“It makes my blood run cold, the idea of Facebook as a publisher,” confessed Thompson, NYT’s media executive in the long-gone 2018.
Today, Facebook is still a social media platform, but is also considered the first news source for a third of Americans.
A last-year study from the Pew Research Center found that 36% of Americans get news from Facebook regularly, preferring it over Youtube and Twitter (23%, 15%, respectively).
Every eight out of ten news consumers said they read news on a smartphone or tablet, according to the research.
In the digital platform landscape, publishers have to learn how to play by the new rules. But it’s not only about finding connection dots between publishers and platforms, it’s about news definition changing itself.
Facebook Algorithm Changes: 2021
With almost 2,3 billion users worldwide, Facebook’s audience is now vastly larger than any single news company. The most powerful ranking system and access to user data gives the platform all the power to decide what is considered newsworthy.
Facebook says it wants to show the most relevant content for their users. No wonder, the platform twists its algorithms when and however it wants: the problem is that it’s always a mysterious and unpredictable act.
2020, for instance, was the year of personalized ads.
Facebook focused on making the way people see news and ads highly customizable: every like a user leaves, every page they visit was used to form their news feed and ad selection.
In 2021, Facebook presented the ML system that lets it sort content for users even more precisely. It takes into consideration not just posts interactions, but also real-time data to sum up the final ranking score for each post. It looks at how many posts a user liked a minute ago, what sort of posts they engage with most of all, conducts user surveys, and a lot more to predict how much value a user may receive from the post to calculate the score for it before deciding where and how to display it.
The bottom line is that platforms’ ranking algorithms can now define whether your content is valuable for readers or not, which influences its position in rankings.
Google News: the monopoly continues
Google remains the primary entry point for the majority of news searchers.
According to Nielsen Company and Pew Research, Google Search and Google News are responsible for 30% of referral traffic for the news websites.
Google News, in fact, sends 6 billion clicks per month to news websites. Biting off even 1% of that pie is a game changer for many news publishers.
So, let’s proceed to the challenges platform dependency brings for news publishers in 2021.
Frankly, they are all still the same, except for now you can see them much clearer:
- Platforms’ domination in the digital environment makes news producers shift their attitude to online journalism. News stories should not only be engaging to readers but understandable for search engines and attractive to social media platforms.
- Technological advancements in news ranking created by social media platforms change the portrait of a modern news consumer a lot.
Let’s drill into these two points quickly.
New forms of journalism. News and SEO (search engine optimisation)
To be seen by search engines, news publishers have to play by the same rules as any other content creator. They’re thrown into the open web to fight against other sites, blogs, and news for audience attention.
Platforms don’t create news content, but they create news agenda, holding data of user behavior and interaction, and play a key role in news distribution.
In such a multi-faceted market, news companies reconsider their teams’ organizational structure and roles, including team members with skills connected to technology in an attempt to better respond to new reading preferences and news consumption habits.
To appear in Google News XMLs, your stories have to be unique and well-structured with anchor texts, meta data, and correct markup. Google Search algorithms will pull you up if your pages are aligned with its technical requirements. To be able to keep up with all technological advancements, major news outlets hire SEO specialists.
Apart from getting into Google News, SEO specialists can help win greater exposure and place their pages at the top of the search rankings (especially those with evergreen content).
Journalism as a profession also differs significantly from what it used to be before. According to Linkedin data scientist, Alan Flitser, it transitions into job titles like “content writer” and “social media manager.”
The age of digital-only newsroom staff actually skews young, raging in age from 25 to 35.
Modern newsrooms use analytics data to better understand its audience and create more specific, tailored content. To do this, they consult with or hire analytics experts and incorporate modern tools for real-time data tracking.
A new news consumer
The portrait of an average digital news consumer is changing drastically, for readers are now direct participants in news content creation.
It especially refers to youth. Young audiences still need news to go out of their reality and connect to the world, but they don’t perceive news in a way older generations do.
They are driven by innovations and entertainment, and this shapes their expectations of news delivery. Much of the engagement for young people is on the periphery of news – infotainment, lifestyle, blogging.
Digital-only news outlets adjust their content strategies to fullfill younger audiences expectations, taking into consideration the fact that young people don’t really seek for news: they expect them to come into their lives.
Constantly changing reading habits requires thinking about audience data and metrics in a new way: setting new goals and striving to reach new benchmarks.
