media ouroboros

How Facebook could kill the news brand

It seems my prediction is coming true: Facebook wants news stories to live within its own app. That’s better for Facebook’s readers, who don’t need to click on links and wait for clunky external websites, and it’s better for Facebook, which gets to keep those readers within its own ecosystem and collect more data on exactly what kind of stories they like to read. It’s also good for companies like BuzzFeed, whose CEO, Jonah Peretti, says that “it increasingly doesn’t matter where our content lives.”

Peretti told Peter Kafka that so long as he can get data back from someone else’s platform — whether that platform is Pinterest or Snapchat or Facebook or YouTube or anything else — then he can use BuzzFeed’s technology team to help optimize content for that platform, including the content he’s being paid to create on behalf of brands.

As I said last year, the best way to think of BuzzFeed’s various products is as a proof of concept: it’s a way to show advertisers that the company is able to reach a large, young, mobile, social audience in a multitude of different ways. The ability to reach those people is something of a holy grail for advertisers, who are therefore very willing to pay top dollar to anybody who can help them achieve their goal. The idea is that if BuzzFeed can reach a broad audience with its various editorial products, it can then sell that secret sauce to advertisers, and help them reach the same audience, using the same tools. The key here is reach — which, in an app-based world, is a very different animal from traffic.

So it’s no surprise that BuzzFeed looks set to be one of the first publishers to sign on to Facebook’s new native-news platform. It’s more surprising, however, that the New York Times is going to be one of the others. That’s because the NYT and BuzzFeed are in very different businesses. BuzzFeed has built its business model around its ability to ensure that any piece of content, whether it’s a cat listicle or an ad or a news story, reaches as much of its intended target audience as possible. The NYT, on the other hand, has a different business model, which is to build a loyal readership of people who trust the brand to deliver top-flight news, and then to monetize that readership both by charging subscription fees and by selling ads in adjacency to its news stories. So while native Facebook distribution fits very well into the BuzzFeed business model, it doesn’t fit nearly as well into the way that the NYT makes money.

But maybe the NYT has seen the writing on the wall. The era of the self-contained news package — all the news that’s fit to print, delivered neatly in a bundle on your front doorstep in the morning — is coming to an end. News has become disaggregated, and the thing that people share is not the newspaper, but the news story. Which can come from anywhere. A couple of decades ago, readers would read a story and remember which newspaper or magazine they read it in, while paying almost no attention to the byline. Today, readers read a story and while they might remember that they found it on Facebook, or Twitter, they pay almost no attention either to the byline or to the publication. The important thing is the information itself, rather than the place it came from.

In such a world, publications are going to want to make it as easy as possible to read and share their stories — even at the expense of their own brand. If Facebook can effectively increase the NYT’s reach by an order of magnitude, then that will more than make up for the fact that the NYT’s new Facebook readers care much less about the source of their news than its subscribers do. What’s more, because the NYT stories you find on Facebook will be delivered to you by some mysterious algorithm, you won’t really be able to “read the NYT” on Facebook — and as a result, I doubt that the NYT will suffer much in the way of subscriber losses as a result of going down this path.

Still, the downside is potentially enormous. It’s not just about losing website traffic from Facebook, although that’s a huge worry for sites which sell millions of dollars’ worth of ads against those pageviews. It’s also about losing control over exactly how your content is presented and delivered — about losing most of the things which make your news brand memorable and unique. At some point, it’s easy to foresee a world where talented individuals, rather than brands, make a good living by producing the kind of news content which “works really well” on Facebook. If Facebook becomes the new YouTube in that respect, and if Facebook continues to grow as a trusted news source in its own right, then the result could be an existential crisis for news organizations with old-fashioned things like editors and fact-checkers and clear ethical guidelines. Those things are expensive, and it’s far from clear that Facebook’s readers particularly value them. The risk is that they’ll just get disintermediated away.