How Publishers Can Survive Facebook Churn: Top Expert Weighs In — Part I

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Facebook’s News Feed is the social platform’s center of gravity.

There are more than 2 billion News Feeds, one for each Facebook member. When many members click on the same news article and share it, they can create millions of page views for a newspaper or other provider — the well-named “network effect.” When enough users “like” a message about a product or service and share it, they give a similar boost to a brand.

Members can choose a lot of their content “inventory,” but Facebook, through an array of signals it receives from members, helps shape the content they see, especially public posts from publishers and other creators. An algorithm takes multiple snapshots of members’ online behavior, both on Facebook and the rest of the Web, and Facebook uses the information to help decide what content to send to those 2 billion-plus News Feeds.

Facebook doesn’t explain fully how its algorithm works. Further complicating the predicament, Facebook periodically makes changes to what and how much content it decides to send out. In January, the platform made three major changes, leaving publishers, businesses, and other content creators in various states of confusion and sometimes apprehension.

To help make sense of this sometimes-chaotic state of affairs and find solutions for local news publishers, I went to an expert who I think would be on just about any short list of Facebook demystifiers. He is Grzegorz Piechota, a Polish-born journalist and Harvard- and Oxford-based globe-trotting social-media researcher and adviser who has been conducting deep research into digital disruption and the rise of platforms.

Since 2016, Piechota has published three books on news publishers’ platform strategies with the International News Media Association and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). His latest report — an easy-to-digest slide desk — focuses primarily on how the revamped Facebook News Feed affects publishers and how they can cope with and even profit from the changes. It’s loaded with important and practical suggestions for how other content creators can coexist with Facebook despite the platform’s recent round of gyrations.

In a two-part Q & A that begins today, Piechota shows how publishers can successfully negotiate the twists and turns of Facebook’s what’s-next? News Feed:

Facebook says it is prioritizing publishers’ news that promotes “meaningful interaction.” Does the News Feed algorithm have the machine intelligence to discriminate between a passive comment and a meaningful one that can start a networked conversation?
The head of Facebook’s News Feed, Adam Mosseri, has acknowledged that although the platform says it is optimizing the service to create more “meaningful social interactions,” it has not agreed on what “meaningful” really meant and how to measure it.

Facebook is very data- and research-driven in its decision making. So we can expect it will ask users whether what they see in News Feed is “meaningful,” and then they will train their algorithms accordingly to find any correlations between characteristics of posts or the entities doing the posting and whatever people find “meaningful.” We already know that Facebook thinks interactions between people are more “meaningful” than those between people and publishers or brands.

Still, I would not expect to ever get a firm, official definition of “meaningfulness.” Modern algorithms are called “black boxes” because they are famously bad at explaining the rules that the machines learned from data.

To develop editorial content that aims at promoting meaningful interaction — whatever it means exactly — should local news publishers use tools like audience-engagement specialist Hearken to develop closer, individualized “listening” relationships within their community?
I am a fan of what Hearken does and I share their view that publishers might have too easily surrendered communities and conversations around news to social networks.

Many academic studies show how important the social aspect is for engaging with media content of any kind — from music to videos and news. Learning about the news has always been just one of the many jobs that people “hired” media outlets for.

People have been reading newspapers, listening to radio or watching TV also, to have something to talk about with others, to look smarter in the eyes of their peers, to connect with their local community or an interest group, etc. Researchers studying Facebook itself found that after posting comments people are intrinsically motivated to visit the site more often, and they are also more active on the site hours before posting.

Do you want to check how valuable the social features are to users? Try to charge for that. I advised two European newspapers with paywalls to move social features such as commenting and sharing from free to paid packages. Not only have the changes driven more conversions, the new paid features have also been perceived as the most valuable by subscribers — more valuable than getting more content, or an access to the e-paper edition.

It’s interesting that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, is doing most of the talking about bringing people closer together, beginning locally, and making that goal Facebook’s new mission. Don’t local news publishers need to think these kind of civic-centered thoughts as well and act on them?
I am sorry, but I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook has invented community building or civic-centered media. Both have existed for centuries and have been practiced by local news publishers all over the world. Journalists talked to local citizens before Facebook launched the Messenger app, and they have been local community moderators before Facebook started to promote Groups.

Facebook is not really creating new communities; it provides tools for the existing ones to communicate, share information, etc. The tools are great and theoretically free, but there’s a price to be paid — in the data that Facebook acquires, in the lock-in of community members who find it difficult to switch the network after some time, or in time and work committed by volunteers or journalists. Last but not least, there’s a decline in what Facebook’s competitors attract in advertising, like local news publishers, who get less ad revenue to support community journalism.

You’re right that Zuckerberg didn’t invent community building or civic-centered media. But how many U.S. local news publishers in this digital age are effectively using available tools to present civic-centered features that connect with their communities, as often happened in the print era?
The U.S. may have some of the most vulturine local newspaper corporate owners in the world, debilitating respected newsrooms, cutting original reporting, and weakening local communities. But at the same time it has some of the best news brands in the world such as the New York Times or the Washington Post, both enjoying global reach and deep roots into their home communities.

You’ve got some of the greatest not-for-profit institutions such as the Knight Foundation, Lenfest Institute for Journalism, Nieman Foundation and Poynter Institute, all running local news innovation programs.

There’s a lively scene of local news startups such as The Evergrey in Seattle, The New Tropic in Miami and Bklyner in New York City.

If local publishers do more to promote civic engagement with their audiences, won’t their news continue to be promoted adequately in the News Feed, regardless of the changes that have been implemented that reduce publishers’ content in the News Feed by 20%?
We will see. On Jan. 29, Mr. Zuckerberg said he was going to promote news from local sources because the local issues were found less divisive than national ones and because following local news was correlated with civic engagement. The details of the changes, though, were more puzzling.

First, it seems that promoting “local news” does not mean promoting stories only about civic issues. Sports, arts, and human-interest stories will also be promoted as long as they’re clicked by users in a tight geographic area with a radius of one or several or perhaps as much as 50 miles.

Second, promoting “local news” does not mean promoting “local journalism” but basically any local Facebook Page or Group that might be a business, an institution, or any group of individuals, as long as most of their readership comes from a tight geographic area.

Part two will appear Thursday.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.