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As Meta tightens the traffic tap, where will news publications turn for audiences?

A man holding a megaphone stands on top of a toppled question mark that includes a ball of newspaper shreds.

Illustration by Nick DeSantis / Getty / The Current

Meta announced last week that it will deprecate the Facebook News tab next month in the U.S. and Australia, after it did the same in the U.K., France, and Germany last year. The News tab is a dedicated section on Facebook that spotlights news. Publishers will still be able to post articles on their own pages.

The company said the News tab makes up “less than 3% of what people around the world see in their Facebook feed.” But for news publishers, the impact is likely to be much more profound.

While most Facebook users may not get their news straight from the News tab, the reality is that many social media users, especially those under 50, are getting their news while browsing social platforms, Facebook included. This makes social media referrals particularly important to their bottom line.

"The decline in Facebook referrals in particular, which in our data declined by about half last year, really hit publishers that depend for their traffic on third party distribution," Nic Newman, senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, told The Current last month.

As some publishers start reconsidering ads as a key revenue component, this begs the question: where will the traffic come from to justify advertiser investment in news media?

BuzzFeed, which rose to prominence while riding the social algorithms that favored clickbait headlines, announced last month it would conduct layoffs and sell off streetwear site Complex. That it chose to retain First We Feast, maker of viral video series Hot Ones, could be an indication of the perhaps irreversible decline of news media in its current format.

Research from the Reuters Institute and University of Oxford shows that TikTok has quickly become a key platform for younger audiences to access news, with video in general becoming the most popular way to consume news in many developing countries. While written news remains the most popular format, the rise of video and audio points to news access and consumption becoming more fragmented.

“Frankly, there is no one silver bullet platform,” says Abi Watson, senior media analyst at Enders Analysis. “There has been a huge proliferation of platforms and changes where people spend their time online.”

A promising starting point is that based on a Pew Research study, 25% of U.S. adults surveyed prefer news websites or apps for getting news, compared to 12% who prefer social media. A U.K. study last year also showed that 47% of respondents preferred getting their news from news sites.

That indicates there is appetite within the general population for a “proper” news experience, although the Pew study also shows that 30% of U.S. adults ages18 to 29 prefer getting their news from social media.

Meanwhile, search is becoming an increasingly important source of traffic for news publishers, according to a Press Gazette analysis of Chartbeat data, which analyzed data for 546 U.K. and U.S. news sites. But while search referrals increased modestly from 33% to 35% between 2018 and 2023, “external” referrals, which Chartbeat defines as pickups from sites across the internet, rose 50% during that same period, from 10% to 15% of all referrals. Social referrals declined from 32% to 28%.

The data underscores the increasing prominence of Google in news publishers’ playbooks, especially when considering that Google News generated almost twice the amount of page views for news sites — up 240% since 2018 — as the next closest competitor, Newsbreak. But as with Facebook, a more centralized source of traffic could pose issues.

“Google’s monopoly over search is an obvious risk,” says Watson, while “longer-term risk of an AI-enabled search engine that cuts publishers out entirely is an existential risk.” Google has reportedly begun paying some smaller publishers to test an AI tool that lets them scrape other news sites’ content and aggregate it into a new article, a practice that a news industry executive called “potentially troubling.”

The proportion of people turning to X, formerly Twitter, for news has remained stable since 2014 based on the Reuters/Oxford data. But recent issues on the platform, from fake news to AI-created deepfakes, may have contributed to a drop in user numbers from November 2022.

One social platform that’s emerging as an opportunity for news publishers is LinkedIn. The company's Editor-in-Chief and Vice President Dan Roth told Axios it is investing more in journalism and news, with a focus on business content that is helpful to its professional users.

“The benefit of LinkedIn is that it has some aligned incentives with publishers. LinkedIn wants to become the centre of people’s online professional life, rather than a platform they visit during a job search,” says Watson.

As access to news media fragments, audience expectations of being reached across all platforms will likely turn into an unsustainably expensive endeavor for all but the biggest news organizations, potentially forcing most to focus on the platforms that align with their goals.

The Reuters/Oxford research shows that, for example, X users are more likely to pay attention to “hard” news like politics and business, whereas TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook users are slightly more likely to prefer fun posts or satire that relate to news.

That doesn’t solve the monetization issues of those platforms. Still, niching down could help publishers build stronger brands and in turn increase direct traffic.

“Consider more narrowly curated but distinctive quality content that draws audiences back,” says John Peters, media and entertainment industry lead at Accenture, adding that publishers should look to nurture and merchandise their data products to entice advertisers and deliver user personalization.

The increased participation that channels like WhatsApp are fostering could also help publishers build relationships with readers and turn that into a source of direct traffic in the long term, says Watson.

By diversifying, news publishers may just be able to wrangle some control back over their traffic sources. These changes could be a good thing after some publishers showed an overreliance on Facebook, says Watson. “Publishers will have to try a mosaic of platforms and see which ones work for the specific audience that they are looking to cultivate.”