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Hard times are here for news sites and social media. Is this the end of Web 2.0?

Members of the BuzzFeed News team work at their desks at BuzzFeed headquarters, December 11, 2018 in New York City.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Members of the BuzzFeed News team work at their desks at BuzzFeed headquarters, December 11, 2018 in New York City.

Vice is slashing staff and closing its flagship broadcast program, Vice News Tonight. BuzzFeed News is shutting down. Vox recently laid off nearly 10% of its staff. Gawker went out of business, again, in February.

It has been trying times for digital media. And there are no signs of when the punishing developments will let up.

The turmoil caused by a historic slowdown in digital advertising is sparking worries among staff at online media companies about further and possibly deeper cuts beyond the mass layoffs and abrupt closures over the last few months.

"I think the current moment is the product of both a huge shift away from social media, and a tough economy," said Ben Smith, a former editor in chief of BuzzFeed News and author of "Traffic," a history of the rise and fall of BuzzFeed. "But readers and viewers still want to understand the world."

Smith's note of optimism is perhaps a vocational requirement, since he is again at the helm of an online news site, Semafor, which launched last fall.

The shift from social media that Smith mentions is another pain point for the industry, as chaos engulfs Twitter under Elon Musk, and other legacy social media platforms, like Facebook, lose their luster for news sites.

The juggernaut platforms have always been something of a blessing and a curse to publications.

"The news industry didn't really have a profit model other than trying to get eyeballs and earn digital advertising revenue," said Courtney Radsch, who studies technology and media at UCLA. "But what we saw is that the tech platforms, specifically Google and Facebook, ended up controlling that digital advertising infrastructure."

In other words, news outlets used social media to reach people. But the tech companies pocketed most of the advertising dollars, something that has become even more pronounced as a pullback in ad spending wallops both the media and tech sectors.

Publishers' rocky marriage with social media

In the early years of social media, publications tried to play nice with platforms, seeing the audience potential as irresistible. Then the platforms became well-oiled ad machines and ditched news publishers.

Facebook stopped promoting news stories. Original news reporting barely comes across TikTok feeds. And Twitter, by all accounts, is now a hostile environment under Musk.

But if media companies want out, it's not going to be an easy transition, since news sites have become so entangled with social media.

Industry norms for writing and promoting stories for social media are now gospel in most newsrooms.

Outlets craft stories for maximum social amplification with headlines and topics that can be easily juiced by algorithms. They're all chasing that singular reward that social media recommendation systems provide: clicks.

"That means that's going to favor extremism, it's going to favor polarization. And we might say, 'you know what? That's not the best way to do the news,'" Radsch said.

Indeed, Twitter under Musk has become more extreme, more polarized, and reliable news is harder to come by.

One recent study by Science Feedback, a fact-checking organization, found that user engagement with so-called superspreaders of misinformation increased 44% on the platform since Musk took over.

If Twitter dies, is journalism better off?

In a staff memo announcing the closure of BuzzFeed News, Jonah Peretti, the company's CEO, said social media platforms being bad partners is one of the reasons why the news division was shutting down.

It will land in the digital graveyard with other once-popular digital news sites, like Gawker, the Awl and Grantland.

Smith, formerly of BuzzFeed News, said he witnessed up close the breakup of news publishers with platforms.

"Users turned away from news on social media. And then the platforms, seeing users turn away, starting pushing news out," Smith said.

If Twitter is run into the ground, Smith said, it might actually be a good thing for the news industry.

"It rewards people for feeding into predictable narratives and telling people what they want to hear, punishes them for breaking from the pack," he said. "It's an incredible machine for elevating the stupidest thing your enemy ever thought and said."

The end of Web 2.0, maybe, and what comes next

To many observers, the current moment of the digital media industry getting rickety and top social media sites rapidly degrading in quality could be ushering in the end of Web 2.0.

That refers to the modern internet: mediated through large platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter that are awash with user-generated content and that help people navigate the web. Social media sites, search engines, and online marketplaces like Amazon are all part of Web 2.0.

But being on Twitter and Facebook these days showcases the decline of Web 2.0. The discourse is overheated. Misinformation is rampant. It's hard to tell what's real and what's not anymore. Users are fleeing. News outlets can't trust the platforms.

So where does digital news go from here?

There are clues in what trends are accelerating, according to Jeff Jarvis, a media critic and a journalism professor at the City University of New York.

For example, specialized newsletters and podcasts for niche audiences are rising in popularity, he said. There are also more paid subscriptions, instead of ad-dependent news sites, as well as communities around nerdy topics on platforms like Reddit and Discord.

And there has been growth in sites that recommend and spread news stories that aren't just interested in instant virality, like Artifact, an app started by the co-founders of Instagram focused on delivering quality online news and weeding out clickbait.

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

This shift from large social media platforms to smaller and smaller communities is going to continue, and with it, the big Web 2.0 companies will cede power, he said.

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

In Peretti's goodbye note to BuzzFeed News, he wrote that, "our industry is hurting and ready to be reborn."

For digital media, the struggle is real, but the rebirth? That's far from clear.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.