“The loss of reach for news publishers comes with a loss of visibility, which is likely to hit new, digital-born journalism organizations the hardest.”
The journalism industry has to prepare for an imminent post-search and post-social world. While news organizations have come to rely over the past decade on digital intermediaries such as Google and Meta to distribute their stories and amplify their reach, this era looks set to come to an end. Both technology giants have signaled over the past 12 months that news is far less important to them than the journalism industry might like to believe.
Meta has gradually been moving away from news, deprioritizing its prominence on Facebook over the past year. In Canada, the company blocked all news from Facebook and Instagram in the summer due to a dispute with the government over legislation, the Online News Act (Bill C-18), mandating that it pay for news links. The loss hit Canadian news organizations hard, with some losing up to 20% of visits overnight. The impact on Facebook use, though, was minimal.
Canada has become a testbed for the tussle between news publishers, governments, and platforms over funding for journalism, with other countries considering similar legislation. While Google has reached a deal over the Online News Act to provide $100 million annually for the news industry in cash, training, and services, it too has been moving away from news. Changes to Google’s algorithms over the past year have tended to reduce the visibility of news results in search and other services. The result has been sharp falls in online visits to media outlets in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere.
The dependence on digital intermediaries has proved to be a Faustian bargain for the news industry. For years, search, social, and aggregators offered a cost-effective way to grow audiences, expand reach, and generate revenues. News was seemingly everywhere, so it was easy to stumble across the latest headlines or quirky story. Now, the challenge for news publishers is that audiences expect the news to come to them, rather than going directly to a news website.
According to the 2023 Reuters Digital News Report, just 22% of news consumers go directly to a news site or app, down from 32% five years ago. Finding the news through the side door has become the norm, particularly among young adults. The picture is far from uniform globally. While news publishers in the Nordic countries can still count on loyal online audiences, social media and aggregators dominate the gateways to news in countries such as Chile, India, Japan, and Thailand.
The loss of reach for news publishers comes with a loss of visibility that is likely to hit new, digital-born journalism organizations the hardest. In Canada, more than 150 new outlets have launched since 2000, often driven by a mission to address the deficits of commercial media and be more responsive and reflective of communities. These organizations don’t have the resources to mount major marketing campaigns to attract and grow audiences. One response from 20 local, regional and national media outlets in Canada has been to band together to launch their own news aggregator, Unrigged. The initiative is a positive first step as news publishers look to adapt to a post-search and post-social media environment. Whether audiences will also adapt their news habits is a far more taxing question.
Alfred Hermida is a professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia.