Oh no, another blog about ‘what Facebook’s latest change means for journalism.’ Hopefully, though I’m offering something new in what follows.
That, hopefully, is because I have the benefit of writing three weeks after Facebook unleashed a fresh wave of stormy weather on the media by seemingly backing away from news. And video, for that matter, but more on that later. It’s argument went: “It’s good for people to talk to each other, rather than having long, passive experiences on Facebook with brands.”
A week later, it said news would still be important, just not as important, and it would rely to an extent on public perception of brands to determine which to prioritise. Like many journalists, I believe that’s a recipe for boosting news sites which play to people’s prejudices and emotions for attention, rather than start from a point delivering useful news, information and, indeed, journalism. But more power to the people.
Then came the local news announcement, promising prioritisation for local news in feeds, based, from what I understand, on an assessment of what’s local to where you live, whether you follow that brand or whether friends are sharing links from that brand. It’s more power to the people.
It’s like Facebook realises it is in the customer service industry or something. And maybe that’s the biggest lesson for journalism here. If we want the public to value important journalism, we can’t rely on others to join the dots for us.
Those whinging, moaning publishers
In some quarters, journalists have been portrayed as little hand-wringing whingers when it comes to responding to Facebook’s latest changes. “It’s always only going to be a business, it doesn’t care about news, get over it” is how a multitude of quick reaction blogs summed things up.
And while, of course, Facebook has to have a primary objective to satisfy market expectations now that it is a floated company, that doesn’t mean journalism is wrong to hold Facebook’s feet to the fire when it comes to supporting journalism – far from it.
Even if Facebook succeeds in reducing the amount of time people spend on it (a peculiar aim set by Mark Zuckerberg which may only be ratifying a pre-existing trend anyway) it will still be the primary digital activity of many people, even maybe a majority of people, across many countries. And then there’s What’s App, FB Messenger and Instagram within the FB family too.
Facebook also has stated aims to connect communities, and has talked in the past about those being informed communities. It’s where the Facebook Town Hall idea came from. Helping share journalism which isn’t just the stuff people know and want to share has to be part of that. You might go looking for ‘great Italian restaurants in Manchester’ and then share it, but you probably don’t go looking for ‘the homelessness crisis in Manchester.’ The latter needs to be given the chance to thrive, while human behaviour will ensure the former gains traction. Facebook has a critical role to play here.
It’s about us, too
But by the same token, journalism can’t only rely on distribution channels to get the stories we want people to read to people – we need them to want to read them, or at the very least, trust brands enough to listen when they say ‘this is rather important.’
We need a direct relationship with readers. The ideal is on our platforms, with readers waking up and hitting an app on their phone or digging out a bookmark. But we shouldn’t discount loyalty within distribution platforms, either.
And on one level, Facebook is just a distribution channel for publishers. It has a huge audience playing in its walled garden every day, and the best chance of being part of that party is for the people already attending to be talking about us, and inviting us in to their conversations.
We achieve that by treating readers as more than just people who should be reading what we do, and as people who want to engage with what we’re doing. To that end, Facebook’s prioritisation of longer comments as a signal of engagement makes sense. Facebook has set us a challenge, but it’s hardly a new one.
Newsrooms which focus solely on top-line metrics such as page views and unique users may come unstuck here, but that’s not a Facebook problem, that’s a ‘not understanding your audience’ problem.
There is an assumption that all Facebook traffic – indeed, all non-brand traffic (direct visitors, newsletter subscribers etc) – is flighty and not really interested in the story source.
And of course, that is in the case some of the time, but it’s far from the whole story. The data I see shows that Facebook can be a big driver of loyal visitors, the sort of people visiting several times a week. Indeed, if you cut the data of most news sites, you’ll see a lot of one-visit wonders arriving from Facebook, but also a strong number of people visiting 30 or 40 times.
This isn’t exclusive to Facebook by any means. Loyalty comes from a reader finding a home for you in their daily internet life. The homescreen of a mobile phone is most desired for publishers, but many of the regional newsrooms I work with have thousands of loyal visitors whose primary method of accessing our sites is via the BBC Sport website – generally the daily live blog which sits at the centre of their site.
Does that make a reader loyal? I would argue yes – they are seeing links from the same source time and again, and trusting to click on it.
