In May 2020, the CEO of New Zealand’s Stuff, Sinead Boucher, also became its owner when she bought the news media company for the princely sum of NZ$1. Two months later, she announced that the company would be ceasing all activity across Facebook platforms, in a trial ‘inspired by principle’. Those principles must have held up pretty well, because the lockout remains in place today. Boucher last week sat down with Meera Selva of the Reuters Institute to explain some of the reasoning for – and repercussions from – the decision.
In recent weeks and months, we’ve witnessed a growing rift between Facebook (and Google) and the traditional news industry. Just last week, Australia finally passed its much talked about law relating to the payment of publishers for news content by tech platforms.
But for New Zealand’s Stuff, which operates the country’s largest news website and owns nine of its daily newspapers, the issues surrounding Facebook have long since been too significant to ignore. Even before its July 2020 decision to remove organic posts from the platform(s), the company had already ceased paid spend. And as Sinead Boucher, now Journalist, CEO, and Owner of Stuff explains, the live streaming on Facebook of the Christchurch terror attack in March 2019 – which resulted in the deaths of 51 people and injury to a further 40 – was in this respect the final straw.
“At that time, like many media companies, we had a strong focus on social including organic and paid posting on Facebook. But we decided we were going to stop our advertising on the platform, because we didn’t feel it was right to directly fund a platform that facilitated the live streaming of an atrocity. Especially because we’re a company that’s built on a very strong code of ethics from our newsroom, and it became really uncomfortable for us to continue putting money against a platform that in many ways you could say was opposite to that.”
“So we stopped advertising with Facebook in March 2019, and I have to say that specific action of not paying Facebook had zero effect on our traffic or any other metrics. And so that in-turn led us to the feeling that we should perhaps think more about what our relationship is more generally with these big platforms, versus making our own decisions for ourselves and avoiding the cycle of chasing social audiences.”
Fast forward to July 2020 and a world that had spun-on again, to a social media landscape inclusive of the spread of Covid misinformation and a blackout inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. At that time, the CEO-turned-Owner took the decision that even Stuff’s organic posts needed to come down.
“Internally, we had set this metric of ‘public trust’ and we discussed how that sat against continuing to participate in this platform that was profiting from spreading misinformation. We decided to do a quiet internal trial whereby we said, ok let’s just pause and stop posting anything to Facebook, and just see what happens. But given that we are a news organisation that didn’t stay very quiet, it leaked out straight away, and actually that led to a lot of discussions around – and support for – that move.”
Boucher states strongly that this action remains an experiment and that Stuff is analysing the results closely.
“If you look on a straight year on year comparison, our unique visitors are up almost five per cent and page impressions are up about nine per cent. But if you take into consideration that it has been a bumper year for online traffic, in terms of the pandemic and the election and so on, we think adjusting for that being off Facebook has probably cost us between 5-10 per cent of the audience levels we may have been at.”
“What I would say is that it hasn’t been disastrous, by any means. Our direct traffic has gone up and our search traffic has gone up. Also interestingly, Facebook as a proportion of our overall referrals has only fallen from about 18-19 per cent to around 10-11 per cent, and that’s due to people who are still sharing our content on the platform themselves as opposed to us posting.”
Another area of interest, and potential concern, that Stuff believes is raised by the withdrawal of news organisations from Facebook, is to what extent this has an impact on the readership demographics of these outlets. So in other words, during a time of global pandemic when trust in vaccines is particularly low amongst some minority communities, is bailing on Facebook also bailing on the fight against fake news, and therefore letting down these audiences?
“It’s much clearer to see things that are happening to traffic, less clear to see from a journalism reach point of view. So the question becomes to what extent is our journalism still reaching the people we think it is really important to have see it? Here in New Zealand for example specific groups like Pacific Island, Maori, Asian people… Stuff is underperforming in reaching those audiences versus Facebook.”
“Now, from a really cynical perspective you could argue that these audiences are less economically important anyway from a bottom line point of view, because the more affluent demographics are still on Stuff. But from a journalistic point of view, when we think about the impact that we want our work to have particularly this year in combatting disinformation around vaccines, then it is a concern that we are not reaching these groups where vaccine hesitancy is particularly high.”
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“The reality is, we could go back onto Facebook and publish a lot of incredible work about Covid and vaccines – truthful information. But just because it is being published on Facebook doesn’t automatically then mean it’s being seen by the people who are prone to seeing fake information… To which Facebook’s response is, ‘well we can teach you to get really good with paid advertising to reach those demographics’. Which to me is not the answer! Because why should a news media organisation have to pay the platform that is allowing misinformation to spread, to clean that up?”
Boucher says that the company is still talking to Facebook and believes that solutions could be implemented whereby real journalism is put in front of those who may be seeing untruthful information. Whether or not she is hopeful of this outcome is another question. “I don’t know where it’s going to go,” she says.