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Digital news sites fight to survive as online ad dollars dry up

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Online news sites are fighting to survive as online advertising dollars dry up and large social media companies are slumping. NPR's Bobby Allyn reports on what the future of digital news holds.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Is this the beginning of the end of Web 2.0? It's a question many are asking as social media and digital news go through one of the biggest shake-ups in years. Web 2.0 refers to the way we use the internet today - mediated through platforms like Facebook and Twitter. For news outlets, these juggernaut platforms became a blessing and a curse.

COURTNEY RADSCH: The news industry didn't really have a profit model other than trying to get eyeballs and earn digital advertising revenue.

ALLYN: That's Courtney Radsch. She's a UCLA researcher who studies social media.

RADSCH: But what we saw is that the tech platforms, specifically Google and Facebook, ended up controlling that digital advertising infrastructure.

ALLYN: News outlets use social media to reach people, but the tech companies are the ones that pocket most of the advertising dollars. And after the platforms became well-oiled ad machines, they ditched news publishers. Facebook stopped promoting news outlets. News barely comes across TikTok feeds. And journalists say Twitter has become a hostile environment under Elon Musk. But if media companies want out, it's not easy. Outlets tailor stories for social media with headlines and topics that can be easily juiced by algorithms. Radsch says these recommendation systems typically reward one thing - clicks.

RADSCH: That means that's going to favor extremism. It's going to favor polarization. And we might say, you know what? That's maybe not the best way to do the news.

ALLYN: Twitter under Musk has indeed gotten more extreme, more polarized. And reliable news is harder to come by. BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti wrote in a memo to staff that social media companies being bad partners is one of the reasons BuzzFeed News is shutting down. It will land in the digital graveyard with other once-popular digital news sites like Gawker, The Awl and Grantland. Vice, another digital news site, is looking for a buyer. Ben Smith used to run BuzzFeed News.

BEN SMITH: Users turned away from news on social media. And then the platforms, seeing users turn away, started pushing news out.

ALLYN: Smith says if Musk runs Twitter into the ground, that might be a good thing for the news industry.

SMITH: It rewards people for feeding into predictable narratives and telling people what they want to hear, punishes them for breaking from the pack and is an incredible machine for elevating the stupidest thing that your enemy ever thought or said.

ALLYN: Being on Twitter and Facebook these days really showcases the decline of Web 2.0. Everyone is yelling. Misinformation is rampant. Users are fleeing. News outlets can't trust the platforms. So where does digital news go from here? Jeff Jarvis is a media critic and journalism professor at the City University of New York. He sees some trends accelerating - specialized newsletters and podcasts for niche audiences, paid subscriptions, communities around nerdy topics on platforms like Reddit and Discord, sites that recommend and spread news stories that aren't just interested in going viral.

JEFF JARVIS: We don't need to operate at the scale of mass media or the scale of Silicon Valley and venture capital. Because all of these tools exist, we can get back to a human scale of small.

ALLYN: Jarvis says this shift from large social media platform to smaller communities is going to continue. And with it, the big Web 2.0 platforms will lose power.

JARVIS: It took 150 years after Gutenberg before anybody thought to invent a newspaper. I think we're talking about decades, maybe even generations before we figure out this next stage.

ALLYN: In his memo announcing the closure of BuzzFeed News, Jonah Peretti wrote, quote, "our industry is hurting and ready to be reborn. We know that the struggle is real, but the rebirth is far from clear." Bobby Allyn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.