What would happen if social networks locked out news brands?

What would happen if social networks locked out news brands?

It seems like the days of social networks taking a hands-off approach to content is ending. Twitter’s decision to ban all political advertising and Facebook’s new experiment with news curation are the latest examples of this changing tide.

Where news producers once had to worry about finding ways to reach social media users over the roar of other content, we now face the real possibility of being put into silos or shut out entirely.

Of course, there are legitimate concerns to acknowledge about an upcoming presidential election and attempts to use social media to coerce voters. There are also concerns about both politicians and major media companies who may be willing to twist the truth.

But the risk to local newsrooms, and those who earn their living by producing ethical news content, is also very great.

Facebook News Tab

Facebook’s News Tab

The company recently launched a new subsection on the app where Facebook’s own team of curators selects content from partners, some of whom are being paid for that feed of content. Presently the News Tab is only visible to some users as the company tests the product. (Full disclosure: I do work for a partner that is providing content for Facebook’s consideration.)

Link: More information

What if…?

So what would happen if Facebook moved all news into a dedicated, separated News Tab? What if Twitter put all news brand accounts into a part of the Moments tab?

I predict that changes like those would bring a crashing halt to publishers’ website traffic. Local newsrooms, in particular, have come to rely on a large percentage of visitors being referred by discovery on social media. Some companies consider that to be part of “audience development.”

Additionally, Facebook’s News Tab has only invited local newsrooms from the top-10 media markets in the country. If the tab becomes a success without inviting smaller newsrooms into the fold, it could put those organizations in jeopardy.

Facebook’s leaders have promised to consolidate the feeds from markets that currently have a local content feature, called Today In, but that hyperlocal content will suddenly be judged and positioned against EVERYTHING else in the curator’s universe.

We already see this problem with Apple News, where users get no local news organically and must seek out participating local sources to follow manually. National curators and app designers face a utilitarian problem of ranking a fire or crash, which may be of intense interest to a small group, against coverage of the impeachment inquiry, which affects the entire nation.

If the gatekeepers want to take a slice of the distribution game, I hope they can at least be convinced to create a condition of true parity for local and national content. I don’t believe that condition exists today.

Locked in?

Worse, perhaps, would be if some future iteration of the News Tab became the only place where brands were allowed to publish on Facebook. The company is already testing this by asking for some content to be provided exclusively for their curators’ consideration.

If news brands were locked into those designated areas, the benefit would be that the gatekeepers could control access and keep out the bad actors. The downside would be handing that control, which we don’t trust to the government, to a corporate entity.

There is no first amendment guarantee inside a forum provided by a corporation, but it certainly seems to me that total segmentation of news content would run counter to that core American principle.

If news content were totally separated, the Zuckerbergs of the world might call it a walled garden. I think news companies would be more likely to compare it to a ghetto.

Newsrooms would also become entirely reliant on organic sharing to get our content onto the social networks’ core feeds.

Outside the wall

We can look to Reddit as an example of what the rest of social media might look like if brands had limited access. Many subreddits ban content producers from using the page to share one’s own content, which means publishers no control over when a piece of content will land on Reddit or how it will be labeled.

When a Reddit user selects one of my links instead of a competitor, it can lead to a nice boost in traffic or conversation around a topic of coverage. It may even boost awareness of our work.

But it is entirely unpredictable and unpredictability is dangerous for any business.

Scary stuff

All told, there is quite a lot for news content producers to fear. I believe the latest experiments in how social media platforms can handle or separate our content could result in a widening of the gap between local and national news organizations.

These curated news platforms are being touted by their creators as a way to help bring important news to the people, but there is a thin veil between that claim and for-profit motivations.

I fear the examples and extrapolations above could work against local news organizations and contribute to further contraction of the newspaper and broadcast news industry.

I just hope that the CEOs who are overseeing these new distribution platforms are able to remember that all national news is local news somewhere.

What do you think would happen if newsrooms were locked out of social networks? Write to me and let’s discuss: