Facebook and the blue pill of news

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe” *

I read a Roy Greenslade blog post today about Facebook, and it made me thoughtful about our attitudes towards the ownership of news and information in the way the phrase “Google’s tanks are on our lawns” used to in 2008.

His take (which was expanding on this article) is that “Facebook’s increasing dominance…[will cause] not only the destruction of old media… but the end of journalism as we know it” and adds “The Facebookisation of news has the potential to destabilise democracy by, first, controlling what we read and second, by destroying the outlets that provide that material”.

Big themes, and yet, if platforms skew information then for over two hundred years we’ve had the newspaperisation of news.
There hasn’t been, and never will be for as long as humans are involved, a time when information isn’t fitted to a structured narrative – often one which is created in response to a need. Whether breaking news or investigation, journalists are taught to look for a Who, What, Where, When, Why, How framework, and that doesn’t make the resulting story incomplete, or wrong or bad journalism.

Digital journalism and social media hasn’t changed this particularly, but it has made it easier for scrutiny, questioning and rebuttal. Algorithms aren’t the solution, and I know someone far more clever than I will have an idea of what degree of separation you need from human intervention before code can create a pure filter, but even then it might not be a filter you enjoy or want, because – ultimately – we chose our versions of truth and have Views about those who hold different truths to us.

The changes in platform are never going away, just as newspapers have opened and closed, websites come and gone, apps failed, or been bought up and integrated in others, only for their unique gifts to be lost.
The big difference brought by the internet is that while 1980s Britain might have overwhelmingly learned of its news from print tabloids and TV, the weltanschauung is literally now a world (wide web) view.
The gobbling up of revenue and audience that comes with Facebook’s dominance is a challenge but only the latest in a long line of them. The mainstream media may not meet that in its current iteration but we have no monopoly on the future of journalism. New media businesses emerge, and even msm is constantly changing, no matter how much it may not appear that way. I work in a different world to that of a 1990s newsroom.

Every readers will have a view of what is and isn’t journalism and you can see their often scathing opinions in any search on Twitter. Exhibit A:

Panic about deadly kittens, by all means, but don’t panic about them being the most read story on yesterday’s Telegraph website – why shouldn’t they be? The story is interesting, sharable and meets at least one dictionary definition of the term Journalism- gathering, assessing, presenting information.
Having said that, so does the act of retweeting a police appeal for a missing child. Is a report of local mini Olympics, complete photo of kids wearing flower medals, journalism? Or is relaying a couple’s airplane bust up via live tweets?
What I think of as journalism may differ even from another journalist’s view of journalism, let alone a broad sweep of opinion. Our narratives are distinct and based on how we see our own realities.

One person’s diverting read is another’s click bait; the  star ratings your local news outlet curated for local restaurants and that you read (probably via Facebook) may be useful and inform your decisions of where to eat, but there will be 20 other people posting in the comments “It’s nothing to do with hygiene; they get one star for not filling out the paperwork correctly”.
A handful voices expressing outrage at the lack of local grassroots sports coverage are drowned out by the deafening silence of (perhaps tens of) thousands of people  not caring about it at all.

What I ultimately believe is we can’t insist journalism has a right to survive just because it always has been a thing and we think people are more shady now than ever.
If the industry wants journalism to survive then we’ve got to be smarter about delivering quality and reaching and engaging audiences with content that matters to them. And I think when it comes to audiences, invested, niche ones – geographic or interest – are the future.
Social media platforms like Facebook are only going to become more sophisticated; we’ve got to be equally committed to bettering what we do, to be able to use their systems to deliver our content, and talk, and listen, to the audience more than ever.
Maybe we need to be more concerned and focused on what is happening, quietly, on messenger apps – away from analytics and data that tell us what our audience values and wants.

*The Matrix, 1999  

 

Instant Articles for regional news

Here’s something that put a smile on my face today (no, not the drink drive mum) – it’s a Manchester Evening News Instant Article on Facebook.
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The MEN and WalesOnline are the two Trinity Mirror regional sites signed up for the UK Instant Articles roll out (announced today) – The Mirror is also participating. The only other UK regional involved right now is the Evening Standard, and it’s a really positive step that Facebook looked beyond the national/international brands for involvement in this.
Instant Articles, of course, is Facebook’s answer to the horrible problem of mobile load hang time for publishers.
Content loads seamlessly, and from a user experience it’s brilliant. Personally, I’m also more likely to read other sections of publisher’s ‘related content’ if they are published as IA too, as there are few things that make me boil like watching a page l-o-o-o-o-a-a-a-d on mobile.

It is, I guess, odd that we rely on a third party to solve a problem we created ourselves with our heavy loading pages but I’m employing my maxim of ‘better to light a candle than curse the darkness’ here. After all, the issue of heavy loads isn’t something newsrooms can solve; getting content out and in front of readers is something they are good at, and if the tool exists, use it, I’d say.

At the International Journalism Festival, last April, I watched a Facebook exec explain the concept of Instant Articles to a room full of journalists, and the reaction was Not Good. There was a loud and sustained outcry against the idea of FB hosting content publishers created, without sending them back to the originator’s website, and it was interesting to witness. (Incidentally, there is a commercial model for publishers built into Instant Articles).

