To say that it’s been a bad year for Facebook would be an understatement. But the overall relationship between publishers and platforms has shifted dramatically over the course of the year – and not necessarily for the better. Chris Sutcliffe rounds up the key platform moments of the year as part of our Media Moments 2021 report.

It won’t surprise you to learn that the working relationship between platforms and publishers was strained coming into 2021. The aftermath of various disputes around metric misrepresentation and de-prioritisation of publisher content in feeds cast a long shadow over any conversations.

So as 2021 began with an attempted coup in the US that was facilitated by Facebook tools and the Murdoch media leaning on the Australian government around payment for content, the overall landscape was poised for a major shake-up.

A difficult year for Facebook

It’s impossible to talk about 2021 without discussing The Facebook Files. A vast dump of internal comms and documents, followed hot on its heels by further damaging leaks and allegations from the whistleblower Frances Haugen, has potentially done irreparable damage to the Facebook brand. The harm was enough that it spilled over into discussions of regulation in the UK government’s mooted Online Safety Bill, and ultimately led to a rebrand of the Facebook parent company as ‘Meta’ in late October.

The revelations are numerous and well-documented elsewhere, from the potential harm Instagram inflicts on the mental wellbeing of young women to Facebook’s late implementation of safety measures around the January 6 riots in the Capitol. Most catchy of all was the implication that Facebook prioritised growth over all else, including public safety.

Sensing blood in the water, newspapers swarmed. A conglomerate of publishers (controversially mostly English speaking) collaborated on examining and disseminating the information, piling pressure onto Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

This was despite Facebook making consistent overtures to publishers over the course of the year. In a lull in October it announced it was introducing new products to its curated News Tab, which apparently drives more traffic to publishers than the standard News Feed (though as ever the question of payments rears its head). It also announced the first payments to newsletter creators via its push into local news provision.

Unfortunately for Facebook, a company-wide outage also led to increased traffic across news sites, sparking conversations about its impact on publishers’ reach. 

Payment pressure for Google

Speaking of payments, a long-running disaster reached a new phase as Google and Facebook agreed to pay Australian publishers for news in February. This was immediately heralded by the usual suspects as being a victory for all publishers, when the reality is that it has only benefited the biggest players at the expense of new publications, fundamentally and wilfully misunderstands the value chain of the internet, and raises questions about those publishers’ objectivity. Worse still it has set a dangerous precedent for similar deals around the world – with France reaching a similar deal with Facebook later in the year. 

In early November Google also announced a return of its News product to Spain after the country changed its copyright law in accordance with EU legislation. The search and advertising company was then accused by right-wing publishers in the UK of burying their search results, though since the tabloids used the word ‘woke’ to describe Google their complaints can be safely discounted.

In other platform news

Outside of the Duopoly, Apple has gradually become a more hospitable place for publishers. News apps can now send would-be subscribers outside the app store to pay, which provides them a greater share of the overall revenue and better user data. Apple News+, despite a botched and confusing rollout, now sends a significant amount of traffic to US magazine publishers

That said, Apple was also instrumental in helping shift the world of podcasting away from its open and democratic origins to a more tightly controlled model – to the disappointment of publishers looking to avoid exactly that scenario again – though the launch was marred by problems. Partly in response to that attempted shift, the New York Times launched a beta version of its own Audio product, which collates all its podcasts and other audio in an environment it controls in its entirety.

Looking forward

Given that Facebook is now seen – despite its best efforts – as a platform for old people, expect to see publishers make much more of their experiments on other platforms like TikTok and Snapchat in addition to the metaverse (see our chapter on NFTs and other opportunities). At the same time the reprioritisation of owned and operated platforms will mean that direct relationships via publishers’ own sites and apps should reduce the reliance on other platforms somewhat.

As for the fallout from the Facebook Files, a pall is cast across the newly rebranded Meta. It is difficult to see how, in the light of increased pressure following the leaks, it can avoid making at least a few token gestures towards external oversight and regulation. It – and Google – will also likely inch towards further direct payments to publishers, though see above for why we believe this is a bad idea in the long run.

This article is an extract from our annual report, Media Moments 2021. For more on this chapter including case studies and key statistics, download it now for free.

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