Why journalism needs to get over its fear of Facebook

At the Online News Association conference in Chicago, Facebook went under the microscope, challenged almost to prove it was a force for good in journalism, rather than something to be feared.

Two main themes emerged. The first was that it is clear that Facebook probably drives far more traffic to news websites than previously thought. The Atlantic, for example, discovered that half of its unique users – coming up on in analytics as from a ‘no referral source’ – were actually coming in from the mobile app on Facebook.

Is that a bad thing? I’ll come to that.

The second concerned Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook’s Liz Heron was asked to give details about what will make sure a story works well on Facebook. Her response that journalists should just focus on good content didn’t seem to appease everyone, while there was concern about the impact of Facebook’s algorithm.

It, said some, meant many regular folk were more likely to see content related to the Ice Bucket Challenge than they were about the Ferguson shootings. In other words, does the mass audience on Facebook being presented individualised content based on what they’ve clicked on before or what their friends are clicking on, mean bad news for journalists?

My answer to that question, and the previous question is: Forget these questions and lets just deal with reality.

Facebook is huge, and needs to remain huge. To do that, it needs to remain relevant to users. It needs to ensure it doesn’t alienate people. That, in turn, is good news for journalists and news organisations.  We want our content to be read. Facebook is telling us it has a huge audience and it wants to get stuff they will like to those people. 

Our job as journalists is to be part of that community and give people the content they want. Our challenge is to make them want it. If they want it, they’ll share it, and they will share it on Facebook.

As long as that algorithm remain pure to that goal, journalism will win. Liz Heron points to a four-fold increase in traffic going to publishers from Facebook in the last 12 months. There’s no doubt Facebook has made news more obvious on Facebook – through related articles and trending feed – but I think a lot of newsrooms have realised that the effort v reward relationship is very evident on Facebook.

There are hatfuls of rumours of ways to game Facebook’s algorithm. My favourite is that sticking the word ‘congratulations’ in a comment under a post instantly lifts it. But like some of the darker arts of SEO, once word is out, the owner of the algorithm takes action. And as long as Facebook keeps doing that, good quality journalism will win.

For as long as there has been journalism, there has been a challenge to make readers interested in what we’re writing about. In the days when we could bundle it together as an all-you-can-eat-but-you’ll-pay-for-it-all cover price the challenge was easier. In a world where people pick-and-mix and focus on their priorities, the challenge is greater. And that’s a challenge for us as journalists, not for Facebook.

After all, we’d all be up in arms if Facebook started telling us what we should be reading. 

Facebook was around long before Twitter, yet it was the latter that became the social media of choice for journalists. Perhaps that was because it’s a more comfortable fit with journalism – it’s a time-based stream, the assumption is you can see everything – but the audience is still larger on Facebook. Far larger.

So in 2011, when the riots took place across British cities, journalists turned to Twitter, and did a cracking job of updating on Twitter. Audiences rocketed. On Facebook, a man called Luke Addis in Birmingham launched a Facebook group called ‘Birmingham Riots 2011: Live Updates.’ After the riots ended, it became Birmingham Updates and he now has 170,000 followers on Facebook and provides a daily diet of news and information.

Luke wasn’t a journalist when he launched that Facebook group – he was a regular bloke who started sharing information in the most obvious place to him as an ordinary person: Facebook.

Will Perrin, of Talk About Local, has pointed to Facebook-only hyperlocal sites in the past too. It’s just obvious for them.

Rather than angst over the rights and wrongs of Facebook, journalists need to continue embracing it for what it is: A social network which aims to keep as many users as possible coming back. Because it’s only going to become more important.

A journalist who argues ‘Facebook is for my life, Twitter is for work’ is short-changing their employer and limiting their career options. I once spoke to an angry editor who had been told by several reporters that they didn’t want to share links to their paper’s online stories because they didn’t think their friends would be interested. Imagine going into a newsagents with a friend and covering up your paper. It’s like that – only worse because that link, or share or like increases significantly of not just one more person seeing it, but dozens, hundreds, thousands even.

And we’re now seeing a slew of websites, aggregators and apps which offer a news feed tailored based on what your friends are sharing. Since I downloaded the new Nuzzel app the other week, I’ve found it’s become my turn to app when on the train – because I tend to be interested in what my friends share. I learnt that Alan Henning had been executed by ISIS from a push notification, triggered by Nuzzel after nine contacts on social had shared a link to the Manchester Evening News’s live coverage.

We’re now entering an age where platforms are being built on platforms, and Facebook is at the heart of that. Facebook offers the ability to get people sharing what journalists have written. Rather than asking whether that’s right, journalists should be asking: “How do I make the most of that?”

9 comments

  1. It is a minor point in terms of this article but the mention of facebook only hyperlocal, or any type of ‘site’ based on facebook, is an interesting one in the context of algo changes. It is very common now to hear complaints from those who have built an ‘audience’ yet now said audience does not get to see the content put out them in an older sense.

    The push is of course to paid rather than organic reach, or actual content that does well. For niche interests the latter is often harder to get rolling.

    Having built various things over the years I am more than wary of basing anything that is meant to be sustainable on a third party system as you are then subject to the whims and great ideas of others. This is not to say ignore or not use said systems, but I believe there is a key difference to anchoring strongly to them.

    Facebook, Google, Nuzzel and even perhaps soon Twitter are in some way filtered information providers and generally my observation is decent genuine content that appeals or is of interest to humans will get seen. If said content was not visible, those networks would lose value to their users…

    1. Hi Rob, thanks for the comment. I agree, building something on a third-party is a risky approach – I was trying to illustrate the point about people who have instinctively known where the audience is, and not necessarily had to be concerned about long-term issues.

      Your final paragraph is very interesting. As long as people want news, social networks will want to showcase news.

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