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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It's not fair, exactly, to say that Facebook killed the alt-weekly in Knoxville, Tennessee. But it probably landed the final blow.

The internet, obviously, has been killing newspapers for a very long time. Why, say, would you pay a monthly subscription to the Daily Cow, when you can get the milk online for free?

The internet killed other revenue sources as well. Craigslist cut out classified sections. Online dating killed personal ads. Amazon put many local mom-and-pop advertisers out of business.

Yet the Metro Pulse, Knoxville's longtime alt-weekly, was still turning a slight profit in 2014 when the E.W. Scripps Company shut it down. So editor Coury Turczyn and a few other staffers set out to start their own paper.

But in the six months it took to get the Knoxville Mercury off the ground, the market had changed.

"We lost a lot more small-business advertisers than we expected," Turczyn says. Facebook had captured them.

At one time, alt-weeklies could rake in advertising money by selling cheaper rates and guaranteeing advertisers to hit a younger, hipper, edgier audience. But then Facebook came along. The site let businesses micro-target their advertisements at incredibly specific audiences.

Like Google, Facebook tracks you across the web, digging deep into your private messages to figure out whether to sell you wedding dresses, running shoes or baby formula.

"You go to Facebook, you can try to pick your audience based on their geographic location, their interests," Turczyn says. It's cheaper. It's easier. And it comes with a report chock-full of stats on who the ad reached.

"Even if it doesn't result in any sales and foot traffic, it at least has this report," Turczyn says.

Mercury ad reps would cite examples of businesses who advertised in print and saw their foot traffic double the next day – but the small businesses wouldn't bite. Attempts to rally reader donations weren't enough. The Mercury shut down in July.

"It's just more of the same sad story," Turczyn says. "It's a slaughter, there's no doubt about it."

Turczyn says two decades of journalism experience hasn't helped much with the job search. Journalists aren't what outlets are looking for.

"The single biggest job opening I see consistently is social media manager. Or 'digital brand manager,'" Turczyn says. "Those are the jobs on the marketplace right now.'

It's not that nobody's making massive amounts of money on advertising online. It's just that only two are: Facebook and Google – and they're both destroying print advertising.

The decline in print advertising has ravaged the world of alt-weeklies, killing icons like the Boston Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Philadelphia City Paper and the Baltimore City Paper.

Dailies keep suffering, too, no matter how prestigious or internet-savvy.

The West Virginia Gazette-Mail won a Pulitzer Prize last year for reporting on the opioid crisis. It filed for bankruptcy last month. Eleven staffers were cut from the Oregonian on Jan. 31, the same day Silicon Valley's San Jose Mercury News slashed staff.

McClatchy's made a lot of cuts in the last year, too, though Grieve declined to say exactly how many positions have been eliminated. He, for one, doesn't blame Facebook.

"Our newsrooms are smaller than they once were, but because we're so focused on serving the needs of our communities, we're actually reaching more readers than we ever have before," Grieve writes in an email.

Yet the convergence of layoffs with the pressure to get web traffic, Robinson says, has influenced coverage. When potential traffic numbers are an explicit factor in story selection and you're short-staffed, you have to make choices. Stories about schools don't get many clicks. Weird crime stories do.

But as a long-time reporter, Robinson knows that bombshell scoops can sometimes begin with mundane reporting. Fail to report on the dull stuff, and you don't know what else you're missing.

"The media companies want the traffic, the traffic, the traffic," Robinson says. "The stuff [readers] need to know – but don't know they need to know – disappears."

Asked if there's any reason for optimism, Ingram, at the Columbia Journalism Review, lets out a wry laugh.

If you're not a behemoth like BuzzFeed, he says, your best bet is to be small enough to be supported by die-hard readers.

"If you're really, really hyper-focused – geographically or on a topic – then you have a chance," Ingram says. "Your readership will be passionate enough to support you in some way."

That's one reason some actually welcome the prospect of less Facebook traffic. Slate's Will Oremus recently wrote that less news on Facebook would eventually cleanse news of "the toxic incentives of the algorithm on journalism."

Maybe, the thinking goes, without a reliance on Facebook clicks, newspapers would once again be able to build trust with their readers. Maybe, the hope goes, readers would start seeking out newspapers directly again.

But even if Facebook suddenly ceased to exist, there are other sites with other algorithms that can drive traffic and shape coverage. As traffic referred by Facebook falls, the focus at McClatchy is already shifting. You can optimize your news coverage to appear high in the Facebook News Feed – but you can also optimize it to appear higher in the Google search results.

"We're all about Google, again," Robinson says. "Google, Google, Google."

A version of this article first appeared in the Inlander.

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