The Digital Ad Duopoly and the Frightening Changes to the Publisher News Feed

If you’re a publisher and you’re not concerned about the looming changes to the FB News Feed, I’d love to know why not.

Facebook, to recap, is testing out algorithm changes that change how publisher content appears in users’ News Feeds. “As part of a new test in six countries, Facebook is taking content from publishers and businesses out of its main feed,” writes Kurt Wagner in Recode. Instead, those posts will exist in a separate, hard-to-find feed that Facebook recently launched for discovering new stuff, called the ‘Explore Feed.’”

Basically, it’s looking like publishers will have to pay if they want anyone to see their stories. At the same time, they are offering revised News Feed Publisher Guidelines to ostensibly help publishers be better at what they do. How nice of them. And how totally hollow it rings, coming from the folks who enabled massive amounts of fake news over the past several months.

What this means is that the Facebook/Google duopoly – between the two platforms they receive 99% of all digital ad revenue — is about to get bigger. And publisher reach and engagement will continue to drop.

Surely, most publishers are not happy. But there’s an interesting dissenting voice that applauds the duopoly.

“I applaud the duopoly,” said The Washington Post’s Jed Hartman in an interview with Campaign.

His comments have perplexed many in the publishing world, including Peter Huston, interviewed in this Media Voices podcast.

“I haven’t heard anyone at a newspaper applauding the duopoly,” referencing Jed’s interview in which he says they are “partners” with Facebook, not adversaries.

“Well, good luck with that one,” he quips.

Of course, The Washington Post has a leg up on any other publishers these days — namely Jeff Bezos, the newspaper’s owner, with his limitless pockets and the cozy relationship they have with Amazon and their bundled subscription services.

One thing in Harman’s interview that rings true is the “return to quality” – although we are skeptical that this alone would account for their digital growth over the last several months. “If they’re growing their subscriptions and their digital ad revenue, and it’s a quality user experience, then well done at Washington Post,” Huston continues.

Listen, we don’t blame the Washington Post for growth; gaining readership to a solid title is a good thing. And we don’t demonize them for their role in the duopoly. It’s capitalism, in living color, and it’s allowing them to continue creating quality journalism, which we all desperately need.

But applaud the duopoly? I think that rings a bit hollow to all the publishers out there without the limitless pockets of Jeff Bezos. No, we shouldn’t be throwing laurel wreaths at their feet. Especially in light of the coming changes that can seriously hamper the already tough road for publishers set on building an interested and loyal readership.

With FB now poised to control what news gets to what readers, it’s nothing less than censorship for dollars. And that is not the path for enlightened journalism.