NEW YORK, United States — Facebook is in crisis. So much so that, this week, Mark Zuckerberg is being hauled before lawmakers on Capitol Hill for what has been billed as a public reckoning on a host of issues from the social media giant’s Cambridge Analytica data privacy debacle to long-standing problems with fake news. But if Facebook is in crisis, so too are the publishing companies who built their houses on Facebook’s front lawn.
It’s been a tough few years for digital media brands: first came the desperate “pivot to video,” as publishers hastened to fill the social media pipes with as many videos as they had blog posts. Then came huge mergers, like the Koch brothers-funded Meredith acquisition of Time Inc. Meanwhile, Facebook — the traffic-supplying mega-teat of digital media — has faced no shortage of turbulence, eroding the trust of its users. Is it any wonder that all of this unfolded at the same time? Hardly.
But publishers can learn a valuable lesson from Facebook’s latest crisis: stop relying on a corrosive platform to deliver a quick, cheap audience and, in the process, reverse the rot that’s taken root within their own brands.
The media brands that will survive are the ones that aren’t just consumed passively when people are bored and decide to have a scan through their Facebook feed. Magazines and newspapers must be valuable enough for readers to intentionally spend time with them. Just look at the renaissance in television. How many of us watch our favorite shows because an episode caught our eye in a social feed? Yet that's what publishers have been banking on.
For years, publishers enjoyed a more harmonious relationship with Facebook. You’d open Facebook and see a New York Times article and a BuzzFeed article and then maybe a baby announcement from a friend. The social network was a convenient destination for news about both the world and about your world. Then, a few years ago, Facebook started slowly turning its back on publishers, prioritizing articles your friends shared over articles shared directly from trusted news outlets. It’s probably no coincidence this shift tracked with Facebook’s issues with fake news, which reached fever pitch after the 2016 US presidential election and revelations of the platform’s use in Russia’s disinformation drive to sway the outcome.
Suddenly, millions of people realized that the social network to which we’d become most addicted was much more harmful than we thought. Then came the revelations of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data breach, in which the personal information of 87 million users was wrongfully exposed to a political marketing firm working with the Trump and Brexit campaigns, boosting the #DeleteFacebook movement.
The dark arts of social media distribution that publishers have relied so heavily on are deeply broken.
Indeed, on top of the algorithm changes — the latest of which sent tremors through the digital wings of the major publishing houses earlier this year — media companies must now contend with the prospect of people leaving the platform in droves. We’ve become so addicted to our phones and our social feeds that media companies probably won’t see an immediate impact from a few million people swearing off Facebook. But it should be yet another sign that the dark arts of social media distribution that publishers have relied so heavily on are deeply broken.
Even if these tactics sustain them for another few years and there is no immediate exodus from Facebook, the next generation probably won’t take to the platform quite like millennials. According to Pew, the number of American adults aged 18 to 29 who use Facebook flat-lined in 2015. Teenagers are less and less interested in the platform, preferring to spend time on Instagram and Snapchat.
Publishers would do much better to reconsider what they stand for as a brand and why people engaged with them in the first place. Magazines and newspapers were once largely appointment-based experiences — people would actively go out of their way to read them in the same way they’d go out of their way to watch a television show they love. You’d sit down with your newspaper or your magazine when it arrived on your doorstep and enjoy having an experience with it, rather than happening upon a piece of clickbait in a social media feed.
Some media brands, such as the New York Times or the New Yorker, are still able to attract an audience in this way, even if readers are consuming content on their iPhones or iPads. But lifestyle brands have largely struggled to figure out how to create a similarly valuable experience for readers. Little Things, the women’s lifestyle site that launched in 2014, shut down earlier this year, unable to survive in the current Facebook climate. The websites of legacy brands won’t just shut down overnight, but if you look at the feeds of brands like InStyle.com, Glamour.com and UsMagazine.com, they’re practically indistinguishable from one another as they chase traffic with articles on the likes of Kim Kardashian and Kendall Jenner.
Social media’s current crisis shows us is that trust and loyalty are in short supply.
It’s easy to understand why: so many glossy women’s titles have historically relied on short articles in print that were mostly a series of sub-headers and blurbs that translate poorly to the internet. But now is the time to do away with convention. First, editors and media executives should stop thinking about these print stories, which so few people actually read in print anyway, in isolation. They must switch to a digital-first way of thinking and use their print budgets to report meatier feature articles that audiences will want to go out of their way to share with friends online.
Second, they have to reinvent visual storytelling. Twenty years ago, if you were a fashion lover, you’d buy Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar or a host of other magazines for their incredible photo spreads. Today, Vogue is one of the few fashion magazines that has even so much as attempted to reinvent photo editorials for the internet (see: its Ellie-nominated videos of the spring and fall 2018 collections, or its fascinating photo/video essay about how Olympic ski jumpers train).
And finally, a rigorous journalistic standard must be at the heart of everything these magazines do online. This doesn’t just mean creating higher quality content, but also treating a simple blog post about a piece of celebrity news with the same standards applied to features. The photo in the post should reflect a brand’s aesthetic, the writing should be sharp and error-free, and any material changes made to a post after publication should be disclosed to readers. Having this standard for every piece of content will foster reader trust and loyalty. And what social media’s current crisis shows us is that trust and loyalty are in short supply.