Why journalists should think twice about Facebook

Facebook's journalism panel: O'Brien, Milian, Zaleski, McClure (photo by George Kelly)


At Facebook last Wednesday night, a panel of four journalists — Laura McClure of Mother Jones, Katharine Zaleski of the Washington Post, Chris O’Brien of the San Jose Mercury News, and CNN tech writer Mark Milian — talked about how they use Facebook as a tool for journalism. What they said was smart. I’d probably do most of the same things were I in their shoes.

But I had a question for them, and I didn’t get called on to ask it, so I’m going to ask it here. The question goes like this: Everything that journalists are doing on Facebook today — engaging readers in conversation, soliciting sources, polling users, posting “behind the story” material — is stuff they could just as easily do on their own websites. So why are they doing it on Facebook?

One answer is obvious: That’s where the people are! Vadim Lavrusik, a journalist who recently joined Facebook to work on its outreach to the media world, said as much. And it’s true: there are millions of people on Facebook, and Facebook makes it convenient to communicate with them. What’s the problem?

I’ll get to that. But there are other answers to the question, too. Many publications find that their interactions with their readers on Facebook are more civil and valuable than those that take place on their own websites. That, they typically believe, is because Facebook makes users log in with their real names and identities. Finally, individual journalists increasingly find it valuable to build their social-media networks as a hedge against the collapse of the institutions they work for. (“Who owns the ‘social graph’ you build on company time — you or your employer?” is one of those fascinating questions that most newsrooms have barely begun to grapple with.)

We can accept that all these answers make solid sense and yet still feel a little uneasy with media companies’ rush to shovel energy and attention into Facebook’s vast human scrum. Here’s where my uneasiness comes from: Today Facebook is a private company that is almost certainly going to sell stock to the public before long. It will have quarterly earnings reports to make and pressure to deliver to investors. It is run by almost impossibly young people who have never had to deal with any business condition other than hockey-stick-curve growth. For the moment it appears to be trying hard to operate as a neutral and open public platform; its constant tinkering and rethinking of the design and functionality of its services can be maddening, but so far have tended to be driven by a serve-the-user impulse.

That won’t last forever. There are plenty of people waiting to cash in on Facebook’s success, and more in the wings, and they will expect the company to fulfill its inevitable destiny — and “monetize” the hell out of all the relationship-building we’re doing on its pages.

This is the landscape onto which today’s journalists are blithely dancing. I understand why they’re doing it, but I wish the larger companies and institutions would think a little harder about the future.

The web itself is the original social network. Why would you ask reporters to connect with your readers on Facebook if you aren’t already encouraging them to do the same thing in the comments on your own website? If your comments have become a free-fire zone, why don’t you do something about it? If you’ve hired a “social media manager,” great — but why didn’t you hire people to manage your own comments space?

By moving so much of the conversation away from their own websites and out to Facebook, media companies are basically saying, “We did a lousy job of engaging readers under our own roof, so we’re going to encourage it to happen on someone else’s turf.”

You could argue that what news organizations are doing is just like telling your friends, “I can’t invite you over for drinks because our place is such a mess. Let’s meet at a bar!” Maybe. Then again, it might be like saying, “We let our neighborhood go to hell and didn’t do anything about it. Time to move to the mall!”

Facebook is on a fantastic roll today. It’s positioned to dominate the next decade of online evolution the way Google and Microsoft respectively dominated the previous two. It can’t be ignored and I wouldn’t suggest doing so. But it’s not the public sphere, not in the way the Internet itself is. It’s just a company. I hope every editor, reporter and news executive remembers that as they try to get their conversations hopping and their links shared.

Photo by George Kelly

Post Revisions:

  • 3 May, 2011 @ 10:25 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
  • 3 May, 2011 @ 10:24 by Scott Rosenberg

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Comments

  1. barbara raab

    Mr. Rosenberg,
    You say, “There are plenty of people waiting to cash in on Facebook’s success, and more in the wings, and they will expect the company to fulfill its inevitable destiny — and “monetize” the hell out of all the relationship-building we’re doing on its pages.” Okay, perhaps that’s true. But you haven’t explained why that is a problem — now or in the future — for journalists. What, exactly, is the point you are trying to make by raising this potential scenario?

  2. I love the my place is too messy, let’s go the bar analogy – so true. Your post brings up a lot of issues in regard to Facebook – I think journalists, brands, companies and organizations can have the same problems individuals have who rely too heavily on the post/link/comment/like interactions and fail to connect in the real world. Your post brings up a lot of things to think about for all Facebook uses, not just journalists.

  3. Scott Rosenberg

    That’s a great question, Barbara, thanks.

    I see two general species of problems for journalists to worry about. First is a general one not specific to journalists: the company’s efforts to monetize its pages are likely to make them a much less useful and pleasant environment for personal interactions. I’m envisioning a sort of information pollution of the Facebook environment, as it were, whether it is a spam-style problem or overly aggressive in-house advertising schemes by Facebook itself. Now, we can say “people will abandon Facebook in that case,” and no doubt they will over time. But lock-in in social networks has some power and news organizations aren’t exempt from that.

