Big Tech's algorithms harm news publishers: IOL CEO highlights plunging traffic and revenue

META previously known as Facebook. FILE PHOTO: Independent Newspapers

META previously known as Facebook. FILE PHOTO: Independent Newspapers

Published Mar 15, 2024


The shifting algorithms Big Tech imposes to keep users engaged on their native platforms have significantly disadvantaged publishers, IOL CEO, Viasen Soobramoney said on Friday.

Soobramoney expressed the traffic lost by the website since 2019 until 2023, included a 76% traffic loss on social media, 32% loss in search and a staggering 87% loss in referral.

“The impact is clear to see. Our traffic numbers as publishers globally are on a downward trajectory and have been for years, and nothing we attempting gains us any meaningful ground,” Soobramoney said.

“Our acquisition from search and social have plummeted due, in large part, to the shifting algorithms Big Tech imposes to keep users engaged on their native platforms, while significantly disadvantaging publishers.”

He said if the content was “not viral, it was not going to get seen”.

On Friday, Independent Media, Independent Online (IOL) and Isolezwe took their submissions to the Competition Commission hosting the Media and Digital Platforms Market Inquiry (MDPMI) against Big Tech companies.

The MDPMI — taking place in Pretoria — kicked off on March 4 and will run until March 27. It was currently having public hearings, featuring the active engagement of more than 40 stakeholders.

The inquiry was initiated to examine the distribution of media content on search and social media digital platforms, artificial intelligence (A)I chatbots and assisted search, and the advertising technology (AdTech) markets that connect advertisers and news publishers’ websites.

The purpose is to determine if there are any market features that may be adversely affecting competition or undermining the purposes of the Competition Act, and to comprehensively remedy those features.

Independent Media’s acting chief executive officer (CEO), Mohammed Hoosain expressed the diverse history of the media company with publications across the country and titles older than 100 years old.

In 2023, META reduced its share of news publisher link content to its feed from 7% to 3% resulting in drastic loss of traffic.

Soobramoney said this leads to important news content, actuality, and commentary vital to make sense of our ever-changing world being sacrificed at the altar of virality and stickiness.

“With lower traffic, our revenue suffers, leading to job losses. This in turn leads to lower content outputs which affects our revenue potential even further due to the reduced advertising investory, which leads to reduced revenue,” Soobramoney said.

“It is a negative spiral. We are playing a game without knowing the rules, against an opponent who is also the creator and referee of the game we are playing.”

Thulani Mbatha, editor of the largest vernacular publication in South Africa and Africa, Isolezwe — an isiZulu publication — said Big Tech has hit the publication hard.

“The impact of Big Tech on Isolezwe has resulted in reduced print order, reduced staffing and distribution leaving us aunable to tell our stories,” Mbatha said.

“isiZulu is spoke by 23% of the population but it is not recognised by Big Tech yet, our content is taken to build traffic with no recognition.”

The group of companies stated he has been investing large amounts of capital into technology to keep up, however, with Big Techs slamming the door, they are currently running at a loss.

Soobramoney said that the media used to own the means of production and distribution.

“In this digital age, our means of distribution has been taken from us. We need to play by the rules big Tech lay out for us. We adjust our content strategies so they are good for search and good for social,” he said.

“We prioritise virality over substance, because that’s what needs to be done in order to reach our requisite pageviews to earn our revenue. With Big Tech de-prioritising news publisher content, this has removed critical discoverability and traffic acquisition for our platforms,” Soobramoney said.

“The ecosystem Big Tech ahs created means in order for us to disseminate our content, we need to play the ever-changing algorithms. Media is at the mercy of Big Tech.”

Over 40 stakeholders, including mainstream and community media, broadcasters, associations, think tanks, social media platforms, ad brokers, and others, will be participating in the public hearing sessions.

Stakeholders who have confirmed participation in the public hearings include organisations and associations such as the South African National Editors Forum, the Association of Independent Publishers, the National Community Radio Forum, SOS Support Public Broadcasting, and others. Mainstream media stakeholders include Arena Holdings, Caxton, Media24, and Independent Media as well as broadcasting giants such as the SABC, eMedia, Primedia, and Kagiso Media Radio. Participation also includes community news, vernacular publications, and digital natives such as Isolezwe, the Daily Maverick, Izwe Lomphakathi, and Maroela Media.

Amongst the digital platforms, major players in the digital space that have confirmed participation include Google Search and News, YouTube, Google AdTech, Microsoft Bing (incl. Copilot), Microsoft Start and META (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp). Ad brokers and Advertising Technology (AdTech) service providers will also be appearing including GroupM, Dentsu and others.

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