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

Under the thumb

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CLICKBAIT AND SWITCH

Plenty of media outlets have tried to build their business on the foundation of the News Feed algorithm. But they quickly got a nasty surprise: That foundation can collapse in an instant.

As Facebook's News Feed became choked with links to Upworthy and its horde of imitators, the social network declared war on clickbait. It tweaked its algorithms, which proved catastrophic for Upworthy.

"It keeps changing," Ingram says. "Even if the algorithm was bad in some way, at least if it's predictable, you could adapt."

A 2014 Time magazine story estimated that two to three global algorithm tweaks on Facebook were happening every week.

Six years ago, for example, a TV news station in Spokane, Washington, told readers they'd have "an ENTIRE day here on FB dedicated to positive local news" if the post got liked 500 times.

Under the current Facebook algorithm that tactic could get their entire page demoted. So could using shameless "you-won't-believe-what-happened-next" style phrases.

Much of the time, Facebook and Google don't announce their shifts up front. Media outlets often have had to reverse-engineer the changes, before issuing new commands to their troops in the field.

"Oh, they changed their algorithm again?" Robinson says. "Oh, what is it today, coach? OK, it's 50-word [headlines] instead of 60?"

A pattern emerged. Step 1: Media outlets reinvent themselves for Facebook. Step 2: Facebook makes that reinvention obsolete.

Big publishers leaped at the chance to publish "Instant Articles" directly on Facebook, only to find that the algorithm soon charged, rewarding videos more than posts and rendering Instant Articles largely obsolete. So publishers like Mic.com, Mashable and Vice News "pivoted to video," laying off dozens of journalists in the process.

"Then Facebook said they weren't as interested in video anymore," Ingram says. "Classic bait and switch."

Which brings us to the latest string of announcements: The News Feed, Zuckerberg announced last month, had skewed too far in the direction of social video posts from national media pages and too far away from personal posts from friends and family.

They were getting back to their roots.

And now, news organizations who'd dumped a lot of money into eye-catching pre-recorded video would suffer the most under the latest algorithm changes, Facebook's News Feed VP Adam Mosseri told TechCrunch last month, because "video is such a passive experience."

Even before the announcement, news sites had seen their articles get fewer and fewer hits from Facebook. Last year, Google once again became the biggest referrer of news traffic as Facebook referrals decreased. Many sites published tutorials pleading with their readers to manually change their Facebook settings to guarantee the site's appearance in their news feeds.

"Some media outlets saw their [Facebook] traffic decline by as much as 30 to 40 percent," Ingram says. "Everybody knew something was happening, but we didn't know what."

It might be easy to mock those who chased the algorithm from one trend to another with little to show for it. But the reality, Ingram says, is that many of them didn't really have a choice.

"You pretty much have to do something with Facebook," Ingram says. "You have to. It's like gravity. You can't avoid it."

Zuckerberg's comments that stories that sparked "meaningful social interactions" would do the best on Facebook caused some to scoff.

"For Facebook, it's bad if you read or watch content without reacting to it on Facebook. Let that sink in for a moment," tech journalist Joshua Topolsky wrote at The Outline. "This notion is so corrupt it's almost comical."

In subsequent announcements, Facebook gave nervous local news outlets some better news: They'd rank local community news outlets higher in the feed than national ones. They were also launching an experiment for a new section called "Today In," focusing on local news and announcements, beta-testing the concept in a small batch of test markets. Those initial cities were New Orleans, Louisiana; Olympia, Washington; Billings, Montana; Binghamton, New York; Peoria, Illinois, and Little Rock, Arkansas.

But in early tests, the site seemed to have trouble determining what's local.

A Seattle Times reporter, Joe O'Sullivan, noted on Twitter that of the five stories featured in a screenshot of Facebook's Olympia test, "NONE OF THEM ARE OLYMPIA STORIES. ZERO."

The test outlets are taking a "wait-and-see" approach to the latest algorithm, analyzing how the impact shakes out before making changes. They've learned to not get excited.

"It just, more and more, seems like Facebook and news are not super compatible," says Shan Wang, staff writer at Harvard University's Nieman Journalism Lab.

At least not for real news. For fake news, Facebook's been a perfect match.

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