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

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