Publishers vs. Facebook: The Power Struggle Continues

Jun 23, 2015

In the publishing world, you want as many sets of eyes on your content as possible. Whether you're selling books or trying to get hits on your blog, you need eyeballs. Traditionally, you would prefer to "own" those eyeballs. This has been at the heart of tensions between content creators and companies such as Google for years. Publishers complain that Google is making money off of content it didn't create. Meanwhile, Google argues that without its search engine, no one would ever find the content that publishers are putting online. With the addition of social media to the mix, things have become even more complicated.

Now, though, the relationship between publishers and the intermediary sites that help serve content to audiences is changing again. At this year's SXSW conference, BuzzFeed's founder and CEO Jonah Peretti talked to audiences about the benefit of distributing his site's content on social media sites, not just through them. Instead of concentrating on driving readers back to its site, BuzzFeed is focusing on getting its content seen by as many people as possible-no matter where they are.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that Facebook is thinking about hosting publishers' content on its site. The Times article states, "In recent months, Facebook has been quietly holding talks with at least half a dozen media companies about hosting their content inside Facebook rather than making users tap a link to go to an external site."

BuzzFeed-along with National Geographic and The New York Times-is, reportedly, among the first publishers ready to get started with the trial. But BuzzFeed has a different business model than most publishers, relying solely on revenue from native ads it helps advertisers create and promote. BuzzFeed doesn't have to worry about how many people are coming to its actual website to view banner ads. Facebook, though, "discussed ways for publishers to make money from advertising that would run alongside the content," according to The Times.

On a not wholly unrelated note, another group of publishers have come together to create Pangaea. It was set to launch in beta in April 2015 and says it offers advertisers the ability to access inventory across the participating premium publishers via the Rubicon Project technology platform. In layman's terms, advertisers will be able to buy advertising across the network of participating publishers (which are The Guardian, CNN International, Reuters, The Economist, and the Financial Times).

It seems unlikely that this move isn't-at least a little-in reaction to Facebook's aspirations to host more content. According to The Times article, "Several employees of The Guardian, for example, have informally suggested to colleagues at other publications that publishers should band together to negotiate deals that work for the whole industry, and should retain control of their own advertising, whether content is hosted on Facebook or not, a person with knowledge of the discussions said."

As I write this column, so little is certain that it's hard to understand how this might all play out. However, it seems clear that an age-old power struggle is being filled with new life. In many ways, it seems clear that publishers are dependent on social media. In 2014, Facebook said its users were spending an average of 40 minutes per day on the site-but spent about 9 hours per day engaging with digital media. These statistics say a lot about the current battle for eyeballs-and call into question who has the real power.

While it's easy to say that publishers need Facebook to distribute their content, the truth is that Facebook-and other search and social giants-needs publishers to keep pumping out content. Imagine your newsfeed without articles, videos, and infographics from your favorite media outlets. Pinterest would, literally, have nothing if it weren't for the content produced by other companies and individuals. Many of us use social media as a gateway to the content we actually want, which means we scroll quickly through our feeds before clicking on a link that takes us to another site.

Facebook wants to keep us on its site longer, but-with few exceptions-it's hard to see what publishers would get out of this arrangement. Huge new audiences may be tempting, but, ultimately, not worth splitting ad revenues.