Facebook and WhatsApp
(Credit: Image: Getty Images)

A report published by The Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford this week indicated that Facebook users are shifting away from sharing news on the social media platform, in favor of Facebook's own WhatsApp chat messenger, which it purchased for $19 billion in 2014.

According to the report, news sharing on Facebook peaked in 2017 and has declined about 10% since then. In April, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum left his company, reportedly because of conflicts with Facebook over the messenger app's security.

SEE: The best mobile apps for news, politics, and investigative journalism

What isn't as clear is why this transition from Facebook to WhatsApp is occuring. Have users been de-prioritizing Facebook as a way of sharing news, or is the decline triggered by changes to the site's news feed algorithm, which has been de-prioritizing news stories in favor of updates from fellow users? Either way, the report indicates that our collective interest in news remains high, even while the methods for getting it continue to evolve.

Reuters Institute research associate Nic Newman indicated in the report that users may be moving their news consumption away from Facebook because of the prevalence of polarizing articles and misleading political advertisements found there, particularly during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg himself was grilled extensively on the topic by legislators on live TV; his complete testimony is available on the official website of the House of Representatives.

On WhatsApp, news can take several different forms. Users can obviously message links and share updates with their friends and family. But some publications like The New York Times and the BBC have experimented with creating more personal interactions with their readers using WhatsApp. In 2015, the BBC brought its Have Your Say feature to WhatsApp to allow readers to upload photos and reports during breaking news events--and those reports contributed to crisis coverage in Tunisia, Paris, and Nepal during 2015-2016, for example. Also in 2015, The New York Times international desk tried letting WhatsApp users subscribe to texted updates from correspondents, and even gave users the ability to respond directly to those stories. The response was so great, it overwhelmed the app at the time. Today, lots of news organizations now offer updates and interaction through WhatsApp.

The New York Times on WhatsApp
The New York Times started experimenting with a more personal news experience on WhatsApp in 2015. (Credit: Image: The New York Times)

Regardless, Facebook's financial performance remains as strong as ever, with clockwork year-over-year revenue gains of nearly 50% from 2016 to 2017. Its daily active users and monthly active users (a more useful metric for social media than pure page views) also increased 14% in this same time frame, to 1.4 billion and 2.13 billion, respectively.

So while the Menlo Park-based company may not be feeling the pinch just yet, there could be trouble ahead if an activity as popular as sharing a news link starts happening more on other platforms. While Facebook owns WhatsApp, the chat messenger's monetization opportunities remain extremely limited, as WhatsApp is focused more on growing its user base than generating income.

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However, there are a few silver linings for Facebook in the report. For one, users still prefer viewing videos within a social media app or YouTube, versus a publisher's website or app. There's also been a spike in people subscribing to content services, which the company may be responding to with its recent test marketing of Facebook Group subscriptions. As any major content producer will tell you, this form of revenue tends to be steadier and therefore more reliable, although it comes with higher expectations from the user, who may expect things like fewer display ads or more interaction with the publication's staff.

Chat messaging in private conversations also has an impact on audience reach, according to the report. Instead of a news link being seen by everyone who views your Facebook profile, distribution is now limited to whoever you're messaging. If people receiving those links don't turn around and send them off to others, this can have a major impact on website traffic. The report mentions Little Things, a how-to website for women that pointed to changes in Facebook's news algorithm for its closure earlier this year.

The Takeaways

  1. While news sharing on Facebook has declined, it's not clear if it's a sign of declining interest or because of changes in the platform's news feed algorithm.
  2. Overall, Facebook remains strong financially, and its user base continues to grow.

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Tom is the senior editor covering Windows at Download.com.