Social media giant Meta is threatening to give news outlets the boot from its platform if a journalism bargaining bill becomes law.
Congress may start a war of sorts if it passes a journalism antitrust bill tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act. The journalism bargaining bill, which is officially called the Journalism Competition Preservation Act, is designed to allow news outlets to collectively negotiate with dominant tech platforms for compensation to distribute their content.
I’m sure you can immediately see the reason for the conflict. The news outlets feel their content is giving social media platforms lots and lots of interactions. On Facebook, an interaction can be clicking one of the six reaction buttons. But it could also include users leaving a comment. Shares also count, so when a user shares a post to their own profile, that, too, is an interaction.
The news outlets believe all those interactions and clicks on the social media sites their content prompts are worth something.
The social media platforms are likewise giving news outlets referrals. A referral happens when you click on a link on social media that takes you to someone’s website. In this case, for example, if NBC News posts a story on Facebook with a link and you click it, NBC News gets that referral. That referral, then, translates into page views for the news outlet and boosts their analytics.
The social media outlets believe all those referrals are worth something as well.
They’re both right.
Meta, Facebook’s parent, is threatening to kick news outlets off its platform.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced the journalism bargaining bill. CNN Business reports that more than a dozen other lawmakers from both parties back the bill.
But Meta isn’t happy. Meta spokesman Andy Stone released a statement…on Twitter. Ironic. It read, in part:
If Congress passes an ill-considered journalism bill as part of national security legislation, we will be forced to consider removing news from our platform altogether rather than submit to government-mandated negotiations that unfairly disregard any value we provide to news outlets through increased traffic and subscriptions.
The act, he said, “fails to recognize a key fact:”
Publishers and broadcasters put their content on our platform themselves because it benefits their bottom line — not the other way around. No company should be forced to pay for content users don’t want to see and that’s not a meaningful source of revenue.
He calls the case of government requiring one private company to subsidize other private entities “a terrible precedent” for all U.S. businesses.
Though more closely aligned in the same business, it’s been that way for cable and satellite providers for years, with providers having to pay compensation to broadcasters for profiting from their signals. Those retransmission fees, however, are not without drawbacks. There are often price showdowns with both sides claiming the other isn’t being fair. When blackouts occur after negotiations break down, it’s the customers who get stuck in the middle. (At least, those customers who don’t have an over-the-air antenna or have no other way to watch get stuck in the middle.)
‘I get my news on Facebook.’
I can’t tell you how many times I hear that. Every time I hear it, I cringe a little. No, you don’t get your news from Facebook. You get a selection of stories Facebook’s algorithm thinks you’ll interact with from Facebook.
Those stories may or may not be local news. In fact, there’s an excellent chance that those stories are largely not local.
Let’s say you’re a publisher like a news outlet. You want to know what kinds of posts on your page most resonate with your viewers. One way to look at that — a way Facebook provides — is interactions.
Facebook has an internal product for publishers that allows them to see which posts from a variety of other publishers outrank others in terms of interactions. Beyond that, this tool ranks the number of interactions against the average number of interactions for a page.
If your average post, for example, gets about 100 interactions, but you have a post that suddenly becomes so popular that it pulls in 1,000 interactions, the tool will show that post as getting 10 times the average interactions for your page.
But a funny thing happens when I look at the most “viral” posts from the past 30 days.
The top post focuses on a video of an elephant at Syracuse zoo that recently gave birth to twins. The second is a “photo of the day” from a public radio station of a squirrel popping its head out of a pumpkin on someone’s front porch. The third shows a video of Niagra Falls mostly iced over.
Do they sound like “hard news” to you? Can you imagine any evening newscast leading a broadcast with those?
Actually, I can imagine the typically rude Facebook user posting a comment like, “Why is this news?” or “Who cares?”
Keep in mind: this is not what those news outlets are “promoting” as such. These are just a few of the posts they may offer over the course of a month. But they’re the posts that are getting the clicks.
Let’s look at a few numbers.
The stats I have from Wednesday morning show the elephant post amassed more than 200,000 “reactions,” all of which were either the “like” or “love” reaction. It received nearly 8,500 comments. More than 40,000 Facebook users shared the post.
Bloggers, when’s the last time you had a post with 8,500 comments or that many shares across any platform?
No matter which social media platform we favor, most of us would kill to get numbers like that.
The challenge for news outlets, of course, is to convert those video views — and there were more than 2.5 million of those — into people actually clicking through to their website.
Generally, when you post a video on Facebook, Facebook gets the revenue. You get the revenue when you convert that Facebook post into a referral and those visitors see the ads on your website.
There’s no way to know how many actual referrals any of those outlets received from posts that went so viral. But I’ll guarantee the number of referrals on their sites do not equal the number of interactions their posts received on Facebook.
They never do.
The potential is always there. But clicking that extra link is something most users who scroll through their feed won’t take the time to do.
Publishers hope that a few viral posts like these will make Facebook’s algorithm show more of their content more prominently. That’s where that potential to add revenue comes from. Even a fraction of referrals from a viral post can add up quickly.
Facebook, on the other hand, can tout to its interactions to its advertisers. That elephant post received more than a quarter-million interactions alone. When a post goes viral, Facebook benefits more directly than publishers. They have the direct numbers on their side. Publishers can only hope for a fraction of those numbers.
Both sides benefit.
A journalism bargaining bill is designed, in theory, to better level the playing field and allow publishers to get a more fair share of revenue from the content they produce.
But who decides what’s fair?
Publishers rarely get content for free. Even if we assume that the zoo handed over the elephant video, that same publisher is still spending money producing other content they did originate. It’s getting more and more expensive to produce content.
On the other hand, I’d hate to think how much Facebook must pay to maintain its site. They’re hosting all of that content. That’s not free, either.
Some publishers report getting as much as 50% of their page views from Facebook referrals. In my experience, that figure seems quite high. But even if a publisher is bringing in 20% of their page views from Facebook, that’s still 1 in 5. It would hurt publishers to lose those referrals.
But it would likewise hurt Facebook to lose the content that people are interacting with. If it were all blocked, would Facebook users still share other things as robustly? I’m not sure it would be wise for them to try to find out.