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Publishers lose up to 20% traffic after Facebook’s news blockade, but there’s some good news

Australia wanted Big Tech to pay for news. Facebook didn’t. 

Rather than pay media companies in return for linking to their stories, as a forthcoming Australian law would require, the social network blocked sharing of news on its platform in the country, the most extensive restrictions it has ever placed on publishers anywhere in the world.

Facebook’s move had an immediate impact on traffic to Australian news sites, according to early data from New York-based analytics firm Chartbeat. 

Total traffic to Australian news sites fell by around 13% within the country, compared to the day before the ban. 

Source: Nieman Journalism Lab

The most dramatic fall in traffic to Australian sites was from readers outside the country, which fell by more than 20%.

Source: Nieman Journalism Lab

Chartbeat also saw a large drop in traffic to news sites from readers within Australia. And it looked at referral traffic from Facebook vs. Google Search to Australian publishers. You would expect to see Google Searches rise when the percentage of traffic from Facebook fall. But the analysts at Chartbeat didn’t see an increase in Google Search traffic in terms of absolute numbers.

Chris Pash, Editor, AdNews Australia

Nielsen’s Digital Content Ratings showed total sessions fell 16% (for current events and global news) on February 18, compared to the average of the past six Thursdays.

Total time spent on the websites fell 14% compared to the average of the past six Thursdays.

Nielsen’s data shows Facebook and Google are the two leading platforms for digital content consumption in the country. Also, 22% of the audiences of Australian media publishers consumed their content only through the Facebook app.

Facebook’s traffic is notably strong in the Australian market. While 12% of visits to publishers globally were driven by Facebook, 15% of visits to Australian publishers were driven by Facebook.

Chartbeat

Given the tech giant’s massive reach, it was expected that Facebook’s news blockade would have significant repercussions on publisher traffic. But this immediate dip may soon see a reversal. 

Earlier data from Chartbeat shows that in the absence of Facebook, people go directly to publishers’ mobile apps and sites (as well as to search engines) to get their information.

While Facebook drives a tremendous amount of traffic to publishers, when Facebook is temporarily out of the picture, consumers still seek out the stories they want— and this is good news for publishers.

Josh Schwartz, Author at Chartbeat

For example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ABC News app shot to the top of Apple’s App Store charts in Australia following Facebook’s news ban.

In more recent developments, Australia’s Prime Minister says Facebook is back at the negotiating table, and has “tentatively friended us again.”

Publicly though, there has been no change in the respective positions, so a swift détente is not on the cards.

The social network has indicated no change in its opposition to the proposed law requiring social media platforms to pay for links to news content, and a senior lawmaker stated Australia will not change the proposed laws. 

“The bill as it stands … meets the right balance,” said Simon Birmingham, Australia’s Minister for Finance. “There’s no reason Facebook can’t do and achieve what Google already has.”

Facebook’s gamble is that Australia won’t be able to live without it. Imagine the consequences if we prove that we can.

Lenore Taylor, Guardian Australia’s editor

Nine, one of Australia’s largest media groups, has urged the government to ignore the tech companies’ pressure. “Nobody benefits from this decision as Facebook will now be a platform for misinformation to rapidly spread without balance,” said the company.

Australian PM Scott Morrison mentioned that leaders of India, Canada and the United Kingdom were keenly watching Facebook’s reaction to the media code. Canada indicated it too would adopt the Australian approach and put forward a similar bill in the coming months. European politicians working on a new set of laws governing the digital world say they are keeping an eye on the Australian situation.

“It’s not an issue of copying a system, but having a just ecosystem and doing justice for the media industry which is investing so much in their content,” said Alex Agius Saliba, a member of the European Parliament from Malta.

Elected officials and media publishers in the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and the United States slammed Facebook’s actions, suggesting they were anti-competitive and underscored the need for a regulatory crackdown.

Facebook is also facing a boycott campaign over its controversial move.

In the face of sustained global backlash, Facebook has made some small concessions, saying that it will reverse any government pages that are inadvertently impacted by its blocking of sharing of any news content in Australia.

Will Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia, said: “Pages such as government, public-safety and education pages should not be impacted by this announcement. “We apologise to any pages that were inadvertently impacted.”

If this shutoff continues, I’d imagine that the more dedicated news consumers might adapt in ways that are, on net, positive for publishers. Maybe they go to a newspaper’s website more often, or they sign up for a daily newsletter to get their fix. 

Joshua Benton, Founder and director, ‎Nieman Journalism Lab

But even if the lost traffic returns, publishers will still have to contend with the challenges arising from systemic issues.

“The real loss [to news organizations] has been the fact that advertisers much prefer advertising on Google and Facebook and other networks and are much less interested in advertising on newspaper websites,” said Professor Charlie Beckett, the director of Polis, a media think tank at the London School of Economics. “That’s where the big money has been lost and this is not going to replace that money.”

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