Dubai: Journalists are being made redundant everyday, everywhere. An avalanche of layoffs have become part of the monthly rhythm in news organisations. Its members have only the foggiest idea about what hit them. There’s a flip side to this story: the media are seeing a growing audience, almost everywhere. 2020 was the bumper year for news.
There’s a whole world of evidence for this, as shown from data analytics tools. People on a massive scale seek out out credible, fact-checked information, especially about the coronavirus. In general, community media are witnessing the biggest online traffic spike. Despite the rising relevance of news, a lion’s share of ad money goes to Facebook and Google. Here’s the long and short of why these the two media giants must pay for news:
Q: How do Facebook and Google make money?
By keeping you hooked to them. Facebook is one of the most popular social media platforms on the planet. Google is the most popular search engine and news aggregator. They make money via advertising. On this, there’s a well known metric in digital ad industry: revenue per 1,000 page views (aka RPM). That means when you view a page 1,000 times, you’re bound to click on at least one, or several, ads. They charge for it: not you, but advertisers.
Q: But where do the ads go?
To follow the money, you must follow the news. And the news today are on Facebook and Google. These two social media giants together form what is generally called “Big Tech” with a combined market capitalisation of nearly $3 trillion. If they’re a country, they’re much bigger than Russia, which has a GDP of $1.7 trillion or Australia, with a $1.4 trillion GDP in 2019.
• In 2019, their total revenue was $161.857 billion, up from $136.82 billion in 2018.
• Their gross that year stood at a massive $89.96 billion, higher than the GDP of several African countries.
Q: What do Google and Facebook have to do with news?
News is a big part of both. Especially news with credibility, from legitimate news organisations. News have become a key part of their offering to billions of users.
Q: What’s the problem with news on Google and Facebook?
Nothing, on the face of it, except that we all consume news. Where there’s consumption, there’s money. In reality, there’s a whole lot of trouble that news organisations go through to put content together, while Google and Facebook have increasingly ringfenced a lion's share of the ad revenues.
Q: How did ‘Big Tech’ become so rich?
Again, follow the news. People are consuming news and information — now more than ever. And they’re available on Facebook and Google, now more than ever. News are not created by the two giants themselves; instead they’re kicked up in search results on Google, or part of the “News Feed” on Facebook.
• Net income jumped 58% last year to $29.14 billion.
• Out of Facebook's $86 billion revenue last year, almost 98% ($84.2 billion) came from digital advertising.
Q: How does it work?
Here’s an exercise. Search Google using simple search words such as “Ramadan”, “UAE”, “India vaccine”, “Philippines”. We’ve done it for you.
Q: What part of the content kicked up by search results were created by Google?
Answer: Zero. Except the ads.
Q: What part of the results were generated by the news media?
Q: When did news become part of Facebook?
There was News Feed when Facebook started in 2004. Users just go from profile to profile to check up on friends.
■ In 2006, Facebook launched News Feed. This was providential: It retrained users to just go to the Facebook home page, from where everything would simply land on your lap. After news, brands soon followed, scampering to build an audience through Facebook’s content stream.
Then as Facebook users shifted from desktops to Android and iOS, it won the mobile sweepstakes. Mobile phones with tiny screens, low-quality app, poor connections, slow-loading sites, were clunky but people seized upon Facebook’s single app which had content from everywhere. The result: people kept scrolling, instead of bouncing around from page to page. This is addictive.
■ In 2011, when Twitter became more popular, Facebook launched a counter-attack, with its Subscribe feature, in which news links gained more visibility in the feed.
■ In 2014, “Facebook the big news machine” was in full swing with Trending. Hashtags and news outlets poured resources into growing their Pages. With algorithm-driven News Feed, it oriented users into waiting for the big world-changing headlines to come to them — rather than jumping from the home pages of various publishers. Ads follow where eyeballs go, thereby prompting advertisers to move their ad spend from the publisher sites to Facebook.
■ In 2015, Facebook realised users hated waiting for slow mobile websites to load, so it launched Instant Articles.
Q: What’s the problem with us being addicted to Google and Facebook?
