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Publishers have finally fallen out of love with platforms, but it has been a hard lesson to learn

In a year dominated by headline-grabbing failures from Facebook, many news and magazine brands have learned the hard way that third-party platforms ultimately only have their own interests at heart.

If 2017 showed signs of a strain in the relationship between publishers and the platforms which had promised to save them, this year put the final nail in the coffin. Few of us could have predicted the chaos that Facebook in particular would cause last year, starting with a major algorithm change and ending with inflated video metric scandals and a hefty ICO fine.

Distilling such a tumultuous year into an article which covers all the major platforms is a challenge, and much of the focus must be on Facebook given the extent to which it has dominated the discourse around platforms and media.

But if 2018 taught publishers anything, it’s that platforms simply can’t contribute to the long-term stability or revenue that the industry needs to sustain itself.

What happened in 2018

The year didn’t get off to a great start, with Zuckerberg outlining a series of changes to Facebook’s News Feed in a post that temporarily wiped $3.3 billion off the value of the company. He stated that users would see less public content like posts from business, brands and media, and instead would focus on ‘meaningful interactions’.

Things only went downhill for Facebook from there. Every month has brought a new scandal, from the infamous Cambridge Analytica revelations in March to the security breach affecting 50 million accounts at the end of September, and a number of public figures calling to #deletefacebook. Ironically, Zuckerberg threw a little money back to publishers by taking out full-page adverts in UK and US newspapers to apologise.

The media world closely followed Zuckerberg’s subsequent Congressional appearance in April, and it’s likely that governments on both sides of the pond will look to bring in regulation, with a number of key figures making proposals in subsequent months. Paradoxically, as Facebook was turning down the dial on referral traffic to publishers, it also launched a Local News Subscriptions Accelerator in February, a $3 million pilot program in the U.S. to help local newspapers ‘take their digital subscription business to a new level’. This has been extended to 14 newsrooms, and will be transitioning to a retention focus in 2019.

A few other events are worth noting in relation to Facebook. Firstly, ‘Trending’ news was removed in June to make way for ‘future news experiences’ such as Breaking News labels and Facebook Watch, their new TV-style service which will be rolling out globally. They claim impressive figures from initial tests in the US, and have promised attractive revenue splits for publishers, but such promises should be met with a hefty dose of skepticism.

The other notable development in video platforms was the launch of IGTV, Instagram’s long-form video service. Uptake has been slow, with Meredith being the only publisher to make any significant investment so far.

Google’s mission to speed up the web made progress this year, beating Facebook Instant Articles which unsurprisingly has seen quite a drop in the number of brands actively using the format. In contrast, Google’s AMP project is going well, with a third of publishers seeing clear evidence of a traffic increase from AMP. Google’s shift to mobile-first indexing in its search results in July also seems to be having benefits, as the work it has done over the past couple of years to convince publishers that mobile-friendly websites are worth the effort has actually resulted in 71% seeing an increase in traffic since the switch.

Where are we now?

Many publishers have resigned themselves to Facebook’s algorithm changes, instead choosing to focus on reader revenue, subscriptions and paywalls.

But the effect of the algorithm changes may not be as bad as expected. NewsWhip recently released a report on the impact of the algorithm change, and found some publishers actually benefited from this decluttering of the News Feed. “The shift in focus to personal updates forced digital creators to focus on building meaningful relationships with their audiences,” says the report, with CNN, NBC, Fox News, Daily Mail, New York Post and others seeing impressive gains in engagement. Of the so-called ‘viral publishers’, LadBible and UniLad saw sharp growth from May this year, although what impact the recent buyout will have on how the two companies publish online remains to be seen.

Facebook’s Instant Articles seems to have stumbled, with one report suggesting that more than half of the launch partners for the format have now abandoned it. The format has been criticised for “underwhelming monetisation, limited user data, and underwhelming options for subscription-based outlets”.

Growth is also a worry area for both Facebook and its advertisers at present. The Pew Research Centre published a report in September showing that Facebook is haemorrhaging users, with one in four users in the US electing to delete the smartphone app.

Even in the past few months there has been trouble over Facebook knowingly inflating video metrics, which contributed to the ‘pivot to video’ earlier this year. There’s still heated debate about the extent to which the falsified figures directly influenced those decisions and subsequent job losses, but a new lawsuit suggests that they may have known about inaccuracies as far back as 2015. It remains to be seen whether it will affect how many brands get on board with Instagram’s IGTV.

Apple are continuing to play the long game when it comes to wooing publishers. A tactical acquisition of digital magazine service Texture in March raised hopes that its News app would soon incorporate subscriptions functionality, and according to reports, was in talks with select US newspapers in early autumn. Many publishers have highlighted Apple News as having brought in the numbers this year, but there are limited examples of where the revenue has followed.

Reddit has made friendly moves towards publishers this year, hiring a dedicated Head of News and Journalism alongside a growing media partnerships team. It’s developing tools and features for publishers to share and track content, but despite its vast user base, there are concerns around brand safety, and how well ‘Redditors’ will respond to an increase in adverts on the site.

What can we expect in the future?

Find out what we can expect the future relationship between platforms and publishers to look like by reading the full chapter in our report, Media Moments 2018. Download it here.