Referral Traffic From Facebook to News Sites in US Continues to Plummet

US publishers are continuing to see a drop in news links referral traffic on Facebook. This as the US contemplated experimenting with link taxes.

One of the core arguments by news companies is that platforms wholly depend on their news content to drive traffic and make their platforms viable. This obviously false assertion has fuelled further conspiracy theories perpetrated by the large media companies such as how the platforms are “stealing” their news articles (not true) and profiting off of it afterwards (also untrue thanks to the first part of that). This is what I referred to as Big Lie 1.0.

When platforms said that they’ll just just block news links rather than pay what amounts to the ransom payments, eventually media companies said that this amounts to censorship. As a result, platforms are blocking Canadian’s from accessing the news outright (not only false, but technically impossible for the platforms to do in the first place). This is what I referred to as Big Lie 2.0.

The contradictory nature of what the large media companies claim alone should really be enough to destroy the credibility of the large media companies. Of course, the major problem is that the media companies themselves write the stories a good portion of the time, so as a result, outright lies and defamation is simply undisputed truth and people actually speaking truth to power are just “Big Tech shills”, “Conservatives”, “loyal supporters of Pierre Poilievre”, “paid trolls”, or the ones perpetrating conspiracy theories (among other things). Ultimately, the media and its allies have no shame on this front.

Of course, the critical problem with all of this is that, although the media has the power to control large portions of the narrative, reality has a way of overruling your “deeply held beliefs”. As I’ve always said, reality catches up to these types sooner or later. In fact, that is precisely what is currently happening with Facebook rolling out their news links blocking. It wasn’t a bluff, yes Facebook can roll something like this out (minor, but expected hiccups aside), and yes, they have every motivation in the book to do so.

The truth in the matter is that news is hardly the driver of success for platforms that large media companies would like you to believe. Both Meta and Google have said as much. In fact, Meta has gone so far as to say that news is highly replaceable. These comments were backed up by mountains and mountains and mountains of evidence confirming this.

The statistics aren’t a one off as they point to a global trend that says that many in the online space are moving further and further away from news content in general. If you want to know what the real problem is here, look no further than this point. People are getting tired of the news in general. The quality has plunged for decades, consolidations only exacerbated this, and large news organizations are increasingly reduced to a springboard for political theories to be advanced rather than getting at the truth of different things and enlightening people about the world around them. Investigative journalism and highly researched subjects are an endangered species and disappearing fast (at least we put in the effort at least). Is it any wonder more and more people are moving away from the news entirely?

Recently, reports are surfacing suggesting that this trend of people moving away from news and, subsequently, the platforms. CNN is noting that referral traffic on platforms is continuing to plummet:

The Meta-owned company has quietly made changes in recent months that have dramatically reduced referral traffic to media outlets, more than half a dozen publishers told me. The move has put considerable dents in the daily traffic publishers see, with the damage appearing to be more pronounced among those who publish more hard news-oriented content.

“If you’re a major publisher, you’ve gotten nicked,” an executive at a major media company, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly assess the situation, told me this week.

One publisher told me they’ve witnessed a more than 30% drop in year-over-year referral traffic. Another said they’ve seen a roughly 40% drop. But both of those publishers produce a healthy volume of lifestyle content. Those who publish more hard news-focused content have seen far steeper drop-offs.

“Facebook nuked everyone’s traffic,” a news-focused publisher told me, adding that the platform had since tweaked its all-mighty algorithm to provide a fix, but that the adjustment “hadn’t fixed” the problem much and that referral traffic was still far below what it was a year ago.

The issue is notable, given how much traffic the social media platform once sent to digital publishers. In the heyday of Facebook, news outlets were treated to a firehose of clicks, with articles regularly going viral on the platform. The amount of traffic, however, has waned considerably in recent years, taking a toll on outlets that built business models reliant on the company. The recent changes reduce the already lackluster levels of referral traffic even more.

A spokesperson for Meta declined to comment. But the changes publishers are seeing are in lockstep with the sentiment toward news that the company’s executives have publicly voiced. After years and years of trying to court publishers, it’s evident that Mark Zuckerberg and company are headed for the news business exit.

Obviously, this is happening in the context of California’s own version of the link tax known as the CJPA (California Journalism Protection Act). The debate in that state is disturbingly familiar to the Canadian debate. At the same time, the legislation has been delayed to next year. This, no doubt, is allowing the events to unfold in Canada and potentially learning (or not) from the events. Already, many in the international community are asking about how they can avoid becoming the next Canada (short answer: don’t pass link tax laws).

At any rate, it was quite evident already that large media companies simply don’t have the bargaining chip they think they have. Platforms don’t depend on news links by any stretch of the imagination and news link content is dropping in importance quite quickly. Demanding huge stacks of cash for platforms to have the privilege of allowing the publishers to post the news links is only going to lead to one highly likely outcome: the platforms are going to drop news links altogether rather than be forced to pay the ransoms.

This is, of course, a very bitter pill to swallow. In the distant past, news publishers were basically the centre of attention. They also were the gatekeepers of knowledge. You wanted to tell an audience about something or wanted to learn about something going on, you rely on the traditional media to do that. This simply isn’t the case any more. You want to rent out an apartment, you use the internet. You want to buy something, you utilize a marketplace online. You want to announce a wedding or a funeral, you can probably use social media for that. None of that involves traditional media.

Rather than innovate and find new reasons for use traditional media companies, a lot of these media companies chose to sit on their laurels, fixated on the idea that, among other things, the internet is just a fad that will burn out on its own and everyone will just flock back to them once that internet fad has run its course. That hasn’t happened and all signs point to this being a continued trend for years, if not, decades to come. Instead, the large traditional media outlets chose to try and shake down two of the largest players in the internet space – and as Canada is proving, this isn’t a working strategy from the outset.

The large media companies are not the centre of attention they once were. Their insistence to cling to this belief is only proving to be damaging to them. The real question should be about how they can attract audiences in the modern era, not “get money from Big Tech”. The sooner this realization sets in, the sooner things can change for the better. Right now, things are moving in the opposite direction for these large media companies as was painfully evident in the recent reports. By the time the CJPA starts moving forward again, the consequences of this law will be even more obvious than just a year ago. The media companies will demand the platforms to “pay up” and the platforms will respond, “for what?” History is only going to, once again, repeat itself.

(Via @Mgeist)

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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