In our opinion, the crucial points for media companies to pay attention to in 2021, are:
- Reader-focused business models
- AI as a way of delivering highly personalised experiences
- Real-time analytics
- Proliferation of new devices
- Shift to niche publishing
- Supporting statements with actions
- Metrics that matter for growth
- More tech SEO jobs
- As-a-service economy
We will observe each of the points in the next article.
Other well-known challenges platform dependency brings
It’s worth mentioning that a big challenge for publishing companies with platform dependency has always been an additional layer in their interaction with audiences. This layer doesn’t just bring frustration, alienating audiences, it also eats into the revenue: in 2020, Google took 68% of revenue generated from Google AdSense and 58% from Google AdSense Search.
The term “digital sharecropping” used to describe the phenomenon of platforms’ monopoly points that the most negative side of it as the control that “landlord” gets over your content.
As Google cemented its position over years, publishers experienced years of disappointing returns on investments. A number of news companies disputed the numbers Google got from the ad, earning on the “lifeblood of news media.”
However, when it appears that you’re cornered, there are two strategies: to agree with the situation or to discover new opportunities (that always lie there even in the monstrous mess).
More open-minded publishers who “caught the wave” and found opportunities in the rapidly changing landscape started reaping benefits the earliest, and soon left all who disagreed far behind.
Opportunities publishers get from platforms
Although publishers are still burned by changes in platforms’ algorithms and their business’ dependency on someone else’s property, many agree that platforms don’t only present some unprecedented opportunities, they actually provide the unique way for news media to crystalize issues on-demand for the public, as well as distinguishing priorities out of ‘hustle-moves’.
Some of the biggest opportunities presented by platforms are still the same, except for now we can truly see them in a brighter light:
- Access to substantial audiences
The most exciting thing from collaboration with platforms is, of course, traffic you get from it. Direct links from Google News makes your site rank higher, and appearing repeatedly in the top carousel strengthens your brand value, granting you the “authority status” from the most appreciated search engine in the world.
More traffic = more monetization opportunities.
- Amplifying reach
When a great article starts to take off on social media, you can increase its exposure using Facebook tools. Social media platforms are still the best way for stories to get shared.
- Meaningful content & enhanced user experience
Working in tandem with platforms and adopting worldwide trends don’t mean publishers violate codes of ethics and spit on journalistic norms.
Mobile-only usage is increasing, and platforms guarantee more immersive full-screen experience. Switching to AMP-articles allow news content to load significantly faster on mobile devices.
Google News Showcase, presented in 2021, is a panel that already appears in Google News on Android and gives more context to the story, supplying readers with features like daily briefings, timelines, related articles and video stories.
The value of reliable, carefully sourced information is more important than ever. To publishers, platform collaboration is essential to ensuring they can compete with the reach and provide best user experience in accordance with reader expectations.
- Keeping up with trends
Platform collaboration gives you a chance to stay tuned with what’s going on and catch rapid changes in the market. You can still measure important metrics, using Google Analytics, IO dashboards, or any other advanced analytics tool.
New opportunities for establishing direct relationships with audiences through social media platforms are priceless: embedding CTA buttons, email newsletter sign-ups, comment sections, and a lot more to turn your loyals readers into a community of fans. Why enter this game by yourself, when platforms present a convenient opportunity to jump in and start reaping benefits?
- Retained readers are the White Whale
Engagement is still the key, because, as you know, engaged readers don’t churn. Learning how to make an important story well-read gives news a competitive edge. Young generations are willing to subscribe if you ensure personalised and rich experience.
With the high level of background like social media, TV shows, entertaining content, educational articles, etc., news companies are now learning how to compete for audience attention as much as any other online content provider.
Facebook and Google in this relation are intermediaries. Their algorithmic techniques are used to personalise content for users. Technologies like Accelerated Mobile Pages and Facebook’s Instant Articles now accelerate edge-driven investments and provoke business models’ changing across the majority of media companies. The ability to rapidly adapt and respond to unforeseen business disruptions is going to be a competitive edge for media companies.
Publishers that have not yet developed a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship with platforms miss tremendous potential, especially in relation to exploring audiences and creating more focused, meaningful content, adjusting quickly to market changes & catching numerous opportunities that pierce the air of digital media.
In this context, finding what underpins audience attention is crucial: readers’ expectations are much higher, and reader-focused strategies backed by data should be on the high line. It’s not about creating news ideas but adjusting content in the process informed by data.
Read also: How to publish articles in Google News