From the outside, Buzzfeed, the American internet media company, looked (until recently) like it had been doing pretty damn well. In just over a decade, it’s gone from being a producer of light-hearted listicles, and quirky social media round-ups, to a global news and entertainment publisher with serious gravitas. It frequently gets scoops which would turn more established media companies green with envy. It was Buzzfeed that leaked the Donald Trump dossier in full, and Buzzfeed that published the first accusation against Kevin Spacey. And with a Facebook and Twitter following of 50 million, its “social media game” is nothing if not “on point”.

Sadly, for Buzzfeed, the real picture is rather messier. This year, the media giant is expected to miss its revenue target of $350m by 15 to 20 per cent. It will be the second time it’s fallen short in three years, and it will mean 100 staff have to go, the company announced this week.

Vice, the one-time hipster magazine turned online video giant, has similiar issues. To get its backers to reinvest in 2018, the mainstream anti-mainstream giant needs to make $800 million, and, with just four weeks until D-day, it doesn’t look like it will make it.

What’s going on? Facebook, of course. BuzzFeed and Vice may win accolades for their investment in journalism, but they win funding by luring in big advertisers with the promise of a “cool” millennial audience – and, because 55% per cent of millennials get their digital news through Facebook, this puts the publishers at the mercy of Mark Zuckerberg and his algorithms. Their feature writers and their investigative journalists may be good, but whenever Facebook gives Buzzfeed the cold shoulder, all its publishers can do is wring their hands.

And right now, the cold shoulder is all they are getting. When Facebook first launched in 2007, “Page Admins”, or publishers, could expect their posts to reach almost all of their fans, without paying any money to Facebook (organic reach). But as the number of Pages and amount of content being shared has increased, this organic reach has declined and all but disappeared. By 2012 Facebook Page posts could be expected to reach on average 16% of fans, by early 2014 this had dropped to 6.5%, and by early 2016 it was below 2%.

There are so many factors that go into how much reach a post gets, from the frequency of said posts to the subject matter, to the levers Facebook is pushing, that theories about the declines are abounding. But the explanation is that Facebook wants more money. Zuckerberg and his team know that Buzzfeed and Vice rely on social media, and understand the leverage this gives them: if the publishers are deprived of organic reach, they will cough up and promote their posts – or risk a downwards spiral of loss.

For now, for Facebook, it’s working a treat. So well, in fact, that they are thinking of taking it a step further. According to a statement this yeat from the company, Facebook is now testing the idea offering two user feeds, one feed focused on friends and family and a second dedicated to the pages that the customer has liked. If rolled out across all countries, the change would be an absolute nightmare for media companies like Buzzfeed, which would, in effect, be forced to pay Facebook (via adverts) if they wanted to be seen in the feed that is for friends and family.

So what are Buzzfeed going to do about it? Roll over and submit?

Six or seven years ago, when Buzzfeed and others like it were in their infancy, they may well have just accepted cannibalisation by Facebook. But, now, it seems unlikely. They will chip away at their marketing teams to try and patch something together with Facebook for now (all 100 of the Buzzfeed staff losses are from the marketing department), but if their editorial teams – the jewels in the crown – are jeopardised, they will fight back.

And perhaps, just perhaps, they will win.

‎Why? Well, for a start, social media sites are now up against the biggest challenges they have faced in their short, charmed lives. Their business model relies on being defined as platforms rather than as publishers, because, as publishers, they would be liable for all of the libellous, filthy, disturbing and triggering material that appears on their sites. For now, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are managing to cling onto this “platform” label, but the case for it is fast eroding: Facebook now takes down videos of beheadings (and, in doing so, admits some responsibility for publishing them), and Youtube has got itself in trouble this week for allowing a “paedophile haven” to flourish under its watch.

It is unclear where this will lead but, one way or another, it looks like social media dominance faces challenges. Now Facebook has started admitting responsibility for some of its content, it may start to come under pressure in the US and the EU to be redefined as a publisher, and for a site which “platforms” 4 new petabytes, 100 million hours of video watch time and more than 350 million photos per day, this, to put it mildly, would be impractical.

What’s more, Generation Z are shunning Facebook in favour of the more visual social networks, Snapchat and Instagram. Over the past few years, Facebook has been trying to shake off its lame reputation by connecting with younger audiences – introducing reactions, launching its failed teen-only Lifestage app, attempting to squash smaller rivals by playing competitive copycat on their next big venture attempt, original scripted programming – but so far, nothing has seemed to have worked for them. One poll predicts that monthly users between the ages of 12-17 will fall 3.4% this year – nearly 14.5 million users, which, if true, will be the second year of declining teen use for the Silicon Valley giant. Another, from youth marketing researcher YPulse, does not even rank Facebook in the top three social networks used by 13-17-year-olds.

As these users grow up and start taking an interest in current affairs, it seems likely that they will circumnavigate Facebook altogether. Unlike the millennial generation, who grew up in the “pirating” age (of films, music, and art) Generation Z grew up in the subscription age (of Netflix, Now TV and phone contracts) and may prove less obsessed with getting content for free.

In America, there is a growing trend for young people paying for news subscriptions: since Trump’s election, the New Yorker has seen its number of subscribers under the age of 24 more than double from over the same period a year earlier, and according to the magazine’s figures, it has 106 percent more new subscribers in the 18-34 age range. The Washington Times and New York Post are reporting similar surges, and even the Wall Street Journal doubled its student subscribers in a year.

For Buzzfeed, which has been under Facebook’s (not particularly protective) wing for the entirety of its adult life, breaking away will be a challenge. It has a free model that it will need to review if charging is the thing. But with Facebook’s business model facing an existential challenge, and some young subscribers learning how to pay for quality news, there’s never been a better moment to give it a whirl. Journalism matters, and it needs paying for.