Is Facebook Changing the Nature of Journalism?

[responsive]fbtools[/responsive]At the recent Online News Association Conference, Facebook’s Liz Heron (nee the New York Times social media editor) was grilled by overwrought journalists who are convinced that Facebook plays favorites and too closely controls what users see.

“Frustration with that reality has been building for some time now, as media organizations have come to realize that social is the new search — and so they are now just as beholden to Twitter and Facebook as they once were to Google, and the new bosses are just as opaque as the old one,” writes Mathew Ingram in Gigaom.

Heron countered that the key is to “just create good content.” At this, the audience appeared less than satisfied as they struggled to make sense of an obdurately opaque algorithm.

“But what is great content? That’s the existential problem media companies are wrestling with: is it clickbait that drives people to share, or is it in-depth analysis of important topics? And how do we know when we are succeeding?” Ingram asks.

“Facebook is in the business of serving individual users, Heron said, and the algorithm is so nuanced that specific gaming strategies — like adding ‘congratulations’ to a post — don’t make sense,” writes Sam Kirkland in Poynter.

“But there’s so much at stake here for news organizations that it’s difficult for them to accept Facebook’s just-trust-us approach to its algorithm. Our traffic — our livelihood — depends on figuring this out,” Kirkland continues.

The obvious anxiety of these news organizations focused on eyeballs: How can we make our content more likely to reach our audience? But the discussions revealed a much deeper and more existential question, Kirkland notes.

“If Facebook isn’t interested in exposing users to content that might be important but won’t result in high engagement like softer news and quizzes do, what will happen to news literacy? What will happen to civic engagement? What happens to The News That Matters, if only Facebook gets to decide what matters?”

It’s a valid question. The way around this is to realize that Facebook, like other social media platforms, is a tool, not a definitive judge of newsworthiness. Keep your organization focused on its mission, not its “like” rates, and continue to write the stories you believe need to be told. If journalists cave into social pressure, they might as well fold up shop now and go home.