UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.
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CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
Hey, everyone - Cardiff here. And today I'm joined by Shannon Bond, NPR tech correspondent.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Cardiff.
GARCIA: So Shannon, you have brought us this story about the relationship between Facebook and the news industry. And I think it's pretty fair to say right now that the relationship between Facebook and the news industry is not so great these days. And so you've been following this showdown in Australia. What's going on?
BOND: So last month, there were a couple days where nobody using Facebook in Australia could post or even see any news articles. The company basically cut off news entirely. And this is because at the time, Australia was getting ready to pass this new law that would force big online platforms like Facebook to pay publishers for that news content. Facebook did not like this law.
GARCIA: And so Facebook basically said, fine, we just won't run any news links on our platform and was basically playing chicken with the Australian government, right?
BOND: Pretty much. And ultimately, the Australian government blinked. It made some changes to the law, and Facebook said, OK, we can live with this.
GARCIA: Yeah, a kind of climactic story with sort of an anticlimactic conclusion. Australia gets its law, the publishers get some money and then Facebook basically turns the news back on.
BOND: That's right. But look, Cardiff, this fight actually isn't over. Other countries are looking at similar laws, including here in the U.S. And to kind of understand why this is happening, remember, the news business is in real financial trouble, in part...
BOND: ...Because so many advertising dollars that use to go to newspapers now go to Facebook and Google. And at the same time, news publishers think they need to be on Facebook to reach people, right? That's where people are. And in fact, about a third of Americans say they regularly get their news on Facebook, according to Pew. That's a lot of people. You know, Facebook's view is, publishers need us more than we need them. And so for me, this all raises this question - is it possible for the news business to break up with Facebook?
GARCIA: OK. And I understand you talked to somebody in New Zealand who is doing exactly that. They're trying to break up with Facebook.
BOND: That's right. And we will bring you that story after the break.
GARCIA: Oh. (Laughter) I got to wait?
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GARCIA: OK. Shannon Bond, NPR tech correspondent, we're back. Take us to New Zealand.
BOND: Right. So I want to tell you about Sinead Boucher. She is the CEO of a company called Stuff. And Stuff is the biggest news publisher in New Zealand. And the first thing that Sinead told me about is actually how in May of last year, she became the owner of Stuff. She bought the company from the Australian conglomerate that previously owned it for $1.
GARCIA: One dollar - she walked into the discount dollar store and bought a whole news organization.
BOND: One dollar.
BOND: And why a dollar?
SINEAD BOUCHER: Well, it was just a nominal fee. Like, I knew that they, you know, in the context of what was happening, would potentially just decide to wind us up. So it was just a punt (laughter).
GARCIA: And when she says the context of what was happening, we have to remember this was in the early months of the pandemic.
BOND: That's right. New Zealand went into this really severe lockdown early in the year. Advertising just dried up. You know, it wasn't a good time for any business at all. And for Stuff, there were these real worries that with the way things were going, you know, it could just be entirely shut down.
GARCIA: Which presumably is why it was so cheap. So why don't you tell us what Sinead actually ended up getting for her $1.
BOND: Right. So she owns the biggest news website in New Zealand, which is also called Stuff, and around 50 newspapers with hundreds of reporters all over the country. And, you know, this purchase, it's a big moment for Sinead. Her vision is that Stuff can take real control over what kind of news, what kind of stories, it's going to produce.
BOUCHER: People sometimes say to me, it must be so stressful now, owning the company and blah, blah. But it's actually - in a lot of ways, it's been liberating because there was a freedom in being able to make your own decisions, for better or worse.
BOND: And so for Sinead, you know, making those decisions, that meant focusing on trust. She wanted the newspapers, the website to really put the relationship with their readers first above all - that direct relationship with the people who are reading the papers and the news.
GARCIA: Right. And this is where Facebook comes into the picture.
