How journalists can beat Facebook’s algorithm (but don’t expect a quick fix!)

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Should journalism be fearful of Facebook? Or, indeed, any other platform which has been successful in attracting a large number of people and, crucially, a large proportion of their time spent online?

If the thing getting so much attention banned journalism, or journalists, from existing within the walled garden it had created, and which so many people were happy to spend so much time resident in, then yes, that would be bad news.

But that’s not where Facebook is. It is huge, and can probably lay claim to being the power behind maybe half of the most-used apps in the world. And that could make it dangerous of course, but no more dangerous than anything which is so dominant has the potential to be.  Like a government with a landslide majority and, in theory, the mandate to anything it wants,  Facebook will also know that its strength as a business comes from its dominance, and a dominance it needs to preserve.

That dominance of user time will only continue for as long as it continues to deliver what people want on there, and the prospect of 80% of mobile web time being spent within a cluster of a person’s chosen apps within two years will be focusing minds like never before.

This week, the Guardian published an opinion piece titled “Why Facebook’s dominance in journalism could be bad news for us all.” It concludes by saying:

“A decade ago social networks set out do much the same thing [link outwards], some still do. Today, however, those networks whose business model increasingly demands that content remains within the walled garden – or the “gated enclosure” to borrow [Guardian Editor Katharine] Viner’s updated phrase – are reluctant to link outwards. This change has commercial and editorial implications for publishers that should in turn concern anyone looking for vibrant, plural, fact-based, financially sustainable journalism.”

Viner’s article, referenced above, is a brilliant read which deals with many issues, not least the fact that we appear to live in a world where peer-to-peer sharing of information from multiple sources means that the proven truth seems to carry less weight than it used to. Perhaps the European Referendum is the best possible example of the impact this has on the wider world.

But to lay the blame at Facebook’s door, as many do due to its size and because its algorithm is designed to give people more of what they want and less of what they don’t, is to rather miss the bigger challenge journalism faces, and one which is in journalism’s gift to solve too.

In his recent Monday Note examining Facebook’s relationship with news publishers, Frederic Filloux:

Consider the following conclusion in the Reuters Institute Digital News Report (one of the best sources to understand the shifts in news consumption): When asked the question: Thinking about when you have used social media/aggregators for news, typically how often do you notice the news brand that has supplied the content? Less than half of social media users acknowledged being able to identify the actual news source. More precisely: 49% did so in the United States, and only 36% in the United Kingdom!

He concluded by sharing stats published in the Wall Street Journal which listed the publishers (some traditional, some individual celebrities) Facebook was likely to start paying to produce video on Facebook Live, and summed by saying:

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It’s a highly concentrated distribution: the first ten players rake in 40% of the amount paid by Facebook to video producers. Two, among the 18 contributors listed above, The New York Times is the only one in the legacy media league; it gets $3m for a 12 months deal, at par with Buzzfeed. The rest is split between digital native media like the HuffPo or the aforementioned NowThis and Al-Jazeera AJ+.

If someone needed a mapping of Facebook future content distribution — or a list of those who will be allowed to thrive in its ecosystem — there we have it.

When up to 40% of website traffic can come from Facebook, is the typical news publisher doomed, and destined to be thrown around at the mercy of an algorithm which changes by the week? Only if the publisher allows itself to be.

Facebook has no moral obligation to put news in front of people. It chooses to put news it believes people will want to read, based on various signals, of which we are led to believe is now led by the number of shares a post has. If you like a page, you are more likely to see content from that page. If a post gets shared a lot, you are more likely to see the specific post from that page. If your friend shares a post which is well-shared, you are probably more likely to see that post, regardless of whether you like the page that posted it, than a post by that page your friend has shared which only a few people have.

So how do we beat it? By making the relationship with the reader – the person Facebook is trying to serve with the personalised algorithm – work. There are two ways of looking at the ‘36% of people can name who provided the news to them on Facebook’ point. We can either worry about the 64% or work on making the 36% more loyal, and adding more people to it.

How do we do that? We get better at engaging with people. We get better at talking to people and providing them with news which matters to them. Like a man going to the supermarket who loves a certain brand of beer, if he loves that beer then it doesn’t matter what Tesco try to offer him by way of alternative on the way in, because he’s come for the beer he loves.

I know relating journalism to consumerism makes some in the industry flinch a little, but when we moan about the impact of an algorithm, we’re really moaning about the lack of impact we are having on readers’ lives.

Our job, as journalists, is to prove that the news should matter to people, and we should take the dominance of Facebook as a challenge to become so important in peoples’ lives again that the consumer-facing algorithm has no choice to include what we do in the feed every day. It’s a challenge which brands and individual journalists needs to take on.

We need to understand what people want, and make sure we provide it in a way which preserves the integrity of the brands which have been around for many years. We need to understand the forms of story-telling which engage people the most – yep, live blogs are up there folks – and also the way in which readers are most likely to engage positively with us. That is as much about an individual reporter’s relationships online as it is about the way a brand positions itself.

In short, algorithms become irrelevant to journalism once a journalist or organisation has a relationship with a reader based on trust: Trust that we’ll give the reader what they want in a way which reminds them to come back, and therefore a trust from the reader that when say something is worth the reader spending time learning about, we’re probably telling the truth.

The algorithm is only a killer for journalism for so long as we believe we report the news, and the public has a duty to consume it.

That’s how journalism beats a popular algorithm. It’s not easy, but it gets to the heart of everything we do. It’s about relationships which can stand the test of computer predictions.

 

 

3 comments

  1. I agree with the main ideas here, but I think journalists are too often in Facebook’s thrall. Here in New Zealand, the newspapers constantly write stories, essentially PR puff pieces, about Facebook which drive readers away from news sites into the clutches of their biggest rival. By all means learn to live with the giant, but for heaven’s sake stop feeding it.

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