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Silicon Valley ditches news, shaking an unstable industry

San Francisco: Campbell Brown, Facebook’s top news executive, said this month that she was leaving the company. Twitter, now known as X, removed headlines from the platform days later. The head of Instagram’s Threads app, an X competitor, reiterated that his social network would not amplify news.

Even Google — the strongest partner to news organizations over the past 10 years — has become less dependable, making publishers more wary of their reliance on the search giant. The company has laid off news employees in two recent team reorganizations, and some publishers say traffic from Google has tapered off.

If it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear now: The major online platforms are breaking up with news.

Some executives of the largest tech companies, like Adam Mosseri at Instagram, have said in no uncertain terms that hosting news on their sites can often be more trouble than it is worth because it generates polarized debates. Others, like Elon Musk, the owner of X, have expressed disdain for the mainstream press. Publishers seem resigned to the idea that traffic from the big tech companies will not return to what it once was.

Even in the long-fractious relationship between publishers and tech platforms, the latest rift stands out — and the consequences for the news industry are stark.

Many news companies have struggled to survive after the tech companies threw the industry’s business model into upheaval 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. Top news sites got about 11.5 per cent of their web traffic in the United States from social networks in September 2020, according to Similarweb, a data and analytics company. By September this year, it was down to 6.5 per cent.

“The disruption to an already difficult business model is real,” Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic, said in an interview. LaFrance noted that while social traffic had always gone through boom and bust times, the slide in the past 12 to 18 months had been more severe than most publishers expected.

“This is a post-social web,” she added.

A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and Threads, declined to comment. Musk and a spokesperson for Linda Yaccarino, X’s CEO, did not respond to a request for comment.

Jaffer Zaidi, Google’s vice president of global news partnerships, said in a statement that the company continued to put a priority on “sending valuable traffic to publishers and supporting a healthy, open web.”

It didn’t start out this way. During the rise of the consumer internet roughly 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 try to help fund and form partnerships to support news,” Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, said in an interview with the CEO of News Corp. several years ago when Zuckerberg was still trying to court publishers.

Both Facebook and Twitter toyed with initiatives to support news on their platforms. In 2019, for example, Facebook introduced Facebook News, a tab for readers to find news coverage from partner publications that it paid. Twitter also experimented with partnerships, teaming up with The Associated Press and Reuters in 2021 to address misinformation.

But these efforts were short-lived. Facebook News is no longer, and Brown, the executive who led the news efforts, has announced her departure. Since Musk bought Twitter nearly a year ago, he has introduced changes that de-emphasized traditional media on the site, including not showing headlines on articles in posts and removing the “verified” blue check mark from journalists and public figures who did not pay for it. Platforms like TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram generate negligible traffic numbers to media outlets.

The sharp decline in referral traffic from social media platforms over the past two years has hit all news publishers, including The New York Times.

The Wall Street Journal noticed a decline starting about 18 months ago, according to a recording of a September staff meeting obtained by the Times. “We are at the mercy of social algorithms and tech giants for much of our distribution,” Emma Tucker, the Journal’s editor-in-chief, told the newsroom in the meeting.

Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of Semafor and a former media columnist for the Times, said web traffic was no longer “the god metric in digital media.” He said intermediate platforms like SmartNews, Apple News and Flipboard were becoming more important to publishers, as readers looked for a combination of authoritative journalism and the option of multiple sources.

“People do like having lots of sources of information, but they don’t want to be nosing around a postapocalyptic wasteland to find them,” Smith said.

With Meta and X no longer dependable, publishers have grown more reliant on Google. For more than two decades, publishers big and small have packaged their content to rank highly in Google’s search results, a practice called search engine optimization. These deeply integrated efforts include creating secondary headlines meant to mimic likely Google user queries, filling articles with links to other sites and maintaining teams of people to drive traffic and stay abreast of search engine changes.

Google says it sends 24 billion clicks per month, or 9,000 per second, to news publishers’ websites through its search engine and associated news page.

While The Los Angeles Times is getting a slightly larger share of traffic from online searches (50 per cent to 60 per cent, up from 30 per cent to 40 per cent), it is not making up for the losses from social media, said Samantha Melbourneweaver, assistant managing editor for audience.

But even Google is shaky. Some publishers have seen declines in Google referral traffic in recent weeks, two people at different major media sites said. Although Google remains the most important referral traffic source to publishers by far, those people are concerned that the decline is a sign of things to come.

“It’s volatile,” Melbourneweaver said. “Google exists for Google’s needs, rather than for ours.”

Google cut some members of its news partnership team in September, and this week it laid off as many as 45 workers from its Google News team, the Alphabet Workers Union said. (The Information, a tech news website, reported the Google News layoffs earlier.)

“We’ve made some internal changes to streamline our organization,” Jenn Crider, a Google spokesperson, said in a statement.

The news partnership team was established to forge 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 that have pressed Google to share more revenue with news organizations.

Zaidi wrote in an internal memo reviewed by the Times that the team would be adopting more varied responsibilities. “We had to make some difficult decisions to better position our team for what lies ahead,” he wrote.

Google has been on an AI push 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 above traditional web results. News organizations have expressed concern that these AI systems, which can answer users’ questions without their clicking a link, could one day erode traffic to their sites.

Privately, a number of publishers have discussed what a post-Google traffic future may look like and how to better prepare if Google’s AI products become more popular and further bury links to news publications.

LaFrance said The Atlantic was pushing branded newsletters, its homepage and its print magazine. At the end of June, The Atlantic had more than 925,000 paid subscribers across its print and digital products, an increase of 10 per cent from a year earlier, the company said.

“Direct connections to your readership are obviously important,” LaFrance said. “We as humans and readers should not be going only to three all-powerful, attention-consuming megaplatforms to make us curious and informed.”

She added: “In a way, this decline of the social web — it’s extraordinarily liberating.”

(Published 26 October 2023, 04:00 IST)

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