Analysis: The social media era for news organizations is long over

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In an era saturated with digital immediacy, the evolution of news consumption patterns has been both swift and striking. A decade ago, social media platforms held the promise of revolutionizing local news delivery – with broadcasters devoting countless resources to platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

They were heralded as a fresh conduit for information, a means for local stations to expand their reach and a tool to foster a more intimate connection with viewers. Today, however, the landscape appears starkly different.

The sheen of social media has dulled and its value for local broadcasters has been called into question. 

The advent of social media in the early 2000s presented an intriguing proposition for local broadcasters. As platforms such as Facebook and Twitter gained popularity, they offered an alternative channel to disseminate news. The platforms’ immediacy and accessibility allowed broadcasters to connect with younger, digitally native audiences, expand beyond typical geographical boundaries and, in many breaking news cases, allow for unique real-time reporting unseen through past tools. 

Yet, as the years rolled by, the pitfalls of these platforms began to surface. The first, and perhaps most significant, was the spread of misinformation. In the quest for virality, sensational and often inaccurate stories found fertile ground on social media platforms. Although they could reach a broader audience, factual content was being presented alongside potentially false or deceptive material – often scrolling by in the blink of an eye.

As these platforms evolved, their algorithms began to favor engagement above all else. In this engagement-driven ecosystem, divisive content often trumped unbiased, factual news, making it harder for original reporting to break through the noise.

Further compounding the issue was the increased fragmentation of audiences. As more platforms emerged, users began to spread their attention across multiple channels. While initially this seemed to offer greater reach for broadcasters and led to a bevy of digital-focused news offerings reaching new pockets of news consumers, it also resulted in a diluted audience base and increased workload for staffers already stretched thin at many stations. 

Social media platforms have long been a double-edged sword for local news broadcasters. On one hand, platforms like Facebook and Twitter provide an important and direct outlet to viewers (does anyone remember the News Feed on Facebook?). On the other hand, these platforms have usurped advertising revenues and commodified news content, contributing to the financial woes of news outlets.

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Now, changes implemented by these tech giants are threatening to disrupt the local news landscape further.

The social media exodus for news

In response to new regulatory measures, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has decided to pull news content from its platforms in certain regions – such as in Canada following the passage of the Online News Act or Bill C-18, a law that requires tech companies to pay content fees to domestic media outlets. Google is also expected to follow in Canada. 

Often called a “link tax” and even a “journalism usage fee,” this law and other similar bills aim to force payments from large companies for linking to news content. Often, however, these laws result in a settlement between large organizations with smaller publishers left to fend for themselves or face removal. 

This was the case when a similar law passed in Australia, with Meta initially blocking users from seeing or sharing news content on Facebook, but eventually reaching a compromise. Now, with similar legislation being considered in California, Meta has signaled that it may take a similar approach there, further shrinking its role as a news distributor.

This raises the question, what if news content is fully disaggregated from social media platforms? In some respects, this might be a great move – given the algorithm changes that keep users from leaving the sites’ silos anyway. Despite the immense popularity of news websites during the Web 2.0 era, their pageviews and traffic have significantly decreased in recent years.

According to Chartbeat data, in 2018, Facebook accounted for 27% of web traffic to 1,350 global publishers’ websites, which dropped to a mere 11% by April 2023. CNN, for example, saw a decline in referrals from 54% to just 9%. The data also indicates that smaller publishers were hit the hardest.

This trend is concerning, considering that social media is the primary source of news for at least half of all adults, and 49% of adults frequently check digital devices for news content. As a result, there is a significant gap in timely and reliable information that needs to be addressed.

Meanwhile, Twitter has also made moves that could affect its utility as a news dissemination platform under the helm of Elon Musk.

Along with removing true verification (or forcing payment from users to remain “verified”), the platform has continued to take steps that many view as hostile towards the platform’s user base, especially power users, such as news organizations. For example, TweetDeck is now set to become a paid-only feature as part of Twitter Blue. 

Twitter has also imposed caps on the maximum number of tweets a user can view daily – literally blocking access to content. This, of course, becomes extremely problematic for those following real-time events, such as breaking news, major sporting events or election night. With the new limits, paid accounts are limited to reading 10,000 posts daily, while non-paying accounts are limited to either 1,000 or 500, depending on the account age.

How should local news use social media today?

These developments raise serious questions about the future of social media platforms as tools for news broadcasters. The retreat of tech giants from the news distribution space could exacerbate the challenges faced by news outlets, which are already grappling with dwindling revenues and audience fragmentation. However, this shift also presents opportunities.

The retreat of social media platforms could spur local news outlets to forge better direct relationships with their audiences, free from the control of tech giants and without algorithmic interference. This could involve a greater emphasis on direct engagement methods such as newsletters tied to specific topics or personalities, podcasts and unique streaming offerings. Maybe one of the alternative networks with a greater emphasis on news value will catch on, but without larger network effects, that seems unlikely.

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And of course, this could cause a quick “lift and shift” from closed social media to the fediverse and a protocol such as ActivityPub, using platforms such as Blue Sky, Mastodon and Lemmy. But given the barriers to entry for average users, this seems fairly unlikely, at least today.

The forthcoming launch of Threads from Meta may make the fediverse a bit easier to join, but the launch of an “open” ActivityPub app by a mainstream company has caused its own controversy. 

Realignment of social media

The decline of social media as a beneficial platform for broadcasters is not a reflection of failure but rather a sign of an industry adapting to a changing landscape. It is a reminder of the importance of critical evaluation and flexibility in an era of rapid technological change. 

These developments underscore the increasingly complex relationship between social media platforms and news outlets. The balance has tipped, and where social media once offered local news broadcasters unprecedented access to audiences, it now presents challenges that could potentially undermine their ability to disseminate news effectively.

Local broadcasters must remain vigilant, ensuring they balance the lure of reach and immediacy with the obligation to maintain the integrity and credibility that is the cornerstone of their profession.

The shift away from social media is not a step backward but a strategic realignment toward platforms that better serve the needs of local news broadcasters. The future may not lie within the realms of Facebook, Twitter or Instagram but in emerging digital platforms that afford control, foster genuine connection and respect privacy.

These tools will facilitate local broadcasters’ mission in the digital age, helping them remain relevant and influential in a world where news consumption is constantly evolving. Social media’s decline as a beneficial tool for local news broadcasters reflects the complex and rapidly changing nature of our digital landscape. It is a testament to the ongoing evolution of media consumption, the inherent challenges of online platforms and the steadfast resilience of local news. 

The narrative of social media’s decline is not one of defeat but of adaptation and growth.

As we step forward into this new era, we know that change is inevitable and necessary.

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Dak DillonDak Dillon is NewscastStudio's Editor In Chief. Dak has covered broadcast technology, engineering and design for over 15 years and has practical experience in the industry including a Promax Gold Award and multiple regional Emmy nominations.

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