Campbell Brown’s exit from Meta elicits no more than a whimper from publishers facing a deteriorating relationship with Facebook

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Five years ago, the news of Facebook’s most prominent publisher liaison leaving the company would have sent a seismic shock to the digital media ecosystem.

But as a sign of the times, Campbell Brown’s announcement that, after nearly seven years, she is leaving her post as Meta’s head of global media partnerships this fall elicited a metaphorical shrug from publishers. 

The four publishing executives Digiday interviewed for this story see Brown’s exit as just another nail in the proverbial coffin of the once-committed relationship (at least, financially) Facebook had with publishers.

Call it the conscious uncoupling between the tech giant and media companies.

“The goal of any social platform is to get you to spend more time on their platform… You could go as far back as the infamous pivot to video initiative on Facebook 10 years ago as the first sign that this was going to be their priority… Those signs have been there for a long time,” said one publishing exec. All the execs interviewed for this story asked to remain anonymous in exchange for candor.

The former CNN anchor’s exit being met with a whimper rather than a bang is likely due to the fact that publishers could see this was coming. Referral traffic from Facebook has been on the decline since at least 2021, and has only gotten worse since this May. An alleged “bug” in Facebook’s algorithm taking a toll on referral traffic is persisting four months later, and is just another example that Facebook isn’t prioritizing publishers at this time, a second publishing exec said. Meta did not respond to a request for comment before publishing time.

“To anybody [that’s] surprised that [Facebook is] pulling back from publisher support at this point, I’m like, ‘Are you kidding?’” said a third exec.

Just a few years ago, Facebook was paying publishers millions of dollars for their content to appear in its curated Facebook News tab. The company created the fast-loading mobile articles feature Instant Articles to help publishers monetize their content while keeping readers in Facebook’s app.

But all that is gone now. Facebook stopped paying publishers last year and removed Instant Articles earlier this year. The platform’s decisions have also been fueled by an amalgamation of controversies facing the company, from election interference to regulatory pressure in Australia, Europe and Canada seeking payment from large tech companies to publishers. 

Despite the controversy around Brown and her role as a liaison between Facebook and media companies, publishing execs told Digiday they don’t blame her or her team for the waning revenue and traffic from the platform.

“Before [Brown] started, it was very hard for publishers to get answers from Facebook about anything. She developed a team that was able to provide answers, provide assistance, make people feel good, and then they developed products that helped many publishers, and many niche publishers. Some of the missteps that happened within Facebook degraded her standing there,” said the second exec.

“Facebook deserves a lot of the criticism that it receives, but I always saw [Brown] and her team as legitimately helpful and they’ve got a lot of projects done that helped news publishers in real ways,” said a fourth publishing exec. “It’s a shame to see it disintegrating like it is.”

Facebook, at the end of the day, however, is still the largest driver of social referral traffic to their sites, publishing executives said. But it’s getting harder to drive traffic to their sites – not to mention all the changes at X (formerly Twitter) adding to that. 

“I think the legacy of news on Facebook is always going to have some asterisks or come with some ethical discussion. But from a publisher perspective, it’s a major conduit for connecting the internet and they’ve certainly achieved that,” said the first publishing exec. 

Some people in the media industry are blaming themselves for their predicament.

The City University of New York professor and media critic Jeff Jarvis wrote in a Facebook post that “the news industry has itself to blame” for Facebook’s move away from news. It’s a similar sentiment Joshua Benton, founder of Nieman Lab, outlined last year.

“From a culpability perspective, it isn’t just Facebook changing their approach. Let’s also remember that publishers could have had a more robust 360-degree approach, knowing that this could happen,” said the third publishing exec.

Brown helped “calm everything down” by reaching out a hand to publishers, the first publishing exec said. 

“From my standpoint, there was great communication from the people who worked for [Brown with] the publishers. But I always felt like it was like a church and state thing. They were great at speaking with you, but they didn’t really know what went on the tech side or the algorithm side… They could only make suggestions [to help you] based on ideas that they had, but it wasn’t informed by the product team at Facebook,” the first exec said.

But the third publishing executive wasn’t convinced that there was enough transparency between Brown and her team and the publishers they worked with.

“The question in my book is, how intellectually honest and transparent were they about these [publishing] initiatives and how they viewed the maturation of each of those products?” the third exec said, before adding, “But that’s not on her.”

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