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Facebook to publishers: We are not interested in your traffic and referrals

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The publishing world went into a tizzy when reports surfaced about a story in The Australian, a newspaper based in Sydney, containing some explosive commentary from Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.

According to the report, Campbell Brown, Facebook’s global head of news partnerships, during a 4-hour off-the-record meeting with a group of more than 20 broadcasters and publishers, made certain comments to the following effect:

Mark [Zuckerberg] doesn’t care about publishers but is giving me a lot of leeway and concessions to make these changes,” Brown allegedly said.

Also warning that if publishers didn’t work with the social network on business model solutions, “… in a few years the ­reverse looks like I’ll be holding your hands with your dying ­business, like in a hospice.”

While Brown denied making the comments, saying “These quotes are simply not accurate and don’t reflect the discussion we had in the meeting,” the publication has five people in the meeting corroborating the statements.

Tellingly, while the social network says it has a recording of the meeting that proves its case, but so far the company hasn’t released it. Facebook also would not release the transcript from the meeting.

While it is currently not possible to independently verify either claim, there remains a possibility that Campbell Brown’s comments may really have been misunderstood or taken out of context. After all, it was only a few days ago that she said:

“Mark [Zuckerberg] is an incredibly curious person, and really curious about the news business.”

“He is super engaged on this issue because it has such importance…how critical journalism is to democracy. It’s something he is passionate about.”

Not just relaying the views of Facebook’s CEO, she also made her views clear, stating “We want to get to a place where journalism not just survives, but thrives. I want publishers to succeed.”

Be it as it may, what’s seems to have got lost in this hullabaloo is another statement in The Australian that Facebook has neither confirmed nor denied as of now. And that is,

“We are not interested in talking to you about your traffic and referrals any more. That is the old world and there is no going back.”

Source: The Australian

Now that is a major development, considering that “traffic and referrals” essentially comprised the primary reasons why publishers had cultivated their presence on Facebook.

In many ways, Facebook’s firehose of eyeballs significantly determined a host of new editorial strategies designed for share-friendly content, with the expectation that this digital presence could be effectively monetised to reverse the trend of decline that many publishers were facing.

The unchallenged statement above, that “traffic and referrals” is the old world and there is no going back, drives home the point that Facebook is perfectly happy throttling the traffic it sends to publishers.

“If anyone feels this isn’t the right platform for them, they should not be on Facebook,” Brown said at a Recode conference earlier this year, when she told publishers to jump in with us if you’re ready for a big experiment that might not work.”

So that’s where things stand now. Publishers are the guinea pigs in a global experiment where the future is uncertain, and currently, as far as Facebook is concerned, pretty bleak.

At one point, Facebook was the primary driver of online traffic to publishers, but it has been steadily going down, so much so that it’s now down to about 25% compared to Google’s referral share of almost 50%, as indicated by the referral trends in the network.

So, the fact remains that, irrespective of whether Facebook does or doesn’t care about publishers, Brown’s quote on “traffic and referrals” accurately reflects Facebook’s current worldview, and it’s clearly evident that the company isn’t interested in sending publishers more traffic.

The onus is now on the publisher community to build a sustainable model for generating and holding attention, not on any corporate behemoth at Menlo Park.