Facebook won’t kill journalism. It might even save it

We’ve always had to keep up with the times.
We’ve always had to keep up with the times.
Image: AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler
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Everybody needs to calm down about Facebook.

The New York Times confirmed this week (paywall) that it, along with several other media outlets, has been in talks with Facebook to publish material directly onto the social network, rather than simply posting links for people to follow back to a website. Journalists and media commentators emitted a collective harrumph, many of them citing a David Carr piece (paywall) written last year in which the New York Times’ late media critic argued that such a move would turn media companies into “serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.”

The arguments against publishing journalism directly on Facebook, rather than on a news website, are many. Briefly, these include ceding far too much control to Facebook, being subject to the whims of mysterious algorithms, granting reader data to Mark Zuckerberg’s leviathan, losing advertising revenue, and having to worry about the potential for censorship by Facebook.

These would all be sensible arguments against news outlets shutting down their websites to help Facebook build its parallel version of the internet. But that is not what is going on here.

Don’t panic

I say this with no inside knowledge; while the New York Times reported that Quartz is among the news outlets that Facebook approached with a proposal, Quartz management isn’t commenting on this to anyone—including me. But one doesn’t need inside knowledge to know this: no sensible media company is suggesting a wholesale switch to distribute its journalism exclusively via Facebook.

The interest in publishing via Facebook is simply an acknowledgment that some things are better suited to formats other than a proprietary website. A daily newsletter for instance, works best if it arrives in your email inbox. Does that contribute to the media outlet’s count of monthly unique visitors to its website (the standard industry metric for online circulation)? No. But it does help a media outlet build readership and create a connection with its audience.

The idea of committing journalism outside of the pages of a newspaper or website is not a new one. Reporters frequently break news on Twitter, for example, before going off to write their stories for their websites or newspapers. Or they use it in ways that they wouldn’t—and in many cases couldn’t—use their own websites. A tweet like this one below, for instance, is not a story. It is just a tweet.

Some outlets, including the New York Times, are also experimenting with reporting on other platforms, such as Snapchat.

Many also post videos to YouTube and in some cases embed that video on their own websites. It’s cheaper and easier than signing expensive contracts with content hosts and distributors to do essentially the same thing. But it also means ceding some control to Google, which owns YouTube.

Made for Facebook

So what would an article on Facebook look like?

We don’t need to wait for websites to start publishing directly to Facebook to find out. The massive amounts of traffic Facebook has been directing toward news websites for the past couple of years has already led to the creation of content specifically geared toward Zuckerberg’s subjects.

Articles that in the old days that would have been relegated to the “offbeat” or “oddly enough” bucket dominate new media websites. So do strong opinions. And indeed human interest stories. All of these are perfectly legitimate elements of the news. But a heavy reliance on them to generate traffic has seen these formats overwhelm many websites.

Online media frequently use third-party tools such as Crowdtangle to monitor competitors (Quartz does this) and to identify posts that are working on Facebook, sometimes with the express purpose of quickly re-writing them. Perhaps everybody (except Crowdtangle, that is) would be better off if this sort of content lived exclusively on Facebook, with proper analytics from within the social network.

A caveat to the above point is that it isn’t just clickbait, or variations on clickbait, that succeed on Facebook. To use an example from Quartz, a post headlined “Absolutely everything you need to understand what happened to the Swiss franc this week” did staggeringly well on Facebook.

Indeed, non-clickbait can succeed on Facebook. But the clickbait optimized for Facebook often won’t succeed anywhere else. So why not cut out the middle man, as Facebook suggests, and let them have it. The web would be certainly be a saner place for it.

The fear remains that even in this scenario, Facebook will be able to exert an inordinate amount of power over publishers. To which I say that you are living in a fantasy world if you think for a moment that Facebook does not already exert an inordinate amount of power over publishers. The move to video is just one example of this.

Journalists, just like anyone else, can be resistant to change. Some of us lack foresight. Many of us are curmudgeonly. But all of us agree on one thing: we would like our work to be read, seen, or heard. For that to happen, we must go to where readers, viewers, and listeners gather. We cannot continue to insist they come to us. And today, that gathering place is Facebook.