For newsrooms, that means editors and content editors spending less time with headline metrics, and more time looking at the stories in three different buckets: One-time visitors, returning visitors (up to say 8 times a month) and loyal visitors – those who are coming more days than not.
If you get this right, you end up with a sort of Venn diagram of content as outlined above. The stuff on the right is stuff we know readers enjoy/use in large numbers: animal stories, weather stories, what’s on content and retail content.
In the middle is the stuff which journalists have always put an emphasis on, and which readers also respond to. On here is football, crime, court and national/international news when its relevant.
On the left is the stuff which journalism values, but which audience metrics tell us don’t always trouble the headline metrics: Education stories, health stories, long reads and investigations.
Putting your readers in three buckets results in finding out that the content on the right isn’t just for ‘hits’ but actually is valued by loyal readers, who in turn are more likely to spend time with the stuff on the left because they trust the brand to keep them informed, and trust the brand to only call on their time wisely.
All of this applied before Facebook’s latest changes. Facebook has just reinforced it. And what’s more, for as long as you have readers loyally turning to you on Facebook, it’s highly unlikely Facebook is going to start hiding you.
And that’s why pivoting for platforms is wrong
Much has been made of publishers who ‘pivoted to video,’ seemingly on the pretext that words were going out of fashion. Facebook has u-turned on video quite spectactularly, and while its position on news has softened in the weeks following the first earthquake, the same can’t be said for video.
I’ve read articles saying publishers will ‘pivot to groups’ now after FB said it would prioritise groups in the newsfeed, or ‘pivot to words’ instead. How about not pivoting at all?
The regional newsrooms I work with have gone from 1m video streams a month to 30m in the last two years. Video journalists have been employed in some newsrooms – is that a pivot to video? No, it’s just adding in new story-telling techniques, but always within the reader in mind.
The next step is to focus on completion rates as we refine what we choose to film – and I suspect it’s disappointing performance on completion rate which did for Facebook’s love of video too.
Pivoting because distribution channels prioritise one thing over another only makes sense if your readers are showing the same appetite for that pivot. That’s why knowing your readers is so important.
Facebook as a revenue source
The unresolved challenge for publishers remains unchanged by last month’s announcements: Securing enough revenue from Facebook to support profitable businesses funding journalism.
Facebook partially solves this allowing us to post our links on its platform, and the latest changes will seemingly favour those brands who have found loyal, local readers on Facebook. It also has Facebook Instant Articles, the hosted story pages on FB which have divided the industry because of the mixed results revenue-wise.
Given the amount of stick Facebook has taken over fake news, Russian election fiddling and many other news-related challenges, it would have been easier for Facebook to walk away from news altogether.
But the reason it doesn’t is two-fold: It’s company mission ‘to bring the world closer together‘ can only bring meaningful benefits if accurate, relevant content is produced and shared … and also because people want journalism on its platform.
If I can see millions of people visiting multiple times a month the news network I work with, then that news network is clearly delivering a value to Facebook by enhancing the main newsfeed Facebook is built around.
Yet publishers only see benefit from a fraction of times their work enhances the feed, and indeed, enhances groups where journalism is shared. Journalism can add much more too – but the reward has to be financial as well as brand beneficial.
So, a month on from Facebook announcements which prompted some to call it the ‘dropping of a nuclear bomb on publishing’ what has changed?
The metrics on which we judge success on Facebook have, and there’s certainly a skew towards local which wasn’t there before. And less video.
But the underlying challenges remain, and they aren’t confined to Facebook: Journalism works best with loyal readers, something UK journalism has been grappling with for decades, ever since the first declines in newspaper sales were reported. Facebook also still needs to address the effort vs reward balance financially for publishers. Even if we treat Facebook as ‘just a business,’ there’s an awful lot for that business to gain from convincing publishers to spend more time tending to Facebook’s audience in Facebook’s walled garden.
Even the questionable survey on whether readers trust a brand or not isn’t a new problem – if readers aren’t distinguishing between what they want to believe, and what they trust, that’s a challenge which goes way beyond Facebook, and is journalism’s to grapple with.
Facebook is focusing on loyalty, and newsrooms should be too. Everything appeared to change but maybe, as the dust settles, the main challenge is the same as ever: Driving loyalty in a crowded world by being relevant to those we seek to serve.