Without paywalls, the media accepts serfdom in the kingdoms of Facebook and Google

 Facebook has packed up the media’s clothes, guitar and complete set of Bob Dylan albums and left it in the porch in the pouring rain. 

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When Facebook first tried to entice media organisations to publish “Instant Articles” directly on to its platform, rather than post links to their own sites, the late New York Times reporter David Carr had a stark warning. “Media companies would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns,” he wrote in October 2014.

Nonetheless, many publishers took the deal, telling themselves that they were going into this marriage with their eyes open. They would provide the content; Facebook would provide the eyeballs. They would get the huge traffic boosts available by being shoved into the newsfeeds of hundreds of millions of people (Facebook hit one billion users in August 2015, and two billion in June 2017) and the social network would give its users more reasons to stay in its walled garden, where it could hoover up valuable personal and browsing data. All this would be funded by advertisers, who would give both parties handsome amounts of cash.

If this was a marriage, it was one of those bad ones that ends in tabloid pictures of the wife in a big coat and red lipstick, trying to look demure outside the High Court. Newspapers very quickly realised that they had not only lost control of their distribution mechanism, but they were now competing with a sexier version of themselves. Their own websites relied on advertising revenue, but Facebook served fewer ads alongside their content (a better browsing experience) and had better data on its users. That mattered because advertising has always been about targeting a particular market: there’s no point trying to flog foie gras in the Guardian. But Facebook could slice up audiences with a precision that left the old media reeling. I remember posting about my engagement on Facebook and getting a solid six months of wedding dresses and weight loss supplements.

Journalists pride themselves on being hard-bitten cynics but the truth was that they had fallen in love. They were bowled over by their Facebook-boosted numbers – record uniques! page views raining from the sky! – and decided to kid themselves that this was a relationship that could last.

Things first went truly sour during the 2016 US presidential election, when blue-chip media organisations woke up to the fact they were competing with conspiracy theories and overt propaganda laundered through Facebook’s clean white and blue aesthetic to look just as classy as their own expensive journalism. This explains the sudden coolness that crept into the traditional media’s attitude to Facebook: call it the “sleeping in separate beds” phase.

Now, though, Facebook has packed up the media’s clothes, guitar and complete set of Bob Dylan albums and left it in the porch in the pouring rain. In December, it announced that it was changing its newsfeed to prioritise “meaningful interactions” between friends. Translated from passive-aggressive Californian, that means downgrading news content so that users see less of it.

As a result, publishers that bet heavily on Facebook have floundered. (The New Statesman, which never built Instant Articles for exactly the reason David Carr outlined, has seen its Facebook traffic fall by more than a third, while our overall traffic numbers continue to rise.) One “social news video start-up”, called Attn, recently called an emergency meeting to discuss declining page views. Others have folded. The broader trend is bloody. The digital-only publication BuzzFeed, which championed the idea of publishing across social platforms rather than relying on its own website, has laid off 45 of its 140 staff in the UK.

BuzzFeed also bet heavily on partnering with the social network on video content, but Facebook is now producing television shows in-house, and on 5 March it hired the head of BuzzFeed’s entertainment division to be its new head of content planning and strategy. That ought to be a reminder that the tech companies begrudge ceding ground just as much as media organisations have been happy to relinquish it. Google boasts about how much traffic it drives to newspaper sites. However, it has undercut an entire genre of article – “What time does the Superbowl start?”, “How old is Theresa May?”, “Who is Meryl Streep married to?” – by showing the answers at the top of its search results. Whether the big tech companies have good intentions towards the media or not is irrelevant (and probably impossible to divine). Their commercial objectives are simply different to those of the newspaper industry.

All of which suggests there are two paths open to media organisations. The first is to rely on advertising income and continually adjust your output to please the whims of Google’s algorithm and Facebook’s latest content strategy. (The two companies have something very close to a duopoly on internet advertising.) I’ve taken to calling this the “ten best spoons” approach to journalism. To make a profit, articles have to be written quickly and cheaply. Volume is king.

The second course is to reject serfdom and build up your own kingdom: attract readers directly to your website, and ask them to pay something, rather than fund your journalism largely through adverts that users can find intrusive and irritating.

It’s no surprise that Rupert Murdoch was an early advocate of the latter option. He smashed the print unions in the 1980s because he could not abide another organisation having such power over the creation and distribution of his papers. His early embrace of a paywall for the Times and Sunday Times now looks prescient. Foreign reporting and in-depth features can feel like endangered species, but the places that still do them well – the New York Times, Financial Times and Economist – all have paywalls. And so, from this month, will the New Statesman. No ten best spoons, no serfdom. Fingers crossed. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war