Earlier this year, Facebook announced its decision to downgrade news content in users’ newsfeeds and display more posts from friends and family. According to Facebook, the change allows its users to connect with each other more easily – a small step closer to Mark Zuckerberg’s goal of connecting the world. However, the change reversed a course that the social network had been on for years – providing users with a wide variety of news sources and directing traffic to news publishers. Notwithstanding Facebook’s justifications for the change, some commentators believe that Facebook simply concluded that news was more of a burden than a benefit for the social media company.
According to the Pew Research Center, approximately two-thirds of Americans got at least some of their news on social media in 2017, with minorities, seniors and the less-educated relying on social media to access news more than the average. These numbers increased substantially from 2016, representing Americans’ increased reliance on social media platforms and their role in deciding what information we see and when. Reduced visibility for high-quality news on Facebook arguably affects minorities, seniors and the less-educated more than anyone else, thereby increasing demographic disparities and the information gap.
It is then both surprising and heartening to notice that when Facebook’s site goes down, its users revert to news publishers’ websites.
This was evident the morning of August 3, when Facebook users all over the world were greeted with a blank page, and for 45 minutes Facebook was down, apparently due to technical reasons. During this downtime, U.S. news publishers witnessed a 2.3 percent spike in their overall website traffic, according to new data from Chartbeat – a content intelligence company that analyzed data from more than 4,000 publishers worldwide, including local publishers. Not only does the data show a moderate spike in overall web traffic, but also an 11 percent increase in direct traffic to publisher content (largely driven by a noticeable increase in app traffic) and an 8 percent increase in search traffic. Direct traffic is the number of people who access a website by typing the web address directly into their browser, while search traffic is the proportion of people reaching the website through a search engine.
These numbers arguably demonstrate the need for high-quality news even in the era of social media, and also reflect larger changes in the online news ecosystem. According to Chartbeat’s data, mobile traffic originating from Facebook has declined by nearly 40 percent since January 2017, while Google search and direct mobile traffic have witnessed considerable increases. Consequently, on mobile devices, social media is no longer the dominant way for visitors to reach news content.
For news publishers, the Chartbeat findings come as welcome news. While efforts to work with Facebook to increase news traffic are important and the treatment of high-quality news by social media companies remains a major issue, readers seem to crave real news, whether it is easily accessible on social media or not. On mobile devices, efforts to develop apps and readability seem to be bearing fruit, with the social media applications losing ground (or remaining stable) as the gateways to news content. Challenges remain, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Johannes Munter is Director, Copyright and International Policy, and Associate Counsel at the News Media Alliance.