BOND: Before we quite get there, it's actually really important to understand this thing that happened before Sinead bought Stuff - back in 2019, when there was this horrific mass shooting at mosques in Christchurch. And that shooting was live-streamed on Facebook. It was this incredibly traumatic moment for New Zealand, and it made Stuff really reconsider its relationship with Facebook. The company back in 2019, it's actually stopped advertising on Facebook, so it wasn't paying to promote stories.
So now, fast forward, it's July 2020. It's under new ownership. And Stuff decides it's just going to stop posting on Facebook altogether. The newspapers, the Stuff page, the Instagram accounts for its magazines - remember, Facebook also owns Instagram - they all hit pause.
BOUCHER: We felt, was that really compatible with our focus on trust? You know, we still felt uneasy with a lot of the decisions Facebook has made or a lot of the things they turned a blind eye to.
GARCIA: So Shannon, this is happening in the middle of this big reckoning around the world, including here in the U.S., about things like hate speech and misinformation being found on Facebook. And so given what you said about how much people rely on Facebook for their news, it seems like Stuff is cutting off what I imagine is a big source of traffic for them when the financial picture for the news business is already pretty difficult.
BOND: Yeah. I mean, this was a real risk. They definitely gave up a lot of clicks on these articles. So Sinead says before they pulled from Facebook, Stuff was getting about 22- or maybe 23% of its traffic from social media, and that is mainly from Facebook.
BOUCHER: We were expecting that it would bring a significant drop in our traffic. That didn't happen for a variety of reasons.
BOND: What she says happens, actually, is traffic from social media did drop, but overall, traffic went up. And now look, some of that is because this was just a huge news year. And Sinead says, you know, yes, maybe even more people would be reading Stuff if it was still on Facebook, but the bottom line was readers adjusted.
And Sinead said there were other positive effects, too. So Stuff has this membership model where readers can donate, and people gave a lot of money after the word got out that Stuff was quitting Facebook. And so Stuff's experiment was originally supposed to last just a month. It's now been eight months and counting.
GARCIA: Yeah. So it sounds like it's working out so far. Why don't you tell us about the downsides?
BOND: Yeah. There is one thing in particular that Sinead said she's worried about. So while lots of people are coming to Stuff's websites, there are people in New Zealand, of course, who still rely largely on Facebook for news. And just like here in the U.S., there is a lot of bad information on Facebook in New Zealand, like things that are just not true.
BOUCHER: And we wonder about the risk of withdrawing journalism from Facebook and what that leaves behind for people to sort of be exposed to, particularly around things like COVID vaccine.
GARCIA: Yeah. So basically, she's saying if you're not finding news stories at outlets like Stuff, what's out there to counter all these posts on Facebook claiming that, you know, vaccines are going to let Bill Gates control your DNA or whatever?
BOND: Right. And that's why Sinead says, you know, ultimately, while Stuff does not have plans to resume posting on Facebook anytime soon, she's not ruling it out permanently.
GARCIA: Yeah. And so Shannon, this is also the experience of just one publisher in a country that's, you know, lovely, important, significant in many ways, but a small country - so not trying to offend any of our Kiwi friends.
BOND: Five million people, right.
GARCIA: (Laughter) Yeah. So how does this apply to other media companies around the world?
BOND: Yeah. I mean, that was sort of my question to Sinead, too. She says she thinks her experience shows that really, publishers just don't need to be in this codependent relationship with Facebook. There's other options.
BOUCHER: Yeah. I mean, I know not everyone is in the same situation than (ph) us, but taking that step and deciding to just give it a go taught us so much and made us think that all our fears that without these platforms, we would just collapse, that was, you know, baseless.
GARCIA: So in other words, her relationship advice? Dump Facebook.
BOND: Yeah. I mean, remember how people used to set their relationship status on Facebook to it's complicated?
GARCIA: Yes, absolutely (laughter).
BOND: I think the takeaway from Sinead is the relationship that publishers should be worried about is the one with their readers, not with Facebook.
GARCIA: Shannon, thanks so much for joining THE INDICATOR.
BOND: Thanks for having me.
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GARCIA: Quick disclosure - Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin and fact-checked by Sam Tsai (ph). It was edited by Jolie Myers, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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