Facebook’s top news executive Campbell Brown left the company this month. Twitter, now known as X, removed the headlines from the platform a few days later. The head of Instagram’s Threads app, an X competitor, reiterated that his social network will not promote news.
Even Google – news organizations’ strongest partner over the past 10 years – has become less trustworthy, making publishers more wary of their reliance on the search giant. The company has laid off news staff in two recent team restructurings, and some publishers say traffic from Google has declined.
If it wasn’t obvious before, it is now: Major online platforms are breaking away from news.
Executives at some of the largest tech companies, such as Adam Mosseri at Instagram, have stated in no uncertain terms that hosting news on their sites can often be more trouble than it’s worth because of the polarized debate it generates. Others, such as X boss Elon Musk, have expressed disdain for the mainstream press. It seems that publishers are on board with the idea that traffic from big tech companies will never be the same.
Even in the long-fraught relationship between publishers and tech platforms, the latest rift has come to the fore – and the consequences for the news industry are dire.
Many news companies have struggled to survive after tech giants disrupted the industry’s business model more than a decade ago. One lifeline was the traffic – and, by extension, advertising – that came from sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Now that traffic is disappearing. The top news sites in the United States got about 11.5 percent of their web traffic from social networks in September 2020, according to data and analytics company SimilarWeb. By September this year it came down to 6.5 percent.
“The disruption to an already difficult business model is real,” Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic, said in an interview. Ms. LaFrance said that while social traffic has always gone through booms and busts, the decline over the past 12 to 18 months has been more severe than most publishers expected.
He added, “This is a post-social web.”
A spokeswoman for Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and Threads, declined to comment. Spokespeople for Elon Musk and X Chief Executive Linda Yaccarino did not respond to requests for comment.
Jafar Zaidi, Google’s vice president of global news partnerships, said in a statement that the company continued to prioritize “driving valuable traffic to publishers and supporting a healthy, open web.”
It didn’t start that way. During the rise of the consumer Internet about 20 years ago, companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter embraced journalism and articles from traditional media companies appeared on their platforms.
“Every internet platform has a responsibility to help raise funding and build partnerships to support news,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement. Interview With the chief executive of News Corp. several years ago when Mr. Zuckerberg was still trying to woo publishers.
Both Facebook and Twitter have taken initiatives to support news on their platforms. For example, in 2019, Facebook Pur: Facebook News is a tab for readers to find news coverage from paid partner publications. Twitter also experimented with partnerships, together Join the Associated Press and Reuters in 2021 to address misinformation.
But these efforts were short-lived. Facebook News is no more, and Ms. Brown, the executive who led news efforts, has announced her departure. Since Mr. Musk bought Twitter about a year ago, he has made changes that emphasize traditional media on the site, including no longer showing headlines on articles in posts and removing blue “verified” check marks from journalists and public figures. pay for it. Platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram generate negligible traffic numbers to media outlets.
The steep decline in referral traffic from social media platforms over the past two years has affected all news publishers, including The New York Times.
The Wall Street Journal had seen a decline nearly 18 months earlier, according to a recording of a September staff meeting obtained by The New York Times. “We are at the mercy of social algorithms and tech giants for much of our distribution,” Emma Tucker, editor-in-chief of The Journal, told Newsroom at the meeting.
Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Semaphore and former media columnist for The Times, said that web traffic is no longer “the divine metric in digital media”. He said intermediate platforms like SmartNews, Apple News and Flipboard are becoming more important to publishers, as readers look for a combination of authoritative journalism and alternatives to multiple sources.
“People like to have lots of sources of information, but they don’t want to have to go around a postapocalyptic wasteland to find them,” Mr. Smith said.
Meta and X are no longer reliable, with publishers becoming more dependent on Google. For more than two decades, publishers large and small have packaged their content to rank higher in Google’s search results, a practice called search engine optimization. These deeply integrated efforts include creating secondary headlines to mimic potential Google user queries, filling articles with links to other sites, and maintaining teams of people to increase traffic and stay abreast of search engine changes.
Google says it sends 24 billion clicks per monthor 9,000 per second, to news publishers’ websites through their search engines and related news pages.
While the Los Angeles Times is getting a slightly larger share of traffic from online searches (50 to 60 percent, up from 30 to 40 percent), it’s not compensating for the loss from social media, said assistant managing editor Samantha Melbourneweaver. For the audience.
But Google is also unstable. Two people at different major media sites said some publishers have seen a decline in Google referral traffic in recent weeks. Although Google remains by far the most important referral traffic source for publishers, those worried that the decline is a sign of things to come.
“It is untenable,” Ms Melbourneweaver said. “Google exists not for our needs, but for Google’s needs.”
The Alphabet Workers Union said Google laid off some members of its news partnerships team in September, and this week it laid off about 45 employees from its Google News team. (The Information, a technology news website, previously reported the Google News layoffs.)
“We’ve made some internal changes to streamline our organization,” Google spokeswoman Jen Crider said in a statement.
The News Partnerships team was established to create agreements with publishers and partnerships, and over time it introduced programs to train newsrooms, support the development of news products, and respond to governments around the world who It has put pressure on Google to share more revenue with news organizations.
Mr. Zaidi wrote in an internal memo reviewed by The New York Times that the team would adopt more artificial intelligence. “We’ve had to make some difficult decisions to best position our team for what lies ahead,” he wrote.
Google has been pushing AI all year, releasing an AI chatbot called Bard in March and offering some users in May a version of its search engine that can generate explanations, poetry and prose on top of traditional web results. News organizations have expressed concern that these AI systems, which can answer users’ questions without having to click on links, could one day reduce traffic to their sites.
Privately, many publishers have discussed what the future of traffic might look like after Google, and if Google’s AI products become more popular and further erode links from news publications, so much the better. How to prepare.
Ms. LaFrance said The Atlantic is growing branded newsletters, its home page and its print magazine. At the end of June, The Atlantic had more than 925,000 paid subscribers across its print and digital products, a 10 percent increase from a year earlier, the company said.
“Engaging directly with your readers is obviously important,” Ms. LaFrance said. “We shouldn’t just turn to three powerful, attention-grabbing megaplatforms to make us curious and informed as humans and as readers.”
He added: “In a way, this fallacy of the social web – it’s exceptionally liberating.”