Last week, digital publisher Little Things abruptly announced that it was shutting down.
The four-year-old company, known for social media-friendly lifestyle content, had more than 12 million Facebook fans and a docket of hugely popular video series.
But, all that was no match for Facebook’s News Feed algorithm. The social network’s recent algorithm update had proved “catastrophic” for the publisher, giving them no choice but shut down after deals with potential buyers for the company fell through, according to a memo from the company’s CEO.
And while Little Things is certainly a dramatic case study of what can go wrong when Facebook changes its priorities, publishers aren’t the only ones at at the whim of Facebook’s shifting algorithm.
The move is dramatically changing how millions and millions of people find and consume news. As of September last year, 45 percent of users in the U.S. were relying on Facebook for their news, according to Pew Research. With Facebook backing away from the news business, how will users change their news consumption? Will Facebook users turn elsewhere for their news, or will they just see less of it? And are there opportunities for other news platforms to pick up the readers Facebook is putting down?
The answers to those questions aren’t clear yet. Facebook is still the two billion-user Goliath of the media world, and it hasn’t abandoned news entirely, just de-emphasized it. No one else even comes close to matching Facebook’s scale. It’s no wonder even the smallest News Feed tweaks can send shockwaves through an entire industry.
After Facebook, who’s left?
While there’s no obvious heir apparent to Facebook when it comes to owning news distribution on mobile, there are certainly a few bigger players that could benefit from Facebook’s current disinterest in the news.
Flipboard is one of the best-positioned aggregators that could potentially fill the gaps left by Facebook. The Palo Alto company has amassed 100 million monthly users in more than seven years in the App Store, outlasting many of its one-time competitors (anyone remember Spun?).
So it’s not surprising that the company is also among the most optimistic about the opportunity left by Facebook’s recent move away from news.
“This is definitely a good time to be in the business of bringing content to people,” says Flipboard’s head of content Marci McCue. She says it’s too soon to say whether Flipboard will directly benefit from Facebook’s changes, but acknowledges that “people will seek out alternative places.” (The company also happens to be in the midst of a big ad push, which the company says predates Facebook’s updates.)
Another news platform rapidly rising in the wake of Facebook’s algorithm change is Apple News. The default news app on iPhones and iPads, Apple News has been gaining in popularity ever since Apple gave it a big redesign and began to push news alerts more aggressively. Apple News had 70 million users the last time the company shared stats, in 2016 — a pretty good number, but far below the estimated 1.3 billion active iOS devices worldwide.
And, as Digiday points out, though some publishers have seen gains, Apple News doesn’t work as well for everyone. While being the subject of one of the app’s push notifications can drive major traffic, the platform isn’t as well suited for the viral, social-friendly content that once thrived on Facebook.
Finally, there’s Google. Google News has long been a huge traffic driver to publishers, but the product itself has been more or or less unchanged for years. And though Google News has a mobile app (hello, Google News & Weather), it’s not particularly popular.
But one area where Google obviously does dominate is search. And the company’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) have been especially effective at driving traffic to publishers. According to data from Chartbeat, referrals from mobile Google searches now outnumber Facebook referrals. Google is now pushing for the AMP standard (or something like it) be adopted as a web standard, which, if it happens, would theoretically make its products — including Google News — even more popular.
What about indie news apps?
Look around the App Store, and there are fewer and fewer independent news operations with any momentum or scale. Even news apps like Nuzzel, which has long been a favorite among Silicon Valley journalists and investors, are being forced to reckon with the fact that the ad business — dominated by Google and Facebook — is simply not sustainable for scrappy upstarts anymore.
Jonathan Abrams, who was Friendster’s CEO before starting Nuzzel, suspects that many people will continue to rely on Facebook for news even if they see significantly less of it.
“Even if people get a little less news on Facebook, more people will still get more news on Facebook than most other places,” he predicts.
Abrams thoughts ring true, though Facebook’s dominance as a news platform wasn’t always conventional wisdom. It wasn’t that long ago that the App Store was filled with so many acclaimed news apps even larger companies thought it worthwhile to invest in the ventures.
LinkedIn acquired Pulse in 2013, launched its own version of the app in 2015, and quietly pulled the app last year. NBC acquired the Breaking News app in 2009, maintained it for several years, and then shut it down for good in 2016. CNN snapped up Zite in 2011 and then, in 2014, sold the app to Flipboard who shut it down almost immediately. Yahoo spent a comical amount in 2013 on an app called Summly that barely even worked in order to make its News Digest app, which closed for good last year. Even Facebook attempted a news reader once, with a (it turns out very forgettable) app called Paper in 2014 only to —- you guessed it — shut it down two years later.
it was once fashionable for tech companies to buy promising news apps
While it was once fashionable for tech companies to buy promising news apps, they’re now happy to step back from the efforts and invest in their core products instead.
Combine this with Facebook and Google’s increasing dominance of the ad market and it’s even harder to make it as an independent developer of news apps.
Nuzzel has pivoted its entire business model to shift away from advertising. Though the consumer version of the app is still alive and well, Abrams is now investing more of his time in a new B2B service called Media Intelligence, which provides companies specialized insights about what’s happening in their industry.
“We’ve given up on any idea that Nuzzel can be used by billions of people,” says CEO Jonathan Abrams. “With Apple News built in to every iPhone… regular people are content to just get news pushed to them.”