Since then, the roar of disapproval has subsided to more of a mumble, but there are still questions being asked about why publishers are willing to cede their – what would you call it?- control? to a social media platform.
For what it’s worth, this is why I’d say it is worth trying: Facebook is HUGE and as an editor I’d want people to read my content and give commercial colleagues the chance to sell into that if they want to.
If someone is scrolling through content on Facebook and see something interesting the chances are they want to read it there and then (I doubt your average reader is using that Save Link option too often) and if it takes longer than a couple of seconds to load, your fickle reader is off to the next thing.
If we can deliver a fast, decent user experience – and a great piece of content – it gives my brand a big tick, with the reader and with FB.
So congratulations to MEN editor Rob Irvine, social media editor Beth Ashton and regionals head of social media Gayle Tomlinson (along with other TM colleagues) for doing a bit of ground-breaking work for regional journalism, and trying something new.
It’s always a good feeling to be at the forefront of trying new things.

Facebook and cookies n milk journalism

cookies Here’s a paragraph from an article on Digiday earlier today:

On the PopSugar Moms Facebook page, PopSugar’s most popular page with nearly a million likes, most videos surpass 100,000 views. A few have cracked a million views.This video about milk-and-cookie shot glasses went viral, racking up more than 9.8 million views since its Feb. 25 post date.

You can read the full article here if you want but the essential takeaway is this: Cookies in the shape of shotglasses drove obscenely large amounts of traffic to a site that harnessed the power of Facebook native video.

That’s fair enough but, having listened to Andy Mitchell, director of news partnerships, Facebook, speak at the International Journalism Festival recently about how user choice and engagement would be one of the key drivers for ‘surfacing’ content on Facebook, I do wonder this: As most journalism – particularly regional news – has literally nothing to do with cutesy shotglass cookies and milk, are those stories going to sink without trace?

Mitchell spoke about Facebook’s future at the IJF (the video of his talk is at the end of this post) and it’s clear that video and native publishing is where he and Facebook see that future pointing (Buzzfeed and the New York Times are among those publishers who are in the first tranche of working with Facebook on this) and that Facebook’s algorithm was key to content flourishing in the Facebook ecosystem.

He’s obviously used to giving keynotes and was initially unruffled when the less-than-enthused audience questions started up. But he did start to get exasperated when various hacks started quizzing him about responsibility, integrity and censorship. George Brock has written a great post on his thoughts (and he was one of the questioners, too). My notes from the session at this point say “AM said a lot of words, none of which answered the question” – and I see George Brock came to the same conclusion in his post too.

So Facebook thinks it is a perfect platform, particularly with regards to mobile, for news brands but there are a few things that I wonder about:

1. If your audience growth strategy is tied to commercialising on your platforms, how quickly can a regional news publisher adapt (again) to make content commercially viable on Facebook? I believe in the idea of social media news, with its own commercial life support system untied to a platform, but I don’t see anyone pointing the way in how to crack that yet. And Facebook is not going to  trip over itself to help publishers find a solution when it is competing in that very same space.

2. PopSugar’s cookies-n-milk video numbers are phenomenal. Not sure a crime scene in Leicester is going to be the same kind of draw, even proportionally. Lifestyle content – and the Lad Bible, of course – can be numbers monsters; regional brands who try to emulate that have to constantly reinvent how they are packaged, pitched and presented or the inevitable “slow news day” comments pile in. They risk damaging the brand’s reputation. Even apparently popular regulars, like property porn articles, start drawing criticism from jaded Facebookers after a very short time.

3. Cookies-n-milk stories aren’t journalism but they are informative, fun, sharable and popular so, if getting on people’s news feed is the goal, is Facebook – that monster mainstream sites rely on so much – descending into a Reddit/VideoJug repository of trivia and how-to-decorate cupcakes or how-to hairstyle time-lapse videos, with an occasional cryptic status update from an old school friend? Is the only way to buck the algorithm is to play by Facebook’s rules and post native video or text? That’s not so much a strategy as a distress tactic.

4. Facebook says it wants to help publishers – specifically news brands with their “slow mobile experience” get their content front and centre on a massive publishing platform, that said brands happen not to have any commercial stake in or ownership of. And that might just be ok, but Facebook effectively washes its hands of what happens next. It says the new feed algorithm responds to reader interactions, and that users should use other sources, not just news feed, to get a holistic view of the news. Personally, I’d say before a Facebook exec makes a breezy public statement like that again, he or she should read some of the comments under an average news story; they’d quickly realise most readers don’t even click-through to the article – they read the social media headline, look at the photo, form an opinion and type ‘slow news day’ or possibly post that damn photo of Michael Jackson eating popcorn. Very few go off to find a wider source of information to add context, nuance and depth.

Some commentators say journalists and mainstream news brands have moved past the point of reporting news, and are now curators and editors of news, verifying and checking the social noise to sort the clear signal. That’s a fair idea, but where does the Facebook strategy (and algorithm) fit into this? Can you edit and curate if the platform where content is being published dictates, on the interactions of the shot glass cookies crowd, whether that work is seen? And on that note, how long can Facebook resist calling itself a publisher?

International Journalism Festival video: