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Image: Matthew McAuley
Image: Matthew McAuley

MediaJuly 14, 2022

How social media abandoned news – and newsletters became existentially important to The Spinoff

Image: Matthew McAuley
Image: Matthew McAuley

As Facebook pivots to video, newsletters have become the antidote, an oasis of calm and curation. This is why The Spinoff has appointed its first newsletter editor. Founder and publisher Duncan Greive explains.

Think back, if you possibly can, to the internet as it existed a decade or so ago. It was the golden age of blogs, with Tumblr the apex of user-generated content. Social media was largely text and link-based, dominated by a benign Facebook where the worst that could happen was an unexpected poke from an acquaintance. Flickr was more famous than Instagram. Video was in good old-fashioned landscape format and located mainly on YouTube. If you watched at all, you certainly didn’t on your phone – what kind of data-rich millionaire could afford to?

In that era, legacy media still dominated our imagination, and the moment felt most solidly marked by the front page of the newspaper. Almost all our dailies operated in the broadsheet format, with multiple stories running or trailed on the front.

The weekday NZ Herald moved its weekdays to the compact format just shy of 10 years ago, in September 2012. Fairfax (now Stuff) would change its papers six years later, in 2018. Now, while newspapers remain brilliant objects for delivering packaged and timely information, with the demise of the broadsheet format the function and historic power of the front page changed too. (Lately Harvey Norman’s generous support of the newspaper industry has also helped render front pages far less impactful.)

A street vendor with the New Zealand Herald’s first ‘compact’ edition in 2012 (Photo: Simon Watts/Getty Images)

One underrated aspect of the difference between physical and digital products is the extent to which changes in digital products can slip by with us barely aware they’re changing. The move from broadsheet to compact was the subject of long-running debate, but more impactful changes to the appearance or functionality of our favourite apps might only dimly register and seldom merit reporting.

This goes even more so for changes to the underlying algorithms. What this means is that while social media has evolved very radically over the past 10 years, most mainstream discussion has been confined to the arrival of new platforms, like Instagram and TikTok, or angst over what they are doing to our children. What the products serve you, and the precise nature of that mix, remains a somewhat esoteric discussion.

Yet its changes have been infinitely more profound than any format change to a newspaper could hope to be. And because we never discuss them, what we experience as users can change slowly but inexorably until, without quite realising, it’s entirely different from what we first signed up to.

Video is eating the internet

So it has proved with social media, which in recent years has determinedly moved away from news. Not all at once (it learned the hard way in Australia that does not land well), but a little at a time, with those who rely on the platform to get links to relevant news stories on the platform the proverbial boiling frog.

Facebook in its early stages was an excellent place to get your news – links to news sites sat high in the feed, and users largely liked, commented on and shared news in a fairly basic and non-controversial way. 

Yet over the past few years the way people use social media has changed so much that it would seem entirely alien to our innocent selves 10 years ago. Had we known what was coming, we might have got together and debated whether it was what we wanted for us as a society, but the slippery and constant motion of technology products meant there were only very rarely flashpoints that felt like they might be grabbed hold of. And besides, a sense of inevitability had settled over the whole enterprise – these things were everywhere and nowhere and thus entirely ungovernable.

Which brings us to the bizarro world that is the present day. Facebook, which once had seemingly the entire internet population on it and felt entirely indomitable, now feels like a musty relic. A place built on text, when first images and then vertical video have come to dominate social attention. Perhaps most tellingly, Facebook was originally a place that naturally hosts links that people actually clicked on (unlike Twitter, a negligible traffic driver). All the next waves of social apps (Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, BeReal) were defined by being walled gardens that had no room for links and never wanted you to leave. 

For a decade Facebook busied itself trying to fix its product by making it more complex, adding more features. Some successful, like Marketplace and Messenger, some much less so, like Instant Articles and Deals. 

Now perhaps the biggest change in its history is coming. The Verge obtained a leaked memo which promised a huge overhaul of its algorithm to make it more like TikTok. It will re-merge Messenger and the main app, and emphasise the surfacing of content from anywhere over “the social graph” – friends and family. Most importantly, it will further escalate the prominence of Reels, its shortform video TikTok clone.

