Here’s Why Media Companies Should Invest In Facebook Ads, Not Investigative Journalism

A recent Business Insider piece highlights the precipitous traffic decline of viral content sites like Upworthy, ViralNova and Elite Daily, with the morale being ‘investing in journalism pays off.’

We’re not so sure about that one.

Facebook, it seems, took notice of Upworthy‘s massively-shareable do-gooder headlines, which pulled in 90 million viewers in November off the back of social media users. In changing their news feed algorithm in December, Facebook effectively banished low-quality meme content, as well as taking out the knees of highly-funded but low-cost websites like Upworthy, which produces no original reporting and very little actual writing.

Upworthy Crash
The Quantcast traffic graph above shows a drop from 90 million viewers in November to 48 million in January — a 46% plunge. Upworthy cofounder Peter Koechley claims that the site’s decline was because of a few blockbuster posts in November, as well as a conscious double-down on content focused on “income inequality, gender discrimination or racial injustice.”

Koechley’s explanation is not convincing, considering the immense drops in 2014 traffic for its competitors — the New Year has not been kind to viral content-creators. But is Upworthy, with over $16 million in VC funding, really not ‘high-quality’ enough? And are heavy-duty journalism institutions like Slate and The Atlantic really at an advantage, as BI’s Nicholas Carlson argues?

Not likely.

BuzzFeed — whose traffic climbed to over 150 million visitors in January — is arguably home to the most memes of any media giant. They were spared from Facebook’s mighty ‘anti-meme’ algorithm because, simply put, they pay Facebook for the traffic. Unlike other sites which focus on shareability, BuzzFeed has an entire in-house advertorial team dedicated to buying ads on social media. CEO Jonah Peretti claims such ads drive only about 5% of the site’s traffic — but that’s a solid 10 million visitors/month. And considering BuzzFeed will pull in over $130 million in revenue this year, you better believe Facebook expects a piece of that pie.

Altruistic as ‘high-quality’ newsfeed content may sound, Facebook’s penalization of most meme-journalism is pure business. Upworthy won traffic and venture capital funding by perfecting the art of shareable content, but in all matters digital, you’ve got to massage the hand that feeds you. So ‘investing in journalism’ may be a heartwarming conclusion for companies looking to get on Facebook’s good side, but here’s some more pragmatic advice: invest in Facebook advertisements.