Last year, in the middle of the pandemic, Sinead Boucher offered $1 to buy Stuff, New Zealand's largest news publisher.
Boucher was already the company's chief executive and was worried that its Australian media owner would shut down the publisher. Things had started to look really grim: The economy had ground to a halt and advertising revenue had evaporated.
"I knew that they ... would potentially just decide to wind us up," said Boucher. "So it was just a punt."
The punt worked. The Australian company accepted the offer of 1 New Zealand dollar, worth about 70 U.S. cents. Just like that, in May, Boucher found herself the owner of the most popular news website in New Zealand and about 50 local, regional and national newspapers and magazines.
One of the first decisions she made as owner was to break up with Facebook.
How Boucher reached that point illustrates just how complicated the relationship between Facebook and news publishers has become over the years.
Stopped all posts on Facebook and Instagram
Boucher had worked for years as a reporter and editor before moving into management. She saw the change of ownership as an opportunity to rethink Stuff's approach to covering the news in New Zealand and to focus the company on building trust with readers.
"People sometimes say to me, 'It must be so stressful now, owning the company,' " she said. "Actually, in a lot of ways, it's been liberating because there is a freedom in being able to make your own decisions, for better or worse."
Stuff's decision to quit Facebook did not come out of the blue. In 2019, after a horrific mass shooting at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, was livestreamed on Facebook, the company began to reconsider its relationship with the social network and stopped spending money to advertise there.
Just over a year later, in July 2020, Stuff launched a new experiment: its website, newspapers and magazine stopped posting anything at all on Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram.
Boucher said the company was increasingly questioning whether being on the social network was "compatible" with its new focus on trust.
Overall traffic rose, even though social media traffic fell
But this decision was also risky: Almost a quarter of Stuff's traffic came from social media — and mainly from Facebook. "We were expecting that it would bring a significant drop in our traffic," Boucher said.
Those fears never materialized. While Stuff's social media traffic did drop, overall traffic went up.
Boucher attributes that in part to 2020 being such a busy news year, from the pandemic to global racial justice protests to big elections in New Zealand and, of course, the U.S.
"If we had remained on Facebook, we might have had another 5% growth," she said. "But even if we throttled our growth ... it's brought us a lot of positives."
Donations from readers went up, for example, once word of Stuff's decision leaked out. Boucher said the company's newsrooms felt the impact, too.
"We can definitely see a change in the way people react to us and talk to us" she said. "Hearing anecdotally from journalists, they feel like they've been able to get interviews they would not have got before. They feel that it has really has contributed to people trusting us more, thinking about us as an organization with a clear set of values."
A one-month pause turns into a long-term breakup
The Facebook pause was supposed to last a few weeks. It's now been more than eight months — and Boucher says she has no plans to return to Facebook.
Breaking up with Facebook is not an easy decision for any publisher. Many news outlets feel they need to be on Facebook to reach people. A third of Americans say they regularly get their news on the social network, according to the Pew Research Center. At the same time, the news business is in real financial trouble because a big chunk of advertising dollars now go to Facebook, as well as Google.
In fact, Facebook has become such a dominant force in how people get information that some governments are trying to force the social network to pay media outlets for news stories. Facebook recently protested a proposed Australian law by briefly cutting off all news from the continent. (The social network backed down after the government made some changes to the measure.)
Facebook says the dynamics of its relationship with publishers are widely misunderstood — that, in fact, publishers need the social network more than it needs them.
But Boucher says her experience suggests publishers should prioritize a different relationship: the direct one they have with their audience.
Fears that Stuff would collapse were "baseless"
Still, she isn't willing to say never. She describes the move as "an ongoing experiment rather than a black and white permanent decision." That's because she worries about one big downside: If Stuff is not posting its stories on Facebook, does that leave a hole that will be filled by false or misleading information?
"We're really conscious that a lot of people still use the platform as a primary way to access news and information," she said. "We wonder about the risk of withdrawing journalism from Facebook and what that leaves behind for people to be exposed to, particularly around things like COVID vaccine."
Even so, Boucher says she is confident she made the right decision. And she says that while Stuff is one company, in one small country, it has a lesson for publishers of all sizes: There is life beyond Facebook.
"Taking that step and deciding to just give it a go taught us so much," she said. "All our fears that without these platforms, we would just collapse — that was baseless."
Editor's note: Facebook and Google are among NPR's financial supporters.
NOEL KING, HOST:
The relationship between Facebook and news publishers is very complicated. Many news outlets think they need to be on Facebook in order to reach people, but they've also lost a lot of advertising dollars that now go to Facebook. NPR's Shannon Bond has the story of a publisher that decided to go it alone. And I should note that Facebook is one of NPR's financial supporters.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Sinead Boucher is CEO of New Zealand's largest news publisher. And last year during the pandemic, she bought the company for $1.
And why a dollar?
SINEAD BOUCHER: Well, it was just a nominal fee. Like, I knew that they, you know, in the context of what was happening, would potentially just decide to wind us up. So it was just a punt.
BOND: The publisher is called Stuff. It owns the most popular news website in New Zealand and around 50 newspapers. And when the pandemic brought the economy to a halt, Stuff was at risk of shutting down. For Boucher, this was a big moment.
BOUCHER: People sometimes said to me, it must be so stressful now owning the company and blah, blah. But it's actually, in a lot of ways, it's been liberating because there is a freedom in being able to make your own decisions for better or worse.
BOND: And one of the first decisions she made was to break up with Facebook. Stuff was already wary of the social network, especially after a terrible mass shooting in New Zealand that was livestreamed on Facebook in 2019. So in July 2020, Stuff's newspapers and magazines all hit pause on Facebook.
BOUCHER: You know, we still felt uneasy with a lot of the decisions Facebook has made or a lot of the things it turned a blind eye to.
BOND: Things like hate speech and misinformation. But this decision was also risky for Stuff. Almost a quarter of its traffic came from social media - mainly Facebook. In fact, Facebook has become such a dominant force in how people get information, some governments are trying to force the social network to pay media outlets for news stories. Boucher says Stuff was bracing for the worst.
BOUCHER: We were expecting that it would bring a significant drop in our traffic. That didn't happen.
BOND: Traffic from social media did drop, but overall traffic went up in part because 2020 was such a big news year.
BOUCHER: If we had remained on Facebook, we might have had another, I don't know, 5% growth. But even if we throttled our growth, it's brought us a lot of positives as well.
BOND: Positives like more donations from readers who want to support Stuff. The Facebook pause was supposed to last a few weeks. It's now been more than eight months. But Boucher says it's still an experiment because there are people who rely on Facebook for news, and there's a lot of bad information on there.
BOUCHER: And we wonder about the risk of withdrawing journalism from Facebook and what that leaves behind for people to sort of be exposed to, particularly around things like COVID vaccine.
BOND: She worries. Does Stuff have an obligation to be on Facebook? Still, she's confident she made the right decision. She knows Stuff is just one publisher in a small country.
BOUCHER: But taking that step and deciding to just give it a go taught us so much and made us think that all our fears that without these platforms, we would just collapse, that was, you know, baseless.
BOND: So she thinks it might be time for other media outlets to reconsider their relationship status with Facebook.
Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.