This will have profound implications for millions of people who rely on Facebook to do all kinds of things. But for us, and for you, the most important thing to understand is that it will have a huge impact on the news media.

What that means for the news, for The Spinoff and you

This might be the beginning of the end for naturally surfaced, locally created news on Facebook. The company has been gradually turning down the volume of news in its feed for some time now, and this will accelerate that process. Less than five years ago, 5% of the content of its feed was news. Now, that has declined to the point where it represents one in every 250 pieces of content, or less than half a percent. As a result, social interactions with news content in the US have declined 50% so far this year alone. As it moves to become more like TikTok and emphasise Reels, that proportion will drop further still. (Incidentally, I’m not mad at Facebook about this – it feels like the world is passing it by, and has to move with the times, which is its right).

As a publisher though, these changes could impact The Spinoff enormously. As of today, 40% of our traffic comes via social media. The vast majority, north of 90%, comes through Facebook. I cannot state this more clearly – if you are one of the 130,000 people who follow us on Facebook and rely on that method to read our stories: stop. You need another plan – and we have one for you, so read on. 

This has the potential to be an extinction-level event for news sites. 

We don’t want to go that way.

The vital importance of email and newsletters

This is where newsletters come in. For five years we have published The Bulletin, a 7am email that wraps news from around New Zealand into an easily digested five-minute read to start your day. It’s become beloved and extremely popular, with 35,000 New Zealanders reading it each day. 

We have complemented it with a range of other newsletters, a number launched in the past few months, and all with a vital and refreshing voice from a single author with a fascinating perspective on their subject area. Each has an insightful piece of writing at the top, and curated links to the writing from around New Zealand at the foot.

  • The Boil Up is Charlotte Muru-Lanning writing about food and the culture around it.

  • Stocktake is Chris Schulz writing about NZ business, especially startups and the people behind them.

  • Future Proof is Ellen Rykers writing an honest yet optimistic take on the environment.

  • The Weekend is Shanti Mathias wrapping the biggest stories of the week that was on The Spinoff, for those who might have missed them.

  • The Daily is an early evening round-up of all The Spinoff’s stories from that day in one short, simple and easy-to-read newsletter.

  • Rec Room is Catherine McGregor picking the best from TV, music, podcasts and pop culture (relaunching soon).

Sign up to any and all of our newsletters here

This week we announced that Anna Rawhiti-Connell, the brilliant mind behind The Bulletin, would be expanding her role to become our first-ever newsletter editor. She’s a writer I’ve loved for a long time, and who has followed in the footsteps of Alex Braae and Justin Giovanetti, but truly made The Bulletin her own. She’s also hugely passionate about newsletters as a form, as you can tell from the brilliant, considered perspective she brought to my podcast The Fold this week.

Follow The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

What we love about newsletters is that email is a protocol and not a platform. That means it arrives as part of a chronological feed that won’t change when someone tweaks an algorithm or decides the business model has moved on. After a decade of constant change in social media, that’s a dream.

They also have a wonderful sense of calm and human curation. We first started to lean into newsletters years ago, and appointed Anna just before news broke that Facebook was making these massive changes. What felt like an exciting new opportunity to serve our members and audiences suddenly became freighted with a far greater urgency.

So it deserves repeating: if you’re reading this and you mostly get The Spinoff on Facebook (or know someone who does), be aware that this will change. Perhaps you’ll remember to come and check us – but there are tens of thousands of brilliant technologists trying to get you to stay on social apps and never leave. So odds are you won’t.

Your best bet to stay in touch with what we do, and across the news and current affairs of this country, is to sign up for one or more of our newsletters. They’re some of the best writing we do, and come at a languid pace – most weekly, a couple daily. None take longer than five minutes to read, all will leave you smarter and better-informed.

I urge you to try one or more (and please let your friends and whānau know about these changes and our newsletters too – word of mouth remains our best friend). They’re rapidly joining podcasts in becoming the heart of what we do, and something about which we’re all very passionate. Subscribing also helps your local independent media company survive these huge changes, coming soon to a platform near you.

Ngā manaakitanga,

Duncan Greive

Publisher, The Spinoff

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