Why publishers say Facebook News tab disappearing will have little impact on their social strategy

The Facebook News tab is going out not with a bang, but a whimper.

Five publishing execs told Digiday they weren’t surprised when Meta announced on Feb. 29 that it was shutting down its dedicated tab for news content in April in the U.S. and Australia. 

“It’s disappointing but not surprising,” said one publishing exec, who asked to remain anonymous. “It doesn’t seem that the News tab was sending tsunamis of traffic to any publishers, but it’s just this slow chipping away of all of the different places in which users of Meta products can reliably find high quality news.”

Facebook’s declining role in sending traffic to publishers’ sites means that changes to the platform that further deprioritize news are no longer unexpected, and at the end of the day have little impact on publishers’ social and audience development strategies, the media execs said. All of them noted they had seen Facebook referral traffic decline in the past year or longer, mostly due to the deprioritization of link posts. 

Annemarie Dooling, vp of audience growth and experiences at Gannett, was more optimistic: “If [Meta] feels that this is the right thing to do to reach audiences on Facebook, then we trust it… [Facebook] wouldn’t take [the News tab] away if millions of people were really excited [about it] and that’s where they got their news.”

The Facebook News tab was already deprecated in the U.K., France and Germany last year. News content will still be in Facebook’s main feed. Meta said in its announcement last month that the number of people using Facebook News in Australia and the U.S. has dropped by over 80% last year, and that news and political content is not what Facebook users want. Last year, news made up less than 3% of what people around the world see in their Facebook feed, according to the platform. Facebook stopped paying U.S. publishers for news content in 2022.

Facebook’s declining role

Publishing execs said they would have to wait and see what the impact of this change is before updating their Facebook strategy. They added that they weren’t receiving any guidance from Meta – none of the publishing execs interviewed for this story said they received specific information from the company since the announcement of the News tab closing. Meta did not respond to a request for comment before publishing time. 

They also did not have any direct contacts at Meta regarding the News tab – some execs said they haven’t had a point of contact with the company since their content licensing deals ended in 2022. Campbell Brown, Facebook’s most prominent publisher liaison, left Meta last October.

“We will just have to see what numbers are telling us,” said Wes Bonner, svp of marketing and audience development at Bustle Digital Group. “If we see any further dip in traffic, that would be concerning.” For now, BDG will post the same amount and mix of content on Facebook, including link posts, images and video. “It will just change where our link-based posts are served to the user. And then we’ll have to see if that’s better or worse than it was,” he added.

Dooling said her team’s strategy was already focusing their efforts beyond the News tab, such as interacting and sharing more local and cultural content in local Facebook Groups.

Facebook makes up less than 2% of The Guardian’s referral traffic. Tom Johnson, head of audience development at The Guardian US, said that Facebook referral traffic had declined over the past year, though he declined to share by how much.

Three publishing execs said it was hard to measure how much traffic was actually coming from the News tab compared to the main Facebook news feed. A second exec who asked to speak anonymously said that specific data wasn’t available to them but that they were aware that the majority of their traffic was coming from users’ main feed. And the first exec said measuring those referral sources was “fuzzy” due to the difficulty of tracking URLs from Facebook. 

Despite not being able to share specific data, the first publishing exec said they were under the impression that the majority of Facebook referral traffic to their site was not coming from the News tab. Their publication had seen a year-over-year Facebook referral traffic decline in the “10s of percentages,” they said.

As Digiday previously reported, some publishers and creators haven’t seen Facebook referral traffic pick up since Meta rolled out a new page experience on the platform in May 2023 that affected the visibility of link posts. According to the referral traffic data of 1,300 global sites from Chartbeat, monthly Facebook referral traffic in 2023 was down between 40-50% year over year.

Maybe a good thing?

Some execs were optimistic that publishers’ news content living only in the main Facebook feed could help to boost referral traffic, though they said they wouldn’t know the true impact of the platform change for at least another few months.

“We are hopeful that the removal of the News tab will provide additional reach and engagements by promoting our posts back into our followers’ primary feeds,” Bonner said. “I would be optimistic that the [News tab] going away would mean that we have more potential for posts to go viral and therefore to be shown to more people in their primary feeds.” 

Dooling shared that optimism: “I am hopeful that we will see more regular people in our feeds, sharing these stories on their own.”

Others were expecting a slight decline or little change in Facebook referral traffic once the News tab disappeared.

“I don’t know if I agree this will lead to some sort of major increase, but I do think at worst we’ll only see a minor decrease. Our attention is and always has been on the main feed for distribution as that is where the majority of users do their discovery,” said the second publishing exec.

The first publishing exec echoed that sentiment: “Frankly, I’d be surprised if all of a sudden we saw some sort of fundamental shift in the way that people are sharing news on Facebook.”

https://digiday.com/?p=537426

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