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As print media companies try to navigate the (seemingly eternal) transition to the digital world, they might be finding solidarity with other companies born in the new world.

Solidarity, however, comes in the form of middlemen cutting into profits.

The story goes like this: News websites need eyeballs so advertisements can be seen and sold. Getting those eyeballs is the big party trick. Enter digital companies like Google and Facebook, which have eyeballs but need content--like news articles.

Over the last few years, Google and Facebook have been luring in companies with "free" tools to get eyeballs in exchange for bringing over content. Google gathers stories in its news section, and Facebook offers news companies the ability to make free pages that users can "like" and see stories in their news feeds. Sounds like a sweet deal, so far.

Recently, though, news companies are starting to see the bear trap they've been clamped into. Facebook and Google use their content to make advertising dollars, but news companies see diminished returns. And online users, those eyes we mentioned, are used to staying within Facebook and Google for their news, rather than going directly to the news providers' websites.

It turns out that people have an easier time scrolling endlessly on their phones than they do punching in in a Web browser. And you know how our species behaves. If we can find a lazier way to do something, we'll take it.

Here's where the trouble comes in for news companies and other websites: Google and Facebook are holding audiences hostage. In Facebook's case, it has been intentionally decreasing the number of eyeballs news companies see on their pages unless said companies pay for advertising. The first hit is always free.

In Google's case, the company controls all the rules in its news section, and if you aren't paying them to advertise your stories, they might decide to list your competitors above you in its search results.

That's the trap. Most news companies have grown so reliant on these digital ecosystems, throwing in all their content to get more eyeballs, that they've trained audiences to simply rely on Google or Facebook to get their news content. And when those giants turn the eyeball valve to the off position, Web traffic vanishes.

So now digital companies have to figure out how to survive, potentially without relying so heavily on Facebook and Google. These companies have become the foreign oil of the digital world.

BuzzFeed, the website where you go to take silly quizzes about which loaf of bread you are, is taking the attack straight to the middlemen. Here's more from Forbes:

"The site wants to solve this so-called 'attribution problem' by instead forming partnerships directly with the providers of the goods, like airlines, hotels, or brands. While BuzzFeed and many other sites already use affiliate linking for products in gift guides or roundups, where they get a small payout for any purchase made, the idea is to make the model more lucrative and expand to new industries."

So from now on, BuzzFeed wants to form direct advertising relationships with companies that offer products BuzzFeed advertises, perhaps in a silly quiz about which pizza slice defines your current mood. That might work well for the website voted most hip during a Bush presidency.

As for legacy news companies (which BuzzFeed does at least pretend to be once in a while), they've got to retrain the audience to visit their websites or use their smartphone apps directly, sans a Silicon Valley advertising giant.

Fortunately, newspapers still have this thing that comes out every morning that people can read without having to get on Google or Facebook. Even in digital form.

Editorial on 01/11/2020

Print Headline: Nixing the middlemen


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