Last summer, the Gawker website received about 15 million visits in the month of June. Editors were perplexed when, the very next month, that number plummeted 25%, to 11 million. Soon, the cause of the drop came out: Facebook had changed its news feed algorithm, and posts from sites like Gawker were suddenly given a lower rank in users’ feeds. Facebook demonstrated that it could make or break websites with a simple tweak to its algorithm.
As Awl editor John Herrman wrote in January 2015, Facebook has slowly been claiming territory from publishers–the boldest move at the time being the introduction in late 2013 of its original, auto-rolling video player, which it then prioritized in the news feed (many Facebook users probably noticed that the tops of their feeds became dominated by videos). “What the shift to Facebook video means is that Facebook is more interested in hosting the things media companies make than just spreading them, that it views links to outside pages as a problem to be solved, and that it sees Facebook-hosted video as an example of the solution.”
Publishers, eyeing Facebook’s aggressive moves in hosting original video and its strategic changes to the news feed algorithm, have been expecting further aggression from the social network. On Monday evening, The New York Times revealed Facebook’s latest power grab: It is angling to host news sites’ content right inside Facebook. Facebook has been negotiating deals with news organizations, and its first internally hosted partners are expected to be The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and National Geographic, according to The New York Times.
Facebook’s goal is to keep users on its site, browsing forever. Mark Zuckerberg’s company makes most of its revenue from advertising and, because it owns so much data about its users, it is able to target those ads at exactly the people an advertiser wants to reach. By hosting news content, Facebook will be able to charge even more for advertising alongside the kind of popular, highly shareable stories that publications like The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and National Geographic are so good at creating.
So why would powerhouses like the Times and BuzzFeed sign up for this deal? Facebook is offering revenue sharing from its advertising, as The New York Times reports. The late Times columnist David Carr speculated in October 2014 about what such a relationship would mean for publishers: “That kind of wholesale transfer of content sends a cold, dark chill down the collective spine of publishers, both traditional and digital insurgents alike. If Facebook’s mobile app hosted publishers’ pages, the relationship with customers, most of the data about what they did and the reading experience would all belong to the platform. Media companies would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.”
Facebook has trained users to treat Facebook as a place to get news, and, because of its massive user base, it has trained publishers to treat Facebook as a kind of newsstand. With more than a billion active users, a robust ad network, and an ever-growing trove of personal data, Facebook has every reason to start hosting content, and now it seems to have enough leverage to get some of the biggest media companies to sign on.