Journalism’s challenge isn’t Facebook. It’s much bigger than that

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The annual Reuters Institute Digital News Report contains so many interesting insights into where online journalism – and the consumption of it – is heading it can be hard to know where to start.

Most of the coverage has focused around the stat that up to half of people now get their news on social media, with a growing number using it as their main source of news.

And with that came a grim summary from one of the authors of the report, according to the FT:

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the Reuters Institute director of research, said: “The move towards a more distributed environment offers publishers opportunities to reach new audiences on an unprecedented scale, but as people increasingly access news via third-party platforms, it will become harder and harder for most publishers to stand out from the crowd, connect directly with users, and make money.”

It led some commentators to suggest that Facebook is effectively bankrupting the news industry – by hoovering up huge chunks of advertising (which presumably was destined for news publishers instead, a bit of a big leap to make) and not actually investing in content creation itself.

Roy Greenslade was perhaps the most robust:

Facebook is a parasite: it feeds off its host, journalism, and is gradually draining its lifeblood. Facebook wants us to believe that its relationship with the media is one of landlord and tenant, a mutually beneficial partnership.

But the reality is that the landlord, Facebook, by drawing away audiences from the mainstream news providers and luring away their funders, the advertisers, it is gradually bankrupting those journalistic tenants.

In a swift change of analogy, the danger is that Facebook could well be in the process of killing the goose (newspapers) that lays the golden egg – content.

It’s kind of the done thing at the moment to identify a thing and blame it for journalism’s woes. On Holdthefrontpage, it’s digital to blame amongst the commenters. For the NUJ, it’s the idea that cickbait has replaced serious journalism in the regional press (although any day’s paper or website data would prove this false). And not for the first time, Facebook is also in the firing line.

To me, Facebook isn’t the landlord, and news providers aren’t the tenants. Facebook is simply the thing which has managed to give people what they want online, the place online people want to spend their time.  In a different age, newspapers did the same to many more people than they do today.

Facebook does this by learning what people want to read based on what they’ve previously read, or said. To that end, Facebook isn’t a parasite.

It isn’t stealing our content, unlike many news sites out there (including the one I first found Greenslade’s column on when searching for it in Google News). Indeed, unless a publisher is using Instant Articles to posting full articles on Facebook, little more than a headline and link will appear.

On some of the sites I work with, 40% of the unique users come from Facebook. The sites I work with which are using Instant Articles are seeing more than 1m unique users viewing articles a month.

For those making it to our sites, the challenge is to keep them on our sites, and that is a battle we can win. In doing so, we make money from those people – even if it starts with basic programmatic advertising. For those reading on Instant Articles, the opportunity is to impress, while at the same time making money through advertising sold by Facebook.

Facebook, to me, isn’t the challenge. It’s a symptom of the challenge. Here’s a graphic which should have caught people’s attention in the excellent Reuters report:

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According to Reuters, more people are happy to have news served up to them based on what they’ve read before rather than news which is chosen for them by journalists. That’s our challenge. Computers may not have replaced reporters, but some extent they’ve begun replacing editors, at least in the eyes of readers.

That’s what Facebook does. It serves up what people want based on what they’ve done before. It’s not unique to Facebook – the sites I work with do the same in the related articles section too.

The risk, of course, is that people become alienated from things they need to know about, but don’t necessarily realise they need to know about. Which makes the second graphic related to this a little more reassuring:

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So almost two thirds of people are worried about personalised news if it means they might miss key information, or challenging viewpoints. For us as journalists, that should be reassuring.

Personalised news is only what we’ve always done with newspaper front pages, only without the challenge of having to appeal to lots of people with one mix of content. It’s splash subbing on a one-to-one man-marking with the reader basis.

We need to find a way to get into that personalised newsfeed. And we do that by getting closer to the audience.

Facebook is simply meeting the demand of its customers. That’s not parasitic. But does Facebook have a moral/ethical obligation to expose people to content which someone feels is important to society, or local communities? Maybe, but suggestions there could be manual intervention in its trending news widget recently showed such moves are fraught with dangers.

So it falls to brands to connect with readers in the places where readers are. The odds of being able to get ‘important’ news to a Facebook user increases massively if a) they are connected to your brand through liking or endorsement or b) it’s been shared by people who are friends with that user. Both scenarios are in the gift of the publisher to make happen – by listening to what readers want, and delivering it in a way they respond to.

Emily Bell summed up this challenge very well in her Cudlipp lecture last year:

Journalism is a thin thread in a vast new global tapestry of conversation and information. But that thread, I would argue, keeps the whole cloth together, because when it works as it should, gives people a daily feed of important, entertaining, interesting and vital information.

Facebook is making so much money because it is providing what people want. It has got close to its audience. Journalism needs to learn from Facebook – and all the evidence suggests the closer you get to readers, the more likely you are to make money from them.

Facebook isn’t journalism’s challenge. Understanding how to reach audiences with the thread that keeps the whole cloth together is the challenge. And that means justifying our right to be in people’s lives each and every day.

6 comments

  1. “Facebook is making so much money because it is providing what people want”

    In general I agree with you, however there are two things I don’t like in the phrase quoted here.

    First, By some standards Facebook doesn’t make that much money. At least not in relative terms. Sure, the total take is huge, but while Facebook serves billions of ads, it only gets a small sum per served ad. In this sense it isn’t as effective a money making machine as Google and many publishers do better on a revenue per served ad basis.

    The bad news: Facebook’s low efficiency is dragging the price down for all publishers.

    Second, Facebook may provide what people want, but they don’t usually want news from Facebook. The way it serves up news inbetween updates on what people had for breakfast, cat pictures and drunken selfies means it is almost drive-by traffic. I put it to you that people go to Facebook for the other material and often get news almost by accident. It’s like an amplified version the people who bought the The Sun for the page three pictures and ended up reading the occasional news story.

    None of this detracts for your point about journalists needing to do a better job of getting closer to readers. Facebook is clearly good at that, newspapers less so.

  2. I suspect journalism’s challenge is that people have a lot more access to alternate things they would rather do with their time than they used to. It’s certainly true for me.

    For example I used to watch a lot of TV news and current affairs, and listen to their radio equivalents. Those shows are by and large still there, and in principle I would still like to watch them. But the fact is I often don’t actually watch or listen to them any more, because for example I’m in the middle of a streaming box-set and I want to see the next episode of that. Or I want to catch up with my friends’ blogs, or go play a game I’m into. Or there is a live sports event on TV. And so on, and on, and on, endlessly.

    People don’t purposely rely on Facebook for news. They go to Facebook to catch up with their friends, and if there happens to be news being shared on there, they might see it, thereby making Facebook a primary source of news to them.

    Which is all fine by them, because for the majority of people they are probably not all that concerned with being well informed, they are rather more interested in having water cooler moments discussing the topic of the day,

  3. Agree–but really, Facebook is capitalizing on new preferences in readers that traditional journalism has a hard time embracing. Scribes and tribes are carrying forward romance about ARTICLES and a way of thinking born from scarcity that doesn’t fit (or profit) in abundance. It’s clear that readers now want to discover small content that flows through various channels including Facebook including email including almost any new media product. We will all still dive deep and read something complicated, but discovery is a newly formed layer.

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