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Illustration by Jeff Drew

For years, media chased the clicks promised by Facebook; now the social media giant threatens to destroy them 

Under the thumb

As with any toxic relationship, the possibility of a breakup sparks feelings of terror – and maybe a little bit of a relief.

That's the spot that Facebook has put the news business in. Last month, the social media behemoth announced it would once again alter its News Feed algorithm to show users even more posts from their friends and family, and a lot fewer from media outlets.

The move isn't all that surprising. Ever since the 2016 election, Facebook's been under siege for creating a habitat where fake news stories flourished. Their executives were dragged before Congress last year to testify about how they sold ads to Russians who wanted to influence the U.S. election, and so, in some ways, it's simply easier to get out of the news business altogether.

But for the many news outlets that have come to rely on Facebook funneling readers to their sites, the impact of a separation sounds catastrophic.

"The End of the Social News Era?" a New York Times headline asked. "Facebook is breaking up with news," an ad for the new BuzzFeed app proclaimed.

When a giant like Facebook takes a step – until recently, the social media site had been sending more traffic to news outlets than Google – the resulting quake can cause an entire industry to crumble.

Consumers, meanwhile, have grimaced as their favorite media outlets have stooped to sensational headlines to lure Facebook's web traffic. They've become disillusioned by the flood of hoaxes and conspiracy theories that have run rampant on the site.

A Knight Foundation/Gallup poll released last month revealed that only a third of Americans had a positive view of the media. About 57 percent said that websites or apps using algorithms to determine which news stories readers see was a major problem for democracy. Two-thirds believed the media being "dramatic or too sensational in order to attract more readers or viewers" was a major problem.

Now, sites that rely on Facebook's algorithm have watched the floor drop out from under them when the algorithm is changed – all while Facebook has gobbled up chunks of print advertising revenue.

It's all landed media outlets in a hell of a quandary: It sure seems like Facebook is killing journalism. But can journalism survive without it?

"Traffic is such a drug right now," says Sean Robinson, a 53-year-old investigative reporter at the Tacoma News Tribune. "The industry is hurting so bad that it's really hard to detox."

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