Business/Finance

Eight seconds — why the NYT caves, and Facebook wins

An impatient audience wielding smartphones says, ‘We want it NOW.’

Eight seconds.

Count with me, please: one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one thousand five, one thousand six, one thousand seven, one thousand eight.

Eight seconds. That snippet of time, about 1/300,000,000 of an actuarial life, has driven The New York Times (among others) into the inviting arms of a Facebook lusting for revenue. Eight seconds. That’s the time Facebook says a user endures after she clicks on a Facebook link to a third-party site like nytimes.com.

About 15 percent of The Times’ digital traffic arrives via Facebook.

Consider this: 87 percent of adults ages 18–29 and 73 percent of adults ages 30–49 use Facebook. Arguably, they’re conditioned to be impatient. “We want it now,” is the generational demand. They abhor the eight-second journey from the Facebook app on their smartphones to The Times’ own ecosystem.

The Times should have recognized this long ago: It needs these young readers and the future ad revenue they represent. Longtime readers like me who subscribed to print are dead or soon will be.

Enter the smiling Facebook, trying so hard to appear benign, with its “Instant Articles.” Let us help you, says Goliath. The Newsosaur, Alan Mutter, explains:

The media companies will give full articles and videos to Facebook, so the social network can distribute them among its more than 1.4 billion users. Publishers can keep all the revenue from any ads they sell to accompany the content they allow Facebook to post. When Facebook sells ads against the content contributed by the media companies, both sides will split the proceeds equally.

Facebook becomes the printing press, the world’s largest, for The Times and eight other “content-producing” entities. Others will no doubt seek to follow. If The Times wants its stories read by sufficient numbers of people to warrant significant ad revenue, then it must go to where those readers are. They’re on Facebook. It irritates them to have to leave it. And wait. For eight seconds.

That “gulp” you hear is the sound of massive egos being swallowed. In the news biz, the advent of “Instant Articles” is life-changing and, media types like The Times hope, financially life-affirming.

After all, journalistic excellence is no guarantor of future financial health. The Rocky Mountain News, for example, won two Pulitzer Prizes in 2006. But the 156-year-old newspaper folded just three years later.

Handwriting on the wall, anyone? Says Mutter:

The choice to throw in with Facebook could not have been easy for the proud media companies. Historically, the last thing they wanted was to give their expensively produced content to another brand competing for the same eyeballs and ad dollars. But that was then and this is now. The media swallowed their pride because they know they lack the sort of massive global reach that only Facebook can provide.

Others can opine whether this is good or bad for Facebook or the news organizations. Other issues are of concern here.

I could rant, I suppose, that the impatience of a presumptuous generation has driven the waning believers in the traditional newspaper business model into the arms of their technogiant frenemy. But newspaper readers and broadcast news viewers have always been impatient. Editors tell reporters: “You’ve only got 10 words.” Station managers tell broadcasters: “You’ve only got 10 seconds.” Moral: Get to the point. Not doing so — in any age, let alone the digital age — breeds shrinking revenue.

Failure in the digital age rests in this equation: eight seconds of load time external to Facebook, plus 10 seconds of not getting to the point after that.

What will become of the traditional measures that define what is news and what isn’t? You remember them: timeliness, proximity, magnitude or impact, conflict, novelty (the “gee whiz” factor), prominence, and human interest. Provide those, and readers would read the stories.

The definition of premium content (no one says “news” anymore) will no longer be underscored by those traditional news values. Rather, it will be valued by the degree to which the content resonates — how many likes does it get and, more significantly, how many shares does it get. Frankly, I don’t know what resonates is going to mean to the Facebook audience. But I’m not a Millenial; they will define it. The Times will adapt to however they do so. No, I don’t think the content will devolve to cat videos. Buzzfeed, once a laughingstock, is now a role model for any entity that puts content online with the intent of making money.

… there should be zero surprise that BuzzFeed is a pilot member of Facebook’s initiative: their entire business is predicated on understanding how to get content shared. The fact that they make money by selling this ability to brands is what makes them independent (and is why they are important).[emphasis added]

Buzzfeed knows its audience and what appeals to it. After all, the news business has always had to identify and profitably serve an audience to survive. So I won’t get overly perturbed about Facebook and The Times consorting.

The Facebook audience, it seems, knows what it wants. I wonder, however, if that audience knows what it needs. A good newspaper has historically given its audience a significant serving of what editors think it needs — whether the audience likes it or not. Will newspapers publishing on Facebook lean more to fulfilling wants rather than editorially perceived needs?

The news business has always been about appealing fruitfully to an audience. But it’s frustrating that smart people in the legacy news business have forgotten that for nearly two decades as its audience died or drifted away — or was born into online content believing that everything there ought to be free.

The media universe has irrevocably changed. The legacy gatekeepers are being shown the gate. And it leads to Facebook.

The Times should be praying life with Facebook proves better (i.e., much more profitable) than life without Facebook.

6 replies »

  1. Denny,

    You have to stop writing this stuff – this triggers me – to be reminded that people with the attention spans of gnats are beginning to run the world.

    Money quote: “The Facebook audience knows what it wants. I wonder, however, if it knows what it needs.” Answer to both questions – No. Likelihood I would be given enough time to explain why I think answer to both questions is No – zero.

    Richard Brautigan wrote a poem that sums up how this makes me feel pretty well. The poem is called “Melting Ice Cream at the Edge of Your Final Thought.” Goes like this:

    “Oh, well. Call it a life.”

    • Easy, Jim. Deep breath. I’ll send you my drugs. And you’ll float happily away into the oblivion of not giving a damn.

      Seriously, I watch this notion of wants superseding needs, as do you. Until the news biz gets an adequate business model and makes some money, that will be the condition. I fear, though, as you likely do, that the “adequate business model” will be permanently serving up wants rather than needs.

  2. It’s always the quandary, isnt it? News, censorship, academia. Should those who know better determine what the audience sees?

    When I guest taught a few classes at NW MBA program one of the questions on the teacher rating form was “How useful will this be to you when you graduate and get out in the real world?” How in hell can any student know that? It’s pandering in its most extreme form.

    I’m not stupid, I figured out how to get high scores. I pulled all my real content and replaced it with slides telling them how elite and smart they were. My scores the first time were so so. After I replaced content with flattery they went through the roof.

    Then I quit.

    • O,

      My last year of full-time teaching I stopped reading my evals. Period. 100%. I couldn’t bear the stupidity and the hatefulness that the entitlement culture was breeding. It not only just depressed me and made me want to choke kids, it made me a worse teacher. You find yourself not only thinking about what you can do to be better, but also what you can do to be more liked. Sadly, better and more liked were mutually exclusive for me.

      As it turns out, I quit, too.

  3. If Facebook is the medium that is the message, I dread to think of what the message is. Jim’s haunting words haunt.

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