This past week, I wrote about Mile Hudack’s frustrated Facebook update about Vox and the general state of the media on Facebook, along with many others, and then posted an edited version on Tumblr, which then hit Mediagazer, the Pew Research Center’s daily briefing and the Nieman Lab’s weekly digest of the week in news. It all felt a bit meta and unexpected for a short piece of quick analysis. What follows is an edited version of that initial update.
Before reacting to Hudack’s update, I’d found and shared a great feature on the passage of The DATA Act over on Facebook, after reading Matt Yglesias’s reply to Hudack, an advertising product manager at Facebook. That’s not uncommon: I discover great posts, analysis, research and even new data on Facebook frequently in 2014, both shared by friends and family and on various lists I’ve built. I’ve found that a lot of important news will find me, but not all of it, so I intentionally use other methods to discover it, from Twitter to RSS to Google News to reading print magazines and newspapers, listening to NPR and watching the PBS Newshour. I think about social media and the news differently than the average, though, and I use Facebook and Twitter differently than other folks, too, sharing public updates across multiple platforms much more frequently than the average user. That means you should take the following with a grain of salt or two.
Hudack took the newly launched Vox Media to task for not producing more stories like the one about The DATA Act, a historic open government bill that’s now law, as opposed to a story about jeans.
I’m sympathetic to his frustration: I’ve followed and written about the DATA Act for three years, during which time I saw negligible mainstream coverage of it, much like the current lack of coverage regarding the bipartisan FOIA Reform Act, which passed the House of Representatives unanimously this spring, despite the miserable state of Freedom of Information Act compliance in the federal government.
Vox’s jeans story, Yglesias points out, has been shared four times as much on Facebook as the one about how a bill became law in 2014, which suggests that what’s popular on the world’s biggest social network is a result of decisions its users are making, not the media site that originated them. Reasonable people may differ on this point.
I’m on the media producer side of this equation, given my work, which makes me much more sympathetic to Vox’s side of the debate, along with the situation that faces many other media outlets. To Hudack’s point: yes, there’s a lot of dreck in the vast number of media outlets publishing today, from cable to broadcast to online. There’s also fantastic work from a number of outlets that Hudack didn’t list, many of which can be found attached to Pulitzer prizes and nominated for data journalism awards:
Here’s what Atlantic Media senior editor Alexis Madrigal said about it:
“My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified. I’m not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they’d say, ‘They work on Facebook.’ And your own CEO has even provided an explanation for the phenomenon with his famed quote, ‘A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.’ This is not to say we (the (digital) media) don’t have our own pathologies, but Google and Facebook’s social and algorithmic influence dominate the ecology of our world.”
Like Google, Facebook can send vast amounts of traffic and readers to content producers, which creates a natural incentive to learn how to get the attention of those readers, create incentives for them to click and share, and how to game those systems as well, from search engine optimization (SEO) to social media optimization (SMO). (On the latter count, the reasons people *share* stories can differ from the reasons they *read* them, and the rate at which they share may diverge as a result.)
In both cases, however, a powerful and inscrutable, closely held algorithm is showing stories to people when they visit the platforms. On Google.com, the algorithm shows you links in response to a directed search. If you’re not anonymized, Google will personalize those results.
On Facebook’s newsfeed, the default environment that users spend time browsing every day, they’re likely to now see a mix of ads, lists, updates from brands and pages you’ve liked, and updates from close friends.
Unless Facebook users take specific steps to create a list of them, they won’t find the clean line of chronological updates from friends and family *to* friends and family that they enjoyed back in 2007.
Today, even if we enjoy and benefit from interaction on the platforms, we’re very much living in Facebook’s world, on its terms.
If a director of advertising products for Facebook wants there to be better journalism online, in general, here’s a suggestion: as Facebook builds more mobile products like Paper and develops its online product more, it could also consider partnerships with news organizations on content and revenue. That might make some publishers uncomfortable or balk, but others would experiment. (It sounds like Liz Heron might already be exploring some of those possibilities.)
My colleague at the Tow Center, Andy Carvin, commenting on my initial Facebook post, suggested that Hudack’s career and perspective shouldn’t be viewed only through the prism of Facebook:
Andy Carvin: Mike isn’t director of product at fb. He actually works on ad products for fb. And I know where his frustration is coming from – he founded blip.tv, which became just another content site after he sold it, but prior to that was one of the Net’s first bastions of citizen journalism. He’s also been posting for months about the sorry state of online reporting about Ukraine and other international crises. So I totally get where he’s coming from. Even if fb is driving a lot of content providers to lowest common denominator content, it seems unfair to put this on his shoulders. And ultimately, it’s still the content providers who choose to publish stuff they think will get the most eyeballs, whether via fb or any other vector.
That’s a fair point, and I’m glad he added that context. There’s research from Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism for those who want to dig more.
That said, if Facebook and its leaders wanted to do more to support investigative journalism that isn’t driven by advertising considerations and shareability on social media, the company and/or newly wealthy senior staff might consider investing a portion of the billions in revenue that Facebook is making annually in improving the supply of it.
Specifically, they might support whatever comes after the newspapers that have traditionally housed the investigative journalists that create it. For instance, they could donate revenue to the foundations that have already been investing in news startups, platforms and education (The Knight Foundation News Challenge comes to mind, but there are others, from Sloan to Ford to Gates to Bloomberg to CIMA, which has published a global strategy to support investigative journalism) or establish Facebook scholarships and build out charitable arm focused on the media, akin to Google.org. The total doesn’t have to be much, relative to the annual revenues, but even tens of millions of dollars annually would make a difference to a lot of outlets and startups.