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How the News Industry’s Bet on Social Media Blew Up In Its Face

For a while, times were good

The news industry changed hugely in the 2000s. What happened? People started using social media.

In 2004, Facebook had 1 million monthly users. Today, about 3 billion people check Facebook each month.

As more and more people started logging on, a wave of media companies saw an opportunity to peel readers away from legacy news giants – The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post – who were still living in the print era, for the most part.

These new media upstarts – companies like Buzzfeed, UpWorthy, Mic, and Mashable – understood social media audiences a heck of a lot better than the old guard.

They were leaner and faster. The content creators for these sites abandoned (or more likely never learned) the stodgy tone that dominated print journalism and “serious” news.

The Buzzfeeds of the world were more fun, but they also thought seriously about the differences in how people consumed content in print versus how they read something on a computer or phone. These outlets prioritized coverage of what readers cared about over a journalistic ideal of what constituted “important” news.

The result? A firehose of traffic that, in some cases, let them challenge the big dogs for audience share.

Success led to copycats. It seemed every week another viral news site was popping up. An arms race for audience attention began as headlines got more clickbaity and content more outrageous.

Savvy content gurus had the art of getting clicks down to a near science and a formula emerged: Combining emotion (or outrage) with a curiosity gap could practically guarantee a click.

It was only a matter of time before legacy media brands began aping the tactics of the new wave. The rise of programmatic advertising meant more eyeballs on your site directly translated into more money. And the more content you could pump out, the more traffic you could generate.

The result was a flood of sensational clickbait to our newsfeeds.

For a while, times were good. Some sites achieved “unicorn” status, earning $1 billion+ valuations. They’d seemingly cracked the code of how to make media work as a business.

The notion that social media could “save” the news industry was taken seriously.

Then it all came crashing down.

Facebook, far and away the biggest driver of traffic to publishers, gradually tweaked its algorithm to govern the reach of publishers, many of whom relied on the social media platform for traffic and revenue. Eventually, what had been a waterfall of traffic slowed to a trickle.

Facebook’s pivot away from news came down to basic economics. Specifically, the law of supply and demand.

The amount of content being posted increased rapidly, but there was only so much space on people’s newsfeeds. As Facebook ramped up its ads program, it left even less space on the newsfeed.

Audiences went from being overloaded with readable videos and sensational news meant to drive clicks to ads for Casper mattresses and AllBirds shoes. A slew of new direct-to-consumer brands had figured out they could pay Facebook to reach digital buyers super efficiently.

As of 2022, Facebook’s ad network commanded about 20% of all global digital advertising spend. Deprioritizing publisher’s links thus became a no-brainer from a business perspective.

Fast forward to today and you’ll find most of the media companies built on social media traffic are facing bankruptcy, out of business, or otherwise greatly diminished.

During this era, the news media industry chased metrics instead of sticking to core principles. They increased dependency on other businesses for revenue while diminishing their offering to audiences.

It was a sugar high that changed the media landscape for good by creating incentives that, quite frankly, resulted in a pretty shitty experience for audiences.

But there is a silver lining.

It’s now clear that building a news product on sensationalism, outrage and cheap-shot content, just doesn’t work in the long run. Treating news as cage-match-style entertainment will only take you so far.

News consumers want something better. They want something smarter. They want information so they can make up their minds on their own.