans are the worst at describing the attributes of their political opponents. Highly engaged Republicans are worse at describing Democrats than low-engagement Republicans, and the same goes for Democrats—exposure to politics has warped their perceptions. What an utterly devastating indictment of our political culture and the news media! The media’s job is to convey the world, not to distort it.
I’m not talking about distorting in a malicious or intentional way, though that can happen to. But even in the innocent way, where it’s just a consequence of these dynamics, it’s still bad!
The carrot of this deal—the revenues from these outsized Facebook audiences—started to fall apart in the latter half of the decade. Some of that is directly related to changes Facebook made after 2016 when they were subject to so much criticism for the role they may have played in the election that they completely reworked how the Newsfeed handled news. But not all! People discovered that it wasn’t just their favored ideologically aligned news sources that were growing; it was also the ones they detest. An equal number on both sides was activated. And it’s exhausting. The pandemic then changed the economy completely and the era of loose money, which had made it possible for lots of startups to grow at an exponential rate, ended.
The Curtain Falls
In Peretti’s note about the shuttering of BuzzFeed News, he says he should have demanded profitability earlier. But news by itself has never been profitable and BF News was never profitable even at its height. It was merely losing only enough money that it could be subsidized by the other parts of BuzzFeed.
BuzzFeed is a public company now. It answers to Wall Street and Wall Street is tired of letting companies lose money until the Revelation.
The end of the social media era of news is also the end of news organizations trying to grow like tech companies.
Now, if you had a time machine and could unplug Facebook in 2013, I think there is a good chance a lot of this would have been avoided. Not all of it! But some of it. But an entire generation of journalists now experiencing the collapse of their industry would have simply experienced it a decade sooner. The unfortunate reality is that now Facebook could shut its doors tomorrow or ban news entirely and it probably wouldn’t make a difference, because an entire universe of other companies and services and publishers has sprung up to satiate that addiction.
The social media era of news may be over—but the dysfunction it wrought is something we’re still going to have to deal with.
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