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News Readers Abandoning Facebook, Twitter in ‘Back to the Future’ Moment for Media Publishers

At the beginning of the 2000s, some of the most essential ideas in digital media were homepage traffic, blogs, and niche email newsletters. And as the digital news media business starts to turn around again, they are the ones that media organizations are looking to more and more, according to a report from the global news platform, Semafor. For the past decade, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have been the virtual front pages of the internet, showing a mix of popular news and whatever articles and videos social algorithms thought you wanted to see. Digital publications popped up to get people’s attention, and money followed in the hopes that the cat listicle website or the Brooklyn dos and don’ts guide could really be this generation’s New York Times or MTV. Semafor reports that Facebook’s sharp turn away from news and the merciful death of “blue check” Twitter, the shutdown of BuzzFeed News, layoffs at Insider (the first public mass layoffs in the company’s history), and Vice’s growing need to sell are all signs that the social web that defined the 2010s for news consumers is over. And the new era is strangely like an earlier one, which suggests that “the 2010s were a detour, not the new path forward.” At the same time, streaming services are starting to look like TV and the news has also gone back in time, Semafor continued. Many news organizations have noticed people aren’t reading their stories on Facebook or Twitter. They go right to them by opening the websites on their phones or computers. The story of HuffPost, which Verizon left for dead and is now BuzzFeed’s only news business that is still going, can teach us a lot. After cuts, the liberal site now earns money again thanks to its loyal homepage users and advertisers willing to pay for some of its safer content, such as lifestyle and identity coverage. Digital media entrepreneur Jonah Peretti told the rest of the BuzzFeed team, “We’re going to put most of our news efforts into HuffPost.” “HuffPost is a profitable brand with a highly engaged, loyal following that doesn’t rely as much on social media,” he said. “People who want to know what’s going on in the world and make sense of it will find the HuffPost site more useful as Facebook and Twitter face problems.” HuffPost is not on its own. In a deal reached last week, Fox News will have to pay Dominion Voting Systems $787 million, and it’s possible that the people in charge of Fox News won’t be happy about this. But Semafor noted that the network could take some comfort because the outlet’s website, which has always been one of the most popular in the US, has seen a significant increase in traffic in the past few months, especially to the homepage. Howard Polskin, president of TheRighting, shared data from SimilarWeb with Semafor that showed that more than 70% of the site’s users went straight to the homepage last month. A small portion came from a search, and a minimal number came from social media. Today’s landscape looks like the following: • The Drudge Report is the country’s most popular news website. Peretti is working on getting more people to visit HuffPost’s site. In addition, independent writers, including Matt Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan, share short daily posts summarizing news about politics, media, and technology. • The most influential people in Washington are reading Mark Halperin’s DC tipsheet. The editor-in-chief of Politico reads it all the time and is a fan, as are many well-known White House writers. • More and more new media companies find that readers want news and analysis sent to their email inboxes. Old news juggernauts, including the New York Times, are making money by charging their paying members for exclusive content like news and crossword puzzles.

A digital media veteran, Josh Marshall, said today’s media environment looks very familiar. Talking Points Memo, which Marshall started, was one of the first political blogs. In the 2000s, its news and analysis gained a small but loyal following. During the social media boom, however, BuzzFeed and Vice, which were much more extensive than TPM, ate up the small amount of advertising money those digital publications had. TPM survived the chaos by staying small, building an early subscription business by cultivating a medium-sized audience of liberal readers, and refusing to chase scale. Marshall told Semafor that this was “a little bit of being smart, a little bit of being lucky, and a lot of not being willing to give up the control I needed to get the resources to scale in a serious way.” He claimed that, in some ways, the demise of the social web had given him hope because it had pressured publishers to pursue virality at all costs and occasionally put the relationship between users and publishers as an afterthought. “It’s shown again that size isn’t everything, and it’s made a site’s best chance of survival a close relationship with its audience,” he said. “I think those are all good things, and they usually help us.”


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