Addicts don’t usually know it or acknowledge the condition. Facebook and Google now have the power to decide what types of content, what topics, and what sources are important. Though Facebook touts itself as “neutral" tech platform, what it serves up to you in News Feed in effect gives it editorial judgement — thus playing the role of media company. That editorial or value judgement is driven not by a human being, but by an algorithm. It is this addiction, driven by profit motive (what is the post popular news or post) that keeps the feed alive. Would you like a single cyborg editor, whose only guide is algorithmic motive of pumping up ad revenuews, determine your news consumption? It’s a dire situation, but that, in effect is what’s happening. And we pretend not to know or are unaffected. Ah but such pontifications don't mean anything if they don't translate into dollars.
Q: Outside Google and Facebook, what are the other major sources of traffic for publishers?
Publishers have few major sources of traffic outside of Facebook and Google Search.
Q: What’s the way out for people who want a more direct relationship with news?
They should go to the publisher's site, like gulfnews.com, or get on Feedly or RSS reader — or add a few favourite sites to their browser’s bookmark bar. But that’s clunky, only techies could do.
Q: What’s Facebook’s overall plan?
To create value for users, which is great. To do that, Facebook has endeavoured and managed to centralise attention typically spread across the web. It’s trying to do the same with Watch (YouTube), Marketplace (Craigslist and eBay/Amazon) and many other features. It’s a smart plan. But here’s the problem: the demonetisation and eventual defunding of some news publishers means content creators do all the work, and Facebook (and Google) get all the money.
Q: What are Instant Articles (IA)? Why is it a ruse?
Instant Articles is touted as Facebook’s publisher-friendly news platform launched in May 2015. By design, it scraped off heavy code from news websites that makes loading sluggish. Facebook extolled the initiative as a “commitment” to helping publishers “monetise” journalism via its platform. Facebook spent inordinate amount of PR to court publishers. So far so good. By 2017, top publishers went all out with Instant Articles.
Q: How does Instant Article work?
IA is touted as tool for collaborating with news and content publishers. Publishers can choose which articles they post. Initially, most of the publishers willingly offered up their most cherished content on IA, in the hope of taking a piece of the action.
To become part of the Instant Articles ecosystem, publishers must allocate resources (people, salaries, time) to host their articles on Facebook’s servers. The posts then became “native” to Facebook. With the now-native content, loading is promised to happen at lightning-speed, especially on mobile phones, via Facebook’s app. The publishers were promised rewards — wider reach, more eyeballs and revenue— as mobile content now loads at super-fast speeds. Many of the largest reputable outlets fell out of IA completely.
Q: What does Facebook say about Instant Articles?
An undated blog on “Facebook for Media” section states: “As always, our goal with ads in Instant Articles is to maintain the best reading experience for people, while driving revenue for publishers and performance for advertisers.”
Q: Better and faster news?
The Facebook blog states: “We know that Instant Articles provide a better, faster reading experience for people on Facebook, which we've seen drive a significant boost of traffic for publishers. In aggregate, Instant Articles delivers between 20 - 50% more traffic, compared to mobile web content.”
“On top of this boost in traffic, we are investing heavily in new features to help publishers build deeper relationships with their audience through call-to-action units and increase ads monetisation, with recent enhancements like adding flexibility in ad placements and enabling new types of Facebook ads. Those efforts are paying off.
Q: How much does Facebook pay content providers via IA?
Facebook’s undated blog states: “Instant Articles now pays out more than $1 million per day to publishers via Facebook Audience Network. In the last 6 months alone, RPM, or revenue per 1,000 page views, that publishers see from Facebook Audience Network in Instant Articles has increased by over 50%.”
Q: How many publishers are on Instant Articles platform?
Facebook states: “We now have over 10,000 publishers around the world using Instant Articles, growing over 25% in the last six months alone. More than a third of all clicks to articles on Facebook are now to Instant Articles.”
“More than a third of all clicks to articles on Facebook are now to Instant Articles.”
“While we continue monitoring the impact of ad units in the recirculation section, there are other features publishers should leverage to generate as much value as possible from Instant Articles.”
What really happened with IA?
