NOEL KING, HOST:
The relationship between Facebook and news publishers is very complicated. Many news outlets think they need to be on Facebook in order to reach people, but they've also lost a lot of advertising dollars that now go to Facebook. NPR's Shannon Bond has the story of a publisher that decided to go it alone. And I should note that Facebook is one of NPR's financial supporters.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Sinead Boucher is CEO of New Zealand's largest news publisher. And last year during the pandemic, she bought the company for $1.
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.
BOND: The publisher is called Stuff. It owns the most popular news website in New Zealand and around 50 newspapers. And when the pandemic brought the economy to a halt, Stuff was at risk of shutting down. For Boucher, this was a big moment.
BOUCHER: People sometimes said 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 is a freedom in being able to make your own decisions for better or worse.
BOND: And one of the first decisions she made was to break up with Facebook. Stuff was already wary of the social network, especially after a terrible mass shooting in New Zealand that was livestreamed on Facebook in 2019. So in July 2020, Stuff's newspapers and magazines all hit pause on Facebook.
BOUCHER: You know, we still felt uneasy with a lot of the decisions Facebook has made or a lot of the things it turned a blind eye to.
BOND: Things like hate speech and misinformation. But this decision was also risky for Stuff. Almost a quarter of its traffic came from social media - mainly Facebook. In fact, Facebook has become such a dominant force in how people get information, some governments are trying to force the social network to pay media outlets for news stories. Boucher says Stuff was bracing for the worst.
BOUCHER: We were expecting that it would bring a significant drop in our traffic. That didn't happen.
BOND: Traffic from social media did drop, but overall traffic went up in part because 2020 was such a big news year.
BOUCHER: If we had remained on Facebook, we might have had another, I don't know, 5% growth. But even if we throttled our growth, it's brought us a lot of positives as well.
BOND: Positives like more donations from readers who want to support Stuff. The Facebook pause was supposed to last a few weeks. It's now been more than eight months. But Boucher says it's still an experiment because there are people who rely on Facebook for news, and there's a lot of bad information on there.
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.
BOND: She worries. Does Stuff have an obligation to be on Facebook? Still, she's confident she made the right decision. She knows Stuff is just one publisher in a small country.
BOUCHER: 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.
BOND: So she thinks it might be time for other media outlets to reconsider their relationship status with Facebook.
Shannon Bond, NPR News.
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