    The problem that’s specific to media companies is a simple business reality. To the extent that news organizations invest in making their own websites great environments for their journalists and users to interact, they are adding value to their sites, and to the open Web. (Assuming their sites remain open and not locked away behind paywalls.) To the extent that news organizations invest in turning Facebook into the place where they connect with their readers, they are adding value to Facebook. As I said, I think some of that’s going to be inevitable. But I think a newsroom’s own website should be its focal point for building its own community.

  4. It’s an interesting question. I think that journalists prefer to meet at the bar with your readers. That is, they prefer to interact without the institutional weight of media in which they work and when they do not feel they are working for the boss … They are working for themselves, or are you for believing in such.
    From the point of view of the media, I agree with you entirely. Should invest in the interaction with the audience on its own site, have managers comments, and encourage journalists to interact.
    The problem is that facebook people feel that the site is theirs. And that makes all the difference.

  5. Thanks for coming to the meetup, Scott, and for sharing your insights here. I think you bring up a lot of valid points about how news organizations and journalists should engage their readers on their own site. I’m all for that. In general, I think there needs to be far more interaction and collaboration between the reporter and reader. But that doesn’t mean that the tools out there should be ignored and that technology should be discounted in improving those conversations. Facebook wants to improve the conversation around news, on and off news sites. I think that we can all work together to improve how information is consumed and the conversations that take place.

  6. Hiya,

    Nice post, but I’m wondering if the bar analogy is the right one.

    Facebook is more like a coffee shop in the 1800s: a large room full of people conversing (and some people doing business) which is looked down on by the old guard, and where you make money by selling coffee. The interesting question is when will Facebook transform into something like the first stock exchanges, which grew out of the coffee houses: large rooms where people gather to transact, and for which the owner charges the a fee for entry. (Actually, Facebook has started this transition with the Facebook bucks stuff, trying to grab a percentage of any transaction conducted in the room.)

    At what point will Facebook decide that anyone “doing business” on Facebook should pay, and not just the people transacting? One day you might wake up (probably not long after Facebook goes public) and find that you need a “Professional Account” if you, as a professional journalist, want to continue interacting your community. And remember, Facebook gets to define what “professional journalist” means. Facebook will try and capture the majority of whatever value is in the room, and if there’s value for you in there, then they want to take as much as possible for themselves.

    This doesn’t mean that Facebook should be ignored, but we all need to be aware (as you point out) that Facebook is private property and not public commons.

    As a side note, I notice that my nephews churn their Facebook / SM accounts regularly to get ride of unwanted “friends”. SM might not be as sticky as we imagine, but only time will tell.

    r.

    PEG

  7. Great post, thanks for some critical thinking about using Facebook for journalism. Are there not, also, legal considerations here? If you’re using Facebook to find & collect sources and the government wants access to your notebook and your sources, who owns them? Facebook does, right? I highly doubt FB would ever go to bat to protect journalists’ sources. Ultimately, journalism requires trust and the ability to share info privately, two ingredients missing from FB.

  8. This is something even I picked up on about 5 years ago when I set about getting my place in the World Wide Web. At the time Myspace was all the rage and no one could see it being toppled, yet I recalled the days when I used MSN Spaces and MSN Messenger as heavily as I did Myspace. It was only inevitable that it too, would face an uncertain future as more competitors came on the scene. My blog has gone through many phases as I adapted it to my social media journey, the only difference is – it’s mine and will (hopefully) be mine as long as the internet is relevant. Why these multinational companies can’t understand what you, or a ‘small time blogger’ like myself can, is beyond me. All that content and all those relationships will effectively die when the next social network comes along.

    However, I guess customers are ‘fluid’ and always changing just as social networks are. Maybe the big companies are just matching their customer behaviour and moving on from time to time, to a new ‘fan base’.

    Great post!

  9. Great post Scott.

    I’m sitting with Andrew Haeg on this debate – the legal ramifications need serious thinking about.

    Also, I’d like to add that in my opinion FB’s instability* is far from acceptable – there’s no BIG head on those young shoulders, and we the audience are at the whim’s of mere saplings in the IT industry.

    ______________________________________________________________

    * FanPage/LandingPage/ProfilePage experiment is a Fiasco!

  10. I adore this post. Thank you for writing it. I too am very concerned about fb monetizing our relationships on a large scale when they go public. However, I’m not sure that moving comments back to individual news sites is the answer. I don’t know what the answer is but I do know that I adore RSS bc I no longer have to go around to 12 different sites each day, they come to me.

  11. Hi Scott,

    So, yeah, I generally agree with you. But, community technology doesn’t come cheap. Facebook invested a lot of money in building the site they have. Each (parent) publication (company) is likely responsible for the community technology platform of their child publication. Do you expect each parent publication company to invest in building as robust a system as Facebook?

