Facebook to publishers: We are not here to save you

The social network says it is not the solution to the media industry's woes

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Campbell Brown
Campbell Brown Credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Peabody

When Facebook's Campbell Brown addressed an auditorium full of magazine executives in New York Tuesday, she did not mince words: The social network is not here to save their businesses.

Facebook's head of global news partnerships was addressing an audience of print media professionals at the American Magazine Media Conference, many of whom are struggling to thrive in an era when Facebook and Google, and increasingly Amazon, have taken the lion's share of digital advertising dollars. Just last week, Facebook reported $16.6 billion in ad sales in the fourth quarter of 2018 even as the media industry -- much of which relies on the social network for traffic -- has suffered thousands of job cuts this month.

"Facebook cannot be the entire solution to your problems," Brown said. "By its very nature, Facebook is constantly changing and not dependable."

Brown was talking with Glamour editor-in-chief Samantha Barry at a conference for the American Society of Magazine Editors in New York.

It was a sobering and frank message for an industry looking for answers. Facebook has endured criticism from media companies for encouraging them to invest resources into its distribution platform. Facebook has persuaded publishers to push into live video, fast-loading Instant Articles, longer Watch videos and other offerings, for example, but none have reaped significant returns.

Brown acknowledged that Facebook shares responsibility for not communicating perfectly in the past, and for giving publishers the impression that if they just plunge into the new products, they will see bigger audiences and ad potential.

Publishers have been frustrated because Facebook has repeatedly tweaked its News Feed algorithm, which determines what posts get seen the most. The effect is to diminish the number of people a publisher might reach month to month.

That's why Brown said she and her team are approaching the industry differently. "A lasting business model is not a big tech company writing a check whenever it feels like it," Brown said.

Brown did point to features meant to help publishers, such as subscription tools designed to get more readers to pay for content. Brown said Facebook will also develop better metrics to help news organizations gain more insights into their audiences.

Facebook has also committed $300 million over the next three years to support local journalism and other media projects. Brown also mentioned the checks Facebook pays to major media companies to create shows for Watch, the YouTube video competitor, which has supported programs from McClatchy, CNN, Fox News, Business Insider, ABC News, ATTN and others.

One of Facebook's biggest changes in the past year, which threw many publishers for a loop, was downgrading the reach of popular videos. Some publishers had built their businesses on these short-form videos that could generate millions of views apiece but were of little substance.

"We don't reward those things anymore." Brown said.

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