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Publishers see dramatic drop in Facebook referral traffic as the social platform signals exit from news business

<i>Fabian Sommer/dpa/Getty Images</i><br/>The logo of the Facebook app is seen on the screen of a smartphone.
Fabian Sommer/dpa/Getty Images
The logo of the Facebook app is seen on the screen of a smartphone.

By Oliver Darcy, CNN

(CNN) — Facebook is shunning the news business in the US.

The Meta-owned company has quietly made changes in recent months that have dramatically reduced referral traffic to media outlets, more than half a dozen publishers told me. The move has put considerable dents in the daily traffic publishers see, with the damage appearing to be more pronounced among those who publish more hard news-oriented content.

“If you’re a major publisher, you’ve gotten nicked,” an executive at a major media company, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly assess the situation, told me this week.

One publisher told me they’ve witnessed a more than 30% drop in year-over-year referral traffic. Another said they’ve seen a roughly 40% drop. But both of those publishers produce a healthy volume of lifestyle content. Those who publish more hard news-focused content have seen far steeper drop-offs.

“Facebook nuked everyone’s traffic,” a news-focused publisher told me, adding that the platform had since tweaked its all-mighty algorithm to provide a fix, but that the adjustment “hadn’t fixed” the problem much and that referral traffic was still far below what it was a year ago.

The issue is notable, given how much traffic the social media platform once sent to digital publishers. In the heyday of Facebook, news outlets were treated to a firehose of clicks, with articles regularly going viral on the platform. The amount of traffic, however, has waned considerably in recent years, taking a toll on outlets that built business models reliant on the company. The recent changes reduce the already lackluster levels of referral traffic even more.

A spokesperson for Meta declined to comment. But the changes publishers are seeing are in lockstep with the sentiment toward news that the company’s executives have publicly voiced. After years and years of trying to court publishers, it’s evident that Mark Zuckerberg and company are headed for the news business exit.

The exit comes as lawmakers around the world become far more serious about forcing Big Tech companies like Meta to pay publishers for the content posted to their platforms. In response, Facebook has threatened to pull news content altogether from countries that pass such legislation. When Canada passed such legislation this summer, Meta pulled news content from its platform in the country, a decision that has generated significant blowback.

Meta has long argued that publishers need Facebook more than Facebook needs publishers. “News is not a substantial part of Facebook globally,” the company said in a March post, adding that “less than 3% of what people see in their Facebook Feeds are posts with links to news articles.”

News is also messy for Meta, with mis-and-disinformation spawning all sorts of issues for the company to grapple with. The company’s calculation is that addressing such thorny issues — which have at times landed Zuckerberg and other executives before Congress as they’re accused of “censorship” — is simply not worth it. The juice isn’t worth the squeeze, in Meta’s eyes.

Adam Mosseri, the Meta executive who oversees Instagram, said as much when he declared this summer that the company’s new real-time text-based app, Threads, is “not going to do anything to encourage” news and politics on the platform.

“Politics and hard news are important, I don’t want to imply otherwise,” Mosseri wrote. “But my take is, from a platform’s perspective, any incremental engagement or revenue they might drive is not at all worth the scrutiny, negativity (let’s be honest), or integrity risks that come along with them.”

Publishers I spoke to also suspect that Meta is reluctant to send users offsite to their platforms given its desire to dominate the advertising market. In Canada, publishers have asked the country’s antitrust regulator to examine whether the company is hurting their “ability to compete effectively in … online advertising markets.”

And, of course, given Meta’s attempts to compete with TikTok, the company has had to make additional room on its platforms for short-form video content, pushing news further out of the picture.

Regardless of the reasoning, the company’s break up with news is yet another hurdle in an ugly landscape, rife with uncertainty and turmoil, that publishers are doing their best to navigate — some better than others.

“News publishers are going through three bubbles bursting at the same time,” said one of the publishers I spoke to. “One is no one cares about [Donald] Trump anymore; two, the pandemic is over; and now Facebook is gone.”

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