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Here’s Another Reason For Media Companies to be Wary of Facebook

January 18, 2017, 12:04 AM UTC
Inside The Oculus Connect 3 Event
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., speaks during the Oculus Connect 3 event in San Jose, California, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016.
Bloomberg Bloomberg via Getty Images

When it comes to the mainstream media, what Facebook wants is usually what Facebook gets, because it commands the attention of more than 1.5 billion people. And what the giant social network has wanted for some time now is video—lots of it, preferably the live kind, in order to help promote the company’s Facebook Live video-streaming feature.

At one point last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was paying a number of mainstream media outlets—including the New York Times and BuzzFeed—a total of about $50 million to get them to create and upload video (Time Inc, Fortune‘s publisher, also produces videos for Facebook Live, but hasn’t disclosed any financial details about the deal).

Video also seemed to be promoted more in users’ feeds as well, and therefore many publishers started beefing up their video teams and spending more on creating video.

Now, it seems as though that gravy train may be ending, at least for media companies that were hoping to cash in with viral short clips. Facebook is said to be ending its payment program, according to a recent report at Recode, and is now moving its focus more towards getting individuals to stream on Facebook Live rather than having media outlets do it.

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Although there has been no confirmation that the program is ending, the idea that Facebook’s open-checkbook approach to video might eventually be killed isn’t surprising. The promotional value of that video has probably had its desired effect in attracting viewers (we’ve asked Facebook for comment on the Recode report and will add it if we get a response).

But what could be more interesting for media companies and publishers is if Facebook decides to push longer formats—similar to what it hired Ricky Van Veen of CollegeHumor to do, and to what Apple is said to be working on for original video: short-form, TV-style content. The problem for all those news outlets that staffed up for video is that this kind of content is difficult and expensive to produce.

As if that wasn’t enough, Facebook has repeatedly had to revise its numbers for things like how many people reacted to a live stream while it was happening, after errors in the tracking of those statistics for video producers.

The bigger picture from a media perspective is that this latest shift is another in a series of goalpost-moving decisions by the social network. As news companies scramble to try to generate revenue to make up for declines in traditional print and web advertising, they are coming to rely more and more on Facebook. And that’s hard to do when the terms of the deal keep changing.

Facebook’s fake news problem is worse than it looks:

Just when publishers get used to producing one kind of content in order to gain the favor of Facebook’s news-feed algorithm—whether it’s video or articles, or both—the company tweaks its code and media companies see their traffic disappear almost overnight.

Some companies have re-oriented themselves towards video in a significant way over the past year, in part because of Facebook’s focus on it and demand for more, and not just the New York Times or BuzzFeed. Mashable laid off much of its general news team last year as part of a move towards producing more video. What happens to companies that made those kinds of shifts now?

Obviously there are other ways to make money from video, but Facebook was one of the largest and therefore also one of the most appealing. And each time Facebook changes what it is looking for, media companies become that much more nervous about putting their content eggs into that giant basket—as perhaps they should be.