    If they invest in a good-enough platform, then what’s the difference between that and integrating something like Facebook Commenting into the site? Indeed, why not integrate Facebook’s commenting platform into your publication’s site? Sure, you don’t own the data, you don’t “own” the community, but your people stick around on your site.

    -Joe

  12. I echo the comments above from PEG – but I look at it from the analytics side of things @ Poynter. http://bit.ly/jOFOh6

    tl;dr We’re so focused on building audience on a third party platform we are undoubtedly doing at least some disservice to the sites and audiences we do control

  13. @Joe Murphy, you say “community technology doesn’t come cheap”. I beg to differ.

    There are literally dozens of mature, well-developed community commenting and community identity management platforms that can be acquired for low-cost or no-cost, and deployed at reasonable cost around news organizations websites. These have been in place for years, much longer than FB, and have each collected their unique benefits intended to better service their communities.

    Facebook not only doesn’t have a lock on this technology, they don’t even count as the leaders. Their significant accomplishment-to-date is to make newcomers think that they are the primary choice for community management.

    The aspect of community management which doesn’t come cheap isn’t the platform, it’s the management. As Scott (and many others before him) has properly noted, you need real people to monitor the comments, remove the ones which don’t contribute to the conversation, disengage trolls and eliminate spam. But even more importantly, you need to engage the commenters, both directly in the comments, and through stories that respond and react to commenters points and concerns.

    You need this whether you use your own technology platform or Facebook’s.

    I like the simplicity of Scott’s analogy of inviting friends to your home, compared to meeting them at the bar. (I think Peter Evans-Greenwood’s extension of the analogy goes too far and muddles it to the point of uselessness.)

    To my mind, there is no doubt that a news organization which devotes budget to the comment management function in an active way, and to the technical function of building and maintaining the platform, will reap success in building and keeping their community.

  14. ElectricBuddha

    I’m not sure I entirely buy your arguement for one reason in particular. I think your argument depends on Facebook(the site) being Facebook(the company)’s product. This would imply then that because people will want to continue using the product, the company can set market rates for using the product. But to my mind this is the same fundamental misconception made by news organizations who try to put content behind pay walls. The product of the web isn’t content, especially when that content has many sources. The product of the web is audience.

    People are talking about Facebook, because 50 million people use it. Look at the 4 players who are bigger than Facebook, Google made 28 billion in revenue last year without charging a penny to the average user. I realize the comparison doesn’t equate perfectly but Facebook is breaking new ground here and the essential point is still valid. the Institution of pay walls represents a self induced limiting of product. While I don’t doubt that Facebook will offer paid services, such as exposure to fewer ads, it would be almost suicidal for Facebook to undermine the thing (easy mass communication) that draws people to it.

  15. Peter Evans-Greenwood

    @ElectricBudda Facebook is place that has managed to attact an collection regular patrons, and they may well demand a cover charge from the blokes (where bloke is defined in their Ts & Cs) while letting in the girls in miniskirts for free. Everyone is not equal in Facebook’s eyes, and as long as the girls in miniskirts keep coming they’ll be fine.

  16. SsS

    Thank you for this post. I am a journalist, and there are many reasons I don’t use Facebook. As Mr. McPherson pointed out above, MySpace become a graveyard a few years ago as marketers tried to cash in on a captive audience by spamming them to death. Since out of control spam is anathema to most users, the site lost many of their followers to Facebook. It is folly to believe that the same thing can’t happen to Facebook just because it has been hot for a while.
    Another deeply concerning issue is journalists ASSUMING that all Facebook users log in with their real names, and that they are being genuine and honest about who they are. I happen to have multiple FB accounts, none of which have my real name or any personal info attached to them. I can be Joe Green from Minnesota or Missy Klebern from California. I can post pictures of my “home” ripped from some real estate blog, and formulate any story I want. There are no real Facebook police, and hackers have long snickered about what “easy pickings” FB users are because of the site’s weak security.
    These two points alone are enough to keep me from using Facebook as a professional tool. You can call me old-school, but there is just no substitute for good old-fashioned legwork and fact checking. If I read a story by a professional journalist, I expect that they have at least attempted to ensure that their sources are valid. That said, if you ever need to interview someone about the dismal state of journalism today, you can hit me up on Facebook under the name Notta Idiot.

  17. SsS

    D’oh! That should read, “As Mr. McPherson pointed out above, MySpace became a graveyard…”

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] Why journalists should think twice about Facebook "Facebook is on a fantastic roll today. It’s positioned to dominate the next decade of online evolution the way Google and Microsoft respectively dominated the previous two. It can’t be ignored and I wouldn’t suggest doing so. But it’s not the public sphere, not in the way the Internet itself is. It’s just a company. I hope every editor, reporter and news executive remembers that as they try to get their conversations hopping and their links shared." [...]

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