It’s not that Mark Zuckerberg set out to dismantle the news business when he founded Facebook 13 years ago. Yet news organizations are perhaps the biggest casualty of the world Zuckerberg built.
There’s reason to believe things are going to get worse.
A sprawling new manifesto by Zuckerberg, published to Facebook on Thursday, should set off new alarm bells for journalists, and heighten news organizations’ sense of urgency about how they—and their industry—can survive in a Facebook-dominated world.
Facebook’s existing threat to journalism is well established. It is, at its core, about the flow of the advertising dollars that news organizations once counted on. In this way, Facebook’s role is a continuation of what began in 1995, when Craigslist was founded. Its founder, Craig Newmark, didn’t actively aim to decimate newspapers, but Craigslist still eviscerated a crucial revenue stream for print when people stopped buying newspaper classifieds ads.
Craigslist was the first signal (and became the prototypical example) of a massive unbundling of news services online that would diminish the power and reach of the news, culturally, and make it more difficult to produce a profitable news product.
Zuckerberg’s memo outlines a plan for the next phase of this unbundling, and it represents an expansion of Facebook’s existing threat to the news industry.
Facebook already has the money. The company is absolutely dominating in the realm of digital advertising. It notched $8.8 billion in revenue last quarter—more than $7 billion of which came from mobile-ad sales. One analyst told The New York Times last year that 85 percent of all online advertising revenue is funneled to either Facebook or Google—leaving a paltry 15 percent for news organizations to fight over.
Now, Zuckerberg is making it clear that he wants Facebook to take over many of the actual functions—not just ad dollars—that traditional news organizations once had.
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In the past, the deaths of news organizations have jeopardized the prospect of a safe, well-informed, civically-engaged community. One 2014 paper found a substantial drop-off in civic engagement in both Seattle and Denver from 2008 to 2009, after both cities saw the closure of longstanding daily newspapers. (In Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer halted its print edition, but continued to produce online news; In Denver, the Rocky Mountain News folded.) Lee Shaker, an assistant professor of communications at Portland State University and the author of the 2014 study, found that the decline was “not consistently replicated over the same time period in other major American cities that did not lose a newspaper,” suggesting that the decline in civic engagement may be attributed to disappearance of local news sources. (The effects in Denver, where 20 percent of the population had subscribed to the shuttered Rocky Mountain News, were especially pronounced.)
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News organizations provide the basis for public action by building and strengthening community ties, “so, if local media institutions are strong and are binding individuals and groups together, then citizens should be participating in more community groups, contacting their government more frequently, and circulating more petitions because they are more aware of shared problems, interests, and opportunities,” Shaker wrote.
Zuckerberg obviously understands this. “Research suggests reading local news is directly correlated with local civic engagement,” he wrote in his manifesto. “This shows how building an informed community, supportive local communities, and a civically-engaged community are all related.”
The problem is that Zuckerberg lays out concrete ideas about how to build community on Facebook, how to encourage civic engagement, and how to improve the quality and inclusiveness of discourse—but he bakes in an assumption that news, which has always been subsidized by the advertising dollars his company now commands, will continue to feed into Facebook’s system at little to no cost to Facebook.