Tech

Why A Facebook Employee Just Scared The Hell Out Of The Media

Facebook’s head of ad product management attacked the state of today’s media landscape. As observers quickly noted, however, it appears lost on him that the company he works for is perhaps most to blame.

The Associated Press

Facebook’s head of ad product management Mike Hudack went on a self-described rant on his personal Facebook page this morning, attacking the state of the media for failing to provide a “new home for serious journalism in a format that [feels] Internet-native.”

In the post, Hudack laments the “hollowing out” of most major newspapers, the death spiral of evening and cable news, and the failure of new internet-native media, including BuzzFeed, to “inform the national conversation in any meaningful way.” Hudack’s post seems to have been set off by a particular story from Ezra Klein’s new explainer site, Vox:

Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native and natural to people who grew up interacting with screens instead of interacting with screens from couches with bags of popcorn and a beer to keep their hands busy.

And instead they write stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them. To be fair their top headline right now is “How a bill made it through the worst Congress ever.” Which is better than “you can’t clean your jeans by freezing them.”

He concludes by saying, “It’s hard to tell who’s to blame. But someone should fix this shit.”

The post is, of course, the frustrations of an individual, but given Hudack’s role at one of the most important platforms in online media, his rant will no doubt unnerve anyone in publishing, who already feel powerless at the whim of Facebook’s algorithms.

As others in Hudack’s now-cluttered Facebook thread have pointed out, the concerns in his post ignore the company playing perhaps the most crucial role in media today: Facebook. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal responded, “My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified. I’m not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they’d say, ‘They work on Facebook.’”

Hudack’s post and the response from those in the publishing industry illustrate the key tension in the media landscape today, one that influences everything from the struggles illuminated in the New York Times’ “Innovation Report” to the optimization of headlines and the framing of stories. The capricious algorithms of powerful web giants like Facebook and Google can lavish online publishers with unprecedented referral traffic, creating a ripple effect throughout the news industry as they did last November, increasing average referral traffic by over 170% in the blink of an eye. And they can take it away just as easily, as evidenced this week by Metafilter, which must now lay off employees after a seemingly inexplicable demotion by Google search algorithms. Just this morning in a private Facebook journalism group, one social media editor for an online publication lamented the whims of the algorithm writing, “anyone else see Facebook reach and engagement shitting the bed this week?”

Publishers have learned to live and die by the algorithm, mostly because there’s no alternative. And in this relationship the only solace for these organizations is the hope that those with their hands at the dials understand their part in this near one-way relationship. For publishers, Hudack’s post no doubt hints at the media’s greatest fear: that these companies, at an individual level, may not fully realize the power they wield. Facebook’s News Feed Manager Lars Backstrom told BuzzFeed in November that he would like to let user data and the algorithms speak for themselves, telling BuzzFeed, “We do not want to bring our own biases into this … we definitely don’t want to get into the role of saying, ‘You’re a good guy, you’re a bad guy.’” It’s an admirable position, but given the realities of media industry, perhaps an untenable one.

As Madrigal points out in the thread that the tension arises because the two sides — those in charge of the algorithms and those really and truly responsible for making the content — don’t often talk, and when they do, one side is usually dictating terms. “We (speaking for ALL THE MEDIA) would love to talk with Facebook about how we can do more substantive stuff and be rewarded.”

It’s not to say Facebook hasn’t courted the media. The company has made public its attempts to help publishers extend their reach and it has pushed publishers to work more closely with Facebook. For many though, the outreach feels more like lecture than a dialogue.There is, though, one silver lining. When asked in the thread “do you think Facebook could help fix this shit?” Hudack showed signs of cooperation replying, “Yes. I do.” Until then, the algorithm is king and Facebook, like Google is still a complete mystery — a strong ally, until it isn’t.

Here’s the post in its entirety:

Please allow me to rant for a moment about the state of the media.
It’s well known that CNN has gone from the network of Bernie Shaw, John Holliman, and Peter Arnett reporting live from Baghdad in 1991 to the network of kidnapped white girls. Our nation’s newspapers have, with the exception of The New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal been almost entirely hollowed out. They are ghosts in a shell.

Evening newscasts are jokes, and copycat television newsmagazines have turned into tabloids — “OK” rather than Time. 60 Minutes lives on, suffering only the occasional scandal. More young Americans get their news from The Daily Show than from Brokaw’s replacement. Can you even name Brokaw’s replacement? I don’t think I can.
Meet the Press has become a joke since David Gregory took over. We’ll probably never get another Tim Russert. And of course Fox News and msnbc care more about telling their viewers what they want to hear than informing the national conversation in any meaningful way.

And so we turn to the Internet for our salvation. We could have gotten it in The Huffington Post but we didn’t. We could have gotten it in BuzzFeed, but it turns out that BuzzFeed’s homepage is like CNN’s but only more so. Listicles of the “28 young couples you know” replace the kidnapped white girl. Same thing, different demographics.

We kind of get it from VICE. In between the salacious articles about Atlanta strip clubs we get the occasional real reporting from North Korea or Donetsk. We celebrate these acts of journalistic bravery specifically because they are today so rare. VICE is so gonzo that it’s willing to do real journalism in actually dangerous areas! VICE is the savior of news!

And we come to Ezra Klein. The great Ezra Klein of Wapo and msnbc. The man who, while a partisan, does not try to keep his own set of facts. He founded Vox. Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native and natural to people who grew up interacting with screens instead of interacting with screens from couches with bags of popcorn and a beer to keep their hands busy.

And instead they write stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them. To be fair their top headline right now is “How a bill made it through the worst Congress ever.” Which is better than “you can’t clean your jeans by freezing them.”

The jeans story is their most read story today. Followed by “What microsoft doesn’t get about tablets” and “Is ‘17 People’ really the best West Wing episode?”

It’s hard to tell who’s to blame. But someone should fix this shit.

correction

A previous version of this story referred to Hudack as head of product. He is head of ad product management.

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