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News publishers complain about falling Facebook traffic

The dip comes as lawmakers push various efforts that would allow news publishers to charge big tech companies.

The dip comes as lawmakers push various efforts that would allow news publishers to charge big tech companies.

A button for the Facebook app on a smartphone.
A button for the Facebook app on a smartphone. (Stock photo courtesy Pexels, Graphic by The Desk)

For months, some of the biggest publishers of news have rallied behind various federal and state initiatives that would allow them to negotiate fees with big tech companies like Facebook and Google for access to their content.

Now, publishers might be getting a taste of what lies ahead if those efforts actually become law.

On Sunday, the tech publication Gizmodo said news publishers have experienced a significant drop in traffic from Facebook after the social media platform apparently changed their algorithm in May. The changes have resulted in a 50 percent decrease in traffic to news stories, according to data from around 2,000 news publishers that was collected and evaluated by Echobox, a social media management firm.

Facebook has not commented publicly about the changes, but news publishers affected by the issue have affirmed their reliance on the platform to bring visitors to their websites, and say the dip in traffic is impacting revenue.

“Our audience is disproportionately on Facebook; it makes up about 25 percent of our traffick” Robert Chappell, the executive editor at the non-profit newsroom Madison 365, told Gizmodo. “You never know what’s going to change; it makes it hard to plan for the future.”

No one forces news outlets to post their content to Facebook, but many do as part of their social media efforts because they want exposure to Facebook’s hundreds of millions of users. In most communities, Facebook serves as the digital equivalent of a town square, where information — and misinformation — can spread among hundreds of thousands of residents in just a few seconds.

News publishers have leverage Facebook’s user base to their own benefit, mostly by capitalizing on traffic sent to their stories, which they commoditize to advertisers. For about a year, a weakened advertising market has encouraged some publishers to get behind an idea that would require Facebook and other tech companies to engage in good-faith negotiations with news outlets that would see those tech platforms pay to aggregate news content.

Facebook has resisted efforts to pay for news. Similar legislative pushes in Australia and Canada resulted in the social platform pulling news content for users there.

A similar push, called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), stalled in Congress last year (then, Facebook warned it would pull news if the JCPA passed). It was reintroduced in March as lawmakers assert news publishers should have the right to seek recompense from big tech companies who capitalize on their content.

Opponents of the JCPA say it would allow news publishers to band together as a “legally-sanctioned cartel,” and will almost certainly do more harm than good for smaller publishers whose business foundations rely on big tech platforms.

“Once journalists can demand payment for merely linking to their content, there is little to stop future laws from expanding this privilege to other content creators,” Josh Withrow, a fellow with the think tank R Street Institute, wrote in a commentary piece published last week. “An Internet where content owners can insist on payment for merely linking to their work is a fundamentally different medium — one in which the flow of information is far less free and accessible.”

Keith Parnell, a marketing expert, said news of Facebook’s algorithm changes and the connected drop in traffic is proof that publishers should “not rely on social communities for our traffic.”

“Work hard, think SEO,” he said.