How Facebook’s Big Changes Impact One Local Publisher — Some Surprising Conclusions

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To find out the impact of the big changes that Facebook is making to its all-important News Feed – featured in my column last week, here and here — I went to a local news publisher who is confronting how those changes shape his four-year-old site.

The publisher is Michael Dinan, who, after occupying major positions at the old Patch under AOL, founded the local pure-play and independent New Canaanite in the nearly 20,000-person town of Connecticut’s suburban Fairfield County.

In this Q & A, Editor Dinan discloses some surprising things about his from-the-beginning relationship with ever-changing Facebook:

How important is Facebook to you in sending traffic to New Canaanite?

New Canaanite has benefited from Facebook as its No. 1 outside referrer. It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster for local publishers, trying to figure out just what Facebook is changing and how it will affect us.

So far, how do you see New Canaanite being affected by Facebook’s major recent changes to its News Feed?

It looks as if Facebook’s changes are only going to help New Canaanite’s visibility in the news feeds of our Facebook followers and their networks. Certainly, it’s a plus, and one way I intend to take advantage of the new visibility is to convert as many Facebook fans as possible into subscribers to our daily newsletter, delivered through Mailchimp.

Will you be doing anything new or more intensively to capitalize on Facebook’s new strategy to promote local news providers that meet its criteria for engaging readers?

Posts to the New Canaanite Facebook page routinely garner 1,000-plus Facebook users organically, often more. So the short answer to your question is “no.” That said, I’m ready to use any new tools that Facebook offers up, such as the limited-use Breaking News label I’ve read about.

What do you do with the big numbers of inbounds to your site from Facebook?

I intend to convert as many Facebook fans as possible into subscribers to our daily newsletter. The real goal in using Facebook or any other social network is to get those dedicated regular readers who come to the New Canaanite every day.

In truth, our traffic has continued to grow year over year at a rate of more than 10%, and I do not sell ads against traffic, so the raw traffic benefit from Facebook visibility is not as important as those individual conversions.

In part two of the Q & A on Facebook in “The New News” last week, Facebook expert Grzegorz Piechota says local new sites should focus much more on their own digital real estate than on whatever relationship they have with Facebook. Do you agree?

He’s right, and I would add that it is not my goal to simply increase traffic on New Canaanite. Don’t get me wrong, it’s growing steadily: We were up 14.8% in 2017, and then broke our single-month traffic high in January 2018.

Yet with respect to my advertisers, I don’t see my job as just getting their ads in front of more people – as far as traffic goes. I do want to get their ads in front of more of the right people, that is, prospective consumers of their products and services.

The way Facebook works, where those who “like” or “share” a story often do so in a way that triggers a notification within their own “friends” networks, there’s no qualification such as geography. You buy an ad on Facebook to accomplish that.

You don’t “sell ads against traffic” – which means you must not use programmatic. Some news sites use programmatic strategically. What’s the downside in doing that in your view?

I’ve stayed away from programmatic advertising entirely. My business model doesn’t call for it. I want complete control of what businesses are advertising on New Canaanite, and I want the advertising to reflect the content – I want it to be entirely, obsessively local.

I’m very sensitive to competition among businesses and branding, and to the limits of online advertising in terms of share of voice. There’s a tipping point, where too many advertisers means they all lose. I also view each new advertiser as a new relationship to manage—it involves communication, attention, personal touches.

So again, I believe that there is such a thing as having too many advertisers. The idea is to price the ads in such a way, and set up the ad zones in such a way to earn enough money that you’re making a living and also giving great value to those who advertise with you.

How are you doing in unique visitors and pageviews?

In January, we had 37,710 unique visitors and 154,751 pageviews. That was a strong month. We safely are hitting, I would say, 25K and 120K in those categories.

Is New Canaanite profitable? If so, has Facebook been an important factor in your success?

Yes, New Canaanite has been profitable since its first year of operation. I think a big part of that success is due, in general terms, to earning a good name in town as a credible source of timely and relevant news. So any time a local reader turns to someone at lunch, at a board meeting, at the gym or in line at Walter Stewart’s Market, the local grocer, and says as much, it’s helpful to my success.

I see Facebook engagement – liking, sharing, commenting – as another example of that type of interaction. I also would note that New Canaanite rather quickly caught or exceeded many of the long-established news outlets in town in terms of the sheer size of its Facebook following, so that’s been helpful in measuring our reach among residents and business owners in town.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.