There was so much excitement when IA was launched: It allows publishers to inject ads with Instant Articles. When IA was launched in 2015, 72 publishers joined as “original partners” in the US, according to a Columbia Journalism Review report. It took some time before news organisations started to comprehend a slow-release shock. Then came the realisation: It was a ruse, a way to cement Facebook’s privileged standing now as the to-go platform for news and information, and everything in between.
Through IA, the social media giant roped in top publishers to its algorithmic-driven ecosystem. Facebook benefited from free, decent content people loved and helped the platform grab even more eyeballs — and ad revenues — away from the content publishers. The CJR reported that by January 17, 2018, 38 publications completely stopped posting on Instant Articles — even as Facebook has continued to tout it as a “success” among its journalism efforts.
How much money did publishers get from IA?
An undated Facebook blog entitled “Expanding Monetisation Opportunities on Instant Articles, states: “Instant Articles now pays out more than $1 million per day to publishers via Facebook Audience Network.” It added: “In the last 6 months alone, RPM, or revenue per 1,000 page views, that publishers see from Facebook Audience Network in Instant Articles has increased by over 50%”.
What is AMP?
It stands for Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). It’s dubbed as the "next big thing in SEO” (search-engine optimisation). It’s a bit like Facebook’s Instant Articles. AMP is designed to help web publishers create content optimised for mobile phones. It loads instantly on all devices, according to Google. It is aimed to “make content like video, animations and graphics work alongside smart ads, and to load instantaneously," Google wrote in a blog post. "We also want the same code to work across multiple platforms and devices so that content can appear everywhere in an instant — no matter what type of phone, tablet or mobile device you're using.”
What is AMP’s role in news?
It's everything. AMP is focused on news stories from online publishers. This is an important details. News is the primary content Google search users currently see as AMP pages in mobile search results. However, AMP is also relevant for other types of businesses, such as ecommerce organizations, for which the AMP results carousel and other components are well-suited.
Can this — media starvation — go on forever?
No. The media profession serves an important purpose in society. The world needs fact-checked information. Reporters, editors, photographers/videographers, visual work endless hours to produce content that cohere. They're at the bottom of this information generation and consumption chain. Their work is valued by society, that it's that value, used freely by the tech giants, that gets us hooked to their platforms.
If media professionals are left emaciated (no more long forms like this piece you’re reading now), then you make your own news, or just live with fake news. Then we’re back to the Tower of Babel moment, where confusion abounds. Authorities in some jurisdictions have started taking notice. They say "enough is enough", and are actually doing something about it.
In the face of the overwhelming power of Facebook and Google, what are other countries doing about it?
■ Australia: Canberra has introduced a new law forcing the tech giants to pay for news.
■ European Union: Brussels has introduced legislation forcing the tech giants to pay for news.
■ Brazil: Google has agreed to pay some publishers for content.
■ Germany: Google has agreed to pay some publishers for content.
■ US: The Federal Trade Commission, joined by nearly all of US states, has sued Facebook in December 2020 an anti-trust case, alleging that the company has engaged in monopolistic practices.
Also in December 2020, dozens of US states also filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Google, alleging abuse of monopoly power, gouging out both advertisers and consumers.
Are the giants paying up?
Yes. At least in Australia, Europe and Brazil.
How much are we talking about?
Millions of dollars. On February 28, 2021, Facebook signed a deal with 3 Australian news publishers, a day after Canberra passed a law that would make the digital giants pay for news. It was not immediately clear how much the deal was worth. Google had earlier set up $82m fund for French publishers.
In June 2017, the European Union slapped Google with a €2.4 billion ($2.8 billion; Dh10.35 billion) fine over unfair competition. An EU reform approved in 2018 mandates payment by internet aggregators like Google News to pay new content providers for displaying snippets of their article online.
Are other countries set to introduce laws that would make both platforms pay for news?
Yes. Indian newspapers have asked Google to pay publishers 85% of ad revenues.
Is this a domino effect that would clip the tech giants’ power?
It’s too early to say. Let’s just say the tip-of-the-iceberg redundancies among media professionals look grossly unfair, considering the billions of dollars the giants generate off content the emaciated media people work so hard each day to produce.