Recent changes to what appears in your Facebook newsfeed are having a major impact on small and independent media in Ireland.
For years, Facebook has offered a free way to build a readership: simply start a Facebook page and start posting articles. No muss, no fuss, no budget.
But recently Facebook has been putting the squeeze on publishers, reducing the number of people who see their posts for free (their posts’ “organic reach”).
At Dublin Inquirer, between the first and second halves of 2017, we saw a 42 percent decline in the organic reach of our Facebook posts. And other small publishers report similar drops.
“Between the second quarter of 2016 and the last quarter of 2017 there was a staggering 62 percent drop” in the organic reach of HeadStuff’s Facebook posts, HeadStuff’s Paddy O’Leary said by email.
The Dublin Event Guide (for Free Events) saw a decline in the organic reach of its posts of 80 to 90 percent, Joerg Steegmueller, who runs the guide, said by email.
At Rabble, “We had a reach of 80k in April  and comparatively speaking today, you’re talking something embarrassingly below 10K,” Rabble’s James Redmond said by email.
Publishers can pay to have more people see their posts, but for small and independent media, which are often run on miniature budgets, this may not be a realistic option.
(I contacted a couple of dozen small publishers, but few responded or wanted to talk about this issue. I didn’t contact any large publishers because I figure they’ll be fine – they’re big enough to take a hit.)
The recent changes in organic Facebook reach matter because of how important Facebook is as a way to reach readers.
The majority of people in Ireland have a Facebook account, and most of those use it daily, according to the Ipsos MRBI Social Networking Tracker data for August 2017.
And 52 percent of people in Ireland get their news from social media, according to a 2017 report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.
A reduction in the number of people who see a publisher’s article on Facebook can mean that fewer people visit the publisher’s site to read the article, resulting in less impact and less influence.
For publishers that are funded by online advertising, fewer website visitors can mean less revenue. And a reduction in Facebook reach can also reduce an organisation’s ability to crowdsource information or funds.
Having more Facebook reach in the past “definitely let us cast the net far wider than we would have been able to on our own, and allowed us to harvest stories and do surveys like the JobPath thing”, said Rabble‘s Redmond.
“It was also a quite positive tool for our rather haphazard physical distribution efforts [for their print edition], and we did pull off a Fund:it campaign and other things along the way,” he said.
Headed for “Facebook Zero”?
None of this should have been a surprise, says Ian Nunoo, head of digital at Javelin, an “independent advertising and communications group” based in Smithfield, Dublin.
“The reach of organic posts has been in a decline for some time now. If we look back to as early as 2012, there has been talk of a Facebook zero,” Nunoo said by email.
“In 2012, Facebook had reduced organic reach to around 16 percent, again in 2014, that dropped to around 6 percent, today we are operating at 1 or 2 percent organic reach rate in most cases,” he said.
But Facebook brought renewed attention to the issue last month, with its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, writing on 12 January that “You can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups […] you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media.”
I had a look through my newsfeed on Friday 2 February, to see how much actual news there was there, among the baby pictures, career updates and holiday snaps from friends and family.
I “like” 31 different publications, but scrolling for five minutes I saw only six news articles. Three of these had been shared by friends, and the other three were posts that large publishers had paid to boost so that I would see them.
No news had reached me “organically”. However, in addition to the three “sponsored” articles I saw, there were 12 adverts. (And several posts from from Captain Grammar Pants.)
I asked Dublin Inquirer managing editor Lois Kapila to run the same experiment.
She follows 25 publications, but, scrolling for five minutes through her newsfeed, she saw only five news articles: three shared by friends, and one from Dublin Inquirer, which probably appeared because she spends so much time liking her own articles. [Editor’s note: I do not!]
The makeup of my news feed may change again soon, it seems.
On 29 January, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be giving local news a boost. “Starting today, we’re going to show more stories from news sources in your local town or city […] We’re starting this first in the US, and our goal is to expand to more countries this year,” he wrote.
But that’s no help to small and independent media in Ireland now, today — and Zuckerberg’s sweeping announcements were a stark reminder that those who depend on Facebook do so at their peril, as that behemoth might at any time thoughtlessly crush them, like careless giant killing scores of teeny humans with a careless footstep, and not even noticing.
“It is a commercial decision for Facebook to change whatever they offer and they are not a charity,” says Steegmueller, of the Dublin Event Guide.
“So companies of all sizes can’t expect or demand that they will let us use their platform for free to promote our businesses, but understandably if something that we there is withdrawn we can get upset,” he says. “For companies, the business model has to include the cost for advertisement and the ‘free ride’ is gone or more and more disappearing.”
In seven days at the end of January last year, Facebook was the number-one referrer to Dublin Inquirer’s website: 48 percent of people who read articles on our site during that week had got to them from Facebook; 23 percent from Google; and 8 percent from Twitter.
In the equivalent seven days this year, the pattern had shifted dramatically, and Facebook had become far less important to us.
More people came to the Dublin Inquirer website directly, rather than being referred to it from elsewhere. Google was our number-one referrer, accounting for 28 percent of visitors; Facebook was number two, at just 24 percent; and Twitter was number three at 7 percent.
