Publishers on their Facebook relationship: It’s complicated

With Facebook’s 1.7 billion users, it’s no wonder media companies are tailoring their editorial strategies to give the social giant what it wants. But that comes at a cost. Facebook can dial down the traffic it’s sending publishers at any time, and it’s also competing with them for finite ad dollars. So on Day One of the Digiday Publishing Summit in Key Biscayne, Florida, we asked a handful of publishers: Is Facebook friend or foe? Here’s what they said.

Paul Rossi, president, The Economist
I think it’s friend, but not all friends are created equal. One of the difficulties is, a lot of media companies feel Facebook has some moral obligation towards media, and it does not. You have to understand where they make their money, and don’t be surprised if that isn’t compatible with how media companies make money. I think of it more as a PR relationship. There’s no moral obligation to support media.

Melissa Bell, publisher, Vox Media
I don’t think it’s either. It might be someone you want to have a beer with. But at the end of the day, it’s a business partnership.

Pete Spande, CRO, Business Insider
I’m a big fan of the term “frenemy.” For my business, there’s a lot more to be gained from Facebook. We’ve seen a lot of engagement and seen a way to monetize there. Even though the algorithm has affected everybody, it’s a way to stay in contact with our audience. The frenemy part is, at the end of the day, they want 100 percent of the ad budget, and at some point, we’re competing for the same budget. So you have to manage the relationship.

Cory Haik, chief strategy officer, Mic
Facebook is trying to run a business. Publishers thinking they can build a whole business on Facebook is not the right approach, and publishers that turn up their nose at the idea, that’s not the right approach. Instant Articles, we’ll go all in with it. What I’ve found over the past year is, Mic also has to grow its business and we have to have a funnel to get people back to our site, and that’s hard to do in a walled garden environment.

Keith Hernandez, president, Slate
They’re a friend, but sometimes they have to return my texts. When you make editorial decisions about what goes on your site, you are a media company. When they talk about eliminating clickbait, that helps us. It’s about making sure well researched journalism gets out there. When you say it’s just an algorithm, it kind of dissociates them from what they are. It seems disingenuous. The world’s hardest problems can’t be solved by an algorithm.

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