Facebook’s in the midst of a serious campaign to convince everyone how much it cares about journalism.
Even at F8, the company’s giant developer conference taking place this week, it’s saucing on the charm.
“We don’t always get it right, but you have our commitment to keep trying,” Dan Rose, Facebook’s vice president of partnerships, said at Tuesday’s event.
Too bad someone didn’t tell Facebook’s algorithms.
Over the last few weeks, numerous media publications have seen a distinct drop-off in the reach of links published to Facebookmeaning far fewer people are seeing stories in their Newsfeeds from certain outlets.
The issue first came to light on Tuesday, when Kurt Gessler, a deputy editor for digital news at the Chicago Tribune, published a post on Medium detailing how the Tribune‘sseen its reach on Facebook decline. Dramatically. The post’s title laid it bare: “Facebooks algorithm isnt surfacing one-third of our posts. And its gettingworse.”
This kind of thing’s an ongoing issue on Facebook, which constantly tweaks its secret recipe for what shows up in your Newsfeed. As one person with audience development experience for a major newspaper told us: “When aren’t audience development people spooked about FB reach?” In other words: People who work at media outlets are always gonna be freaked out by changes at Facebook.
Fair point. But this time, something fishy does seem to be going on. Matt Karolian at the Boston Globe had also noticed a downtick in Facebook reach.
See that graph, above? Those downturns follow strong upticks that correlate closely to the 2016 election. And it shows a changeand one that Gessler sees hitting newspapers hard in particular, due to their lack of video (at least compared to outlets like Buzzfeed, Vox, Business Insider, et al).
Gessler wrote that Facebook’s Newsfeed favors publications that publish video to Facebook as about 25% of all posts. He and another editor looked at 23 newspapers (including the Tribune) and found that most newspapers didn’t even get within striking distance of that number.
“To be honest, we dont come close to this. But neither does any media organization comparable to the Chicago Tribune,” Gessler wrote.
The notion that newspapers aren’t adequately prepared to play Facebook’s game isn’t terribly new, but it does fly in the face of the company’s recent efforts to put a positive spin on its relationship with the media. Since the election, hardly a week’s gone by without Facebook announcing some new initiative, rolling out a new tool to combat fake news, or having a sit-down with a group of publishers of local media.
Those efforts at making a big push towards Facebook becoming a safe space for legit journalism seem like they’re…well, like they’re at odds with Facebook’s more pressing efforts to jumpstart its video business. Facebook is pushing a narrative about how much they care about journalism, while pushing publishers to longer videos so that it can start showing ads.
And all of these video effortsfrom the initial move to video, to the sudden embrace of live video, to the recent embrace of longform videocome with a deal for publishers. Facebook prioritizes these types of posts, and when publishers post the kind of content it prioritizes, publishers tend to get a bump in the News Feed for their other posts. Scratch the back of Facebook’s News Feed, and the News Feed will scratch back.
But video, of course, doesn’t have much to do with journalism or what papers like the Tribune primarily doafter all, it’s a newspaper, not a production company. And this all speaks to the dissonance of Facebook’s recent pro-media efforts. As Facebook used to be very fond of reminding everyone, it is a platform, a title that removes it from responsibilities like editorial judgement. Now, Facebook’s trying on some sort of public-facing outfit as a responsible actor in the media world, while its automated system runs business as usual.
So: Is Facebook in the midst of some massive shift in how it’s weighing thing in its news feed? Who knows. The company’s famously tight-lipped about these kinds of things. Gessler told Mashable that “more than a half dozen” people from other publishers reached out with similar findings. As a journalist that’s covered this topic for some time, I can say that publishers are rarely willing to discuss this matter in publicwho wants to out themselves as not being seen on Facebook? It’s a problem Gessler knows well.
“My goal was to end the silence, share some data and try to figure out what’s happening and why. And we best accomplish that by showing our work,” Gessler said via Twitter DM.
Gessler added that he understood there were things the Tribune could do to improve its performance on Facebook, but noted that catering to the News Feed can be a slippery slope.
“We have our own brand focused on Chicago, Illinois and the Midwest. We want to drive that conversation for our audience, not just share the same story everyone else is,” he wrote.
That might be music to the ears of journalists. Maybe even Facebook’s journalism evangelists.
But it’s doubtful the algorithms are listening. The question for Facebook now becomes: Can they be trained to? Moreover, does Facebook even want them to?