Importantly, amidst these major changes in where our website’s traffic was coming from in these particular two weeks, a year apart, our overall traffic was up a bit.
Despite Facebook curtailing our free online distribution, which once brought us half our traffic, we’re doing fine.
Dublin Inquirer’s income doesn’t really depend on how many people see our Facebook posts and visit our website — it comes primarily from our subscribers, who get our print edition or use our subscribers-only mobile app. (If you’re already a subscriber, thank you!)
We care about our digital wingspan because we want to reach more people, who hopefully will like what we do, and eventually subscribe. And we care about it because we want lots of people to read our articles so that those articles will have an impact.
We’re trying to adjust to the loss of referral traffic from Facebook by getting more people to sign up for our free weekly email newsletter. That way we have a way to reach them directly, without depending on any fickle social-media platform.
Other small publishers say they’ve also managed to weather the recent changes, and adjust to the new Facebook reality.
“I experimented a bit and was able to bring it back up to more or less previous reach levels, but only if my followers engaged in a MASSIVE way,” Steegmueller says. “So it is possible to bring it back to the original level, but it requires approximately ten times more engagement in my experience.”
Over at HeadStuff, O’Leary says, “We never relied totally on Facebook for traffic and have a multifaceted approach to attracting readers […] As such, we have still progressed in building upon our numbers on a quarterly basis. However, the change in algorithm has definitely made it tougher to do so.”
At Rabble, Redmond says, the team have “gone from one extreme to the other, with most of those involved in rabble experiencing a deep revulsion of the platform”. These days, they’re concentrating more on getting their print edition out more regularly, and “other personal projects”, he says.
“Stuff where you feel you can achieve something in peace without feeling like you are standing naked in a shop window with a crowd of people you don’t know shouting at you,” he says. “Looking at Facebook these days is a bit like walking into an afterparty when you’ve had a disco nap, sobered up and everyone else is still caning it. It’s not pretty.”
Although it hasn’t really hurt Dublin Inquirer in concrete terms, for me, watching our Facebook reach dive, and with it the number of likes, shares and comments we got on that platform, was depressing. I was used to instant feedback, real-time positive reinforcement, and then it all but disappeared.
For a while, I thought we were doing something wrong, but I soon realised that it wasn’t just us that Facebook was punishing. That took some of the sting out of it. I also try to remember that when I started working at daily newspapers in the US, we didn’t have any of this newfangled social-media stuff and we got by just fine.
O’Leary says the changes hurt morale at HeadStuff too. “Yeah, it is depressing at times to look at the numbers attached to certain posts that you know are fantastic. I have seen a few brilliantly written posts hit an organic reach of less than a 100 and not push on any further. With over 10,000 followers on Facebook, that is less than 1 percent. It is ridiculous,” he says.
“Morale does take a kicking, but I think it is making us think more creatively in terms of visibility both online and offline,” he says.
Many small publishers do not make any money, and so being read and shared and liked is their only reward.
“Because there is no money earned from [the Dublin Event Guide], my motivator is the support that I get from the users/readers/ subscribers and therefore to see that this message reaches 15,000 people is much more of a motivation than a lower number is,” Steegmueller said.
Fine for Some
While we were doubting ourselves, poring over our digital stats, and wondering whether the changes might be an existential threat for Dublin Inquirer, some more-established publishers apparently barely noticed a change.
“Facebook isn’t a massive part of our mix so we don’t track it as closely as all that,” Clare Champion Editor John Galvin told me by email when I asked him if they’d seen a fall in the organic reach of their Facebook posts.
“From what I can see, our Facebook/web numbers are holding their own. […] we’re reader/advertiser supported on the paper version and just use the website as an add-on,” he said.
Now, keep in mind that the Champion has been around for more than a century. They’ve an audience that knows them and reads them, whether or not they’re reminded daily on Facebook to come visit.
The Dublin Events Guide, Rabble, HeadStuff and Dublin Inquirer had also been around for years, and had built up audiences, before Facebook pulled the rug out from under us. So we have been able to adjust.
I keep thinking, though, how much harder it would have been to start Dublin Inquirer back in 2015 if we hadn’t had Facebook as a free way to introduce ourselves and our articles to a mass audience. We probably wouldn’t have made it.
Sure, there’s still Twitter. But when people are on Twitter, they mostly to read and react to tweets, and they’re much less likely to click through and read anything than people are when they are on Facebook.
So I think it has become significantly more difficult launch an indie media startup, which is too bad, and will probably mean less diversity in the media landscape.
But maybe not. Redmond suggests that Facebook was more of an easy shortcut than an essential tool.
“I think it has been detrimental to local alternative media-building exercises here, and practically deskilled a generation in how they go about getting those things up and running. Why publish a blog post that might take a few minutes longer than just entering a status update in seconds?” he says.
“The ease of Facebook just pushed all rational alternative-media common sense about building alternative platforms out the window,” he says. “So if people are feeling the brunt of its new algorithmic changes, then they really should have seen that shit coming.”