When Facebook changed its algorithm earlier this year to focus on “meaningful” interactions, publishers across the board were hit hard. However, local news seemed particularly vulnerable to the alterations.
To assuage this issue, the company announced that it would prioritize news related to local towns and metro areas where a user resided, thus restoring some of the lost interactions and traffic to those news outlets.
Mark Zuckerburg stated in a posting on his personal Facebook page: “People consistently tell us they want to see more local news on Facebook. Local news helps us understand the issues that matter in our communities and affect our lives … Local news helps build community—both on and offline. It’s an important part of making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is valuable,” as part of the announcement of the algorithm tweak in local news’ favor.
To determine how positively that tweak affected local news outlets, the Tow Center measured interactions for posts from publications coming from 13 metro areas. (All are taking part in the Facebook Journalism Project’s Local News Subscriptions Accelerator program.)
The survey found that 11 out of those 13 have consistently seen a drop in traffic between January 1 and April 1 of 2018, allowing the results to show how outlets are faring nine weeks after the algorithm change.
According to the Tow Center study, three outlets saw interactions on their pages decrease by a dramatic 50%. These include The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post and The San Francisco Chronicle. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution saw interactions drop by 46%.
However, the study notes that many of the participating outlets have seen a decline since late 2016 or early 2017.
On a panel in New York, Little Things former editor in chief Maia McCann noted the same observation regarding traffic. She disclosed the numbers had dropped slowly for some time before spiking downward in January. (Little Things was one of the first to go under following the algorithm change.)
Some outlets saw slight improvements, including The Miami Herald, which saw interactions increase by 7% and Philly.com, which saw a 38% increase in interactions, though Tow points out this was likely a result of the city’s Super Bowl win.
Regardless of increases or decreases to interactions, the steady uncertainty of reader traffic and advertising dollars as a result of Facebook's changes reveals how desperately publishers need to pivot away from the social-media platform and create sustainable, stable sources of revenue and traffic.