Commentary

New Zealand's 'Stuff' Weans Itself Off Facebook Traffic

The conflict between Australia's government and Facebook over the country's new media code renewed scrutiny of the social-media giant's relationships with publishers. In nearby New Zealand, news publisher Stuffhas found that removing its content from Facebook seven months ago didn't affect its web traffic.

“We were prepared for a drop in our audience, but it had zero effect," Sinead Boucher, CEO of Stuff, said in a video discussion for the Reuters Institute. "It made us realize we should think more about our decisions, instead of buying into the idea that you have to work with all the social-media platforms.”

In July, the publisher decided to abandon its 1 million followers on Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook also owns. The move followed Stuff's decision in March 2019 to stop advertising on Facebook amid dissatisfaction with the company's handling of a mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch. An Australian white supremacist used Facebook to livestream the deadly attack for 17 minutes before the social network pulled the video.
Stuff's unique visitors still rose 5% last year, though Boucher acknowledges it was a strong year for news with people seeking information about the pandemic and New Zealand's parliamentary election.
“If we said, look, there was an election and a pandemic, we think we could have expected to grow more, then we think being off Facebook has probably cost us between 5% and 10% growth," Boucher said. "But it hasn’t been disastrous by any means."
Facebook still drives about 10% of social-media referrals to its site, as readers share links to Stuff stories in their news feeds.
Boucher last year led a management buyout ofStuff from Australian media company Nine Entertainment. Nine had acquired the news publisher as part of a merger with Fairmax in 2018, and subsequently sought a buyer for Stuff.

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In 2020, Stuff started soliciting readers for direct contributions, similar to the appeals that publishers like the Guardian and Vox Media have done. The decision to leave Facebook wasn't announced, but generated publicity for Stuff and led to a jump in donations. It also saw more contributions for its pandemic coverage and an effort called "Our Truth,"  which examined the history of racism toward indigenous peoples in New Zealand.
“There has been so many positive things that have come out of not being on Facebook," Boucher said, citing the public support and rise in donations, along with fewer "toxic comments" from trolls on the social network. "As soon as we paused on Facebook, all that dried up.”
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