A new study is out from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford showing news readers who rely on social media for updates don’t remember the media outlet that shared that news. That’s bad news for media, especially as Facebook and other platforms consistently seek new ways to host the news themselves and act as the media’s native publishing platform, not just a distribution tool. Facebook wants to sell subscriptions, let Pages create special super-fan groups and more.
I’ve been beating the drum for a while now that the biggest danger to media companies presented by social media is that it’s disconnecting readers/viewers from the brands that are actually producing the news. “I saw a story on Facebook…” is how everyone prefaces their stories, not “I saw a story The Washington Post shared on Facebook…” Eventually – and the numbers in that story certainly point in this direction – those brands become completely irrelevant. This is part of why “fake news” has become such a problem in recent years, because there’s no discernment between outlets when it all comes through the same filter.
Everything Facebook in particular has rolled out in recent years has moved toward that end. They want to be a media publisher but want to sidestep the accompanying accountability because someone else is actually creating the stories. They’ve sold publishers on Instant Articles, native videos and other features, dangling the ad revenue it knows no one can turn down as well as other monetary incentives for first movers that are pulled away as soon as some level of critical mass is reached.
Media companies have always survived and thrived based on their brand awareness and reputation. Here in Chicago I grew up knowing the Tribune was staunchly conservative as it tried to reach a national audience while the Sun-Times was more liberal, more focused on Chicago area readers and always backing up the Democratic Machine. Things may have shifted a bit over the years, but the point is that these outlets were well known and you could select which kind of news coverage you wanted. It wasn’t all thrown together into a blender where the brands become irrelevant.
There’s no quick fix to right the ship of media outlets that have become dependent on the (ever-decreasing) traffic Facebook sends them organically or on the trickle of shared ad revenue Instant Articles promises them. At least they’ve owned their subscription database, but now Facebook wants access to that as well.
Reputations are built on brand awareness. Without that awareness and recognition, which now seems to be fading quickly, media companies will have precious little to look forward to.