warning KDMC resources are archived here. We are no longer updating this site.


Relying on Facebook for engagement: Risky for news organizations and journalists?

by: Amy Gahran |

May 05, 2011

Relying on Facebook for engagement: Risky for news organizations and journalists?

Last week I attended an event for journalists at Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters featuring a panel of journalists discussing how they use Facebook. Founding Salon.com editor Scott Rosenberg also was there, and this week he wrote a blog post exploring whether journalists and news organizations should be wary about depending too heavily on Facebook for their public engagement…

By Amy Gahran

In his post, Why journalists should think twice about Facebook, Rosenberg noted that many journalists and news orgs are engaging with their audiences, or at least have a presence on, Facebook.

According to Rosenberg: “Everything that journalists are doing on Facebook today… 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!

“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.”

So what’s the problem?

Rosenberg continued: “Today Facebook is a private company that is almost certainly going to sell stock to the public before long. ...For the moment it appears to be trying hard to operate as a neutral and open public platform.

“...That won’t last forever. There are plenty of people waiting to cash in on Facebook’s success, ...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.

“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.’”

With the exploding and near-universal popularity of social media services, news organizations can no longer afford to appear uninterested in engagement. Having some sort of social media presence has become a benchmark of credibility.

For that reason, I do think news orgs should have a strong presence in the social media that are popular with their communities. But don’t make this an excuse to slack off on adapting your own tools, culture, and systems to engage more effectively on your own digital “turf.”

As Rosenberg noted in a response to a comment: “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… 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.”

Other possible Facebook risks

The architecture of Facebook is also still mostly a “walled garden”—much of the content and interaction is not easily or universally findable or linkable. This is appropriate for interpersonal social networking, but it makes less sense from a publisher’s perspective. It can make valuable content associated with your brand harder to find, track, and keep.

Also, as Peter Evans-Greenwood commented on Rosenberg’s article: “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.”

...Which means that the issue of who “owns” a journalist’s Facebook friends, Twitter followers, or other social media connections isn’t necessarily just a matter of agreements between news orgs and their staff (another contentious issue which arose that evening). Facebook, Twitter, and other services could change those rules as well.

Pulling Facebook into your site

Some news organizations are using Facebook in a different way: Replacing their own commenting systems with the Facebook Comments plugin. This may improve the user experience. But this approach means all comments now “live” on Facebook’s servers—where that content may or may not be archived and indexed effectively.

Also, Facebook can modify its distributed commenting experience at any time—by, say, inserting its own ads into the comment streams that appear on news sites.

Six months ago, Facebook commenting was fully implemented on three San Francisco Bay Area papers owned by MediaNews Group: MercuryNews.com, ContraCostaTimes.com, and SiliconValley.com. (See their Reader FAQ and Commenting tools and tips.)

George Kelly, online coordinator for the Contra Costa Times, notes that the switch to Facebook comments on those sites hasn’t yielded a huge overall improvement in the quality of public discourse.

“It’s surprising,” said Kelly. “I’d thought that using Facebook comments would make people less likely to pop off, provide less incentive to say rude or cruel things. And quality has gone up slightly on some stories, ones that give people more pause. But on higher-traffic stories (like crime briefs and sports or politics and government) quality’s wobbly.”

He did notice one intriguing change with the switch to Facebook comments: Grieving friends and relatives are now speaking up more often in the comments to news stories about deaths or crime.

“They’re less inclined to share their feelings with reporters, but they’ll show up there to post their wishes or sentiments—or hit back at people speaking off-the-cuff,” said Kelly. “They did this before we switched to Facebook comments, but it feels different now. It’s part of a space where people feel more comfortable being social, sharing more of themselves publicly.”

If Facebook were to start inserting its own ads into comment threads on news sites, “Our marketing and editorial staff would want to talk about it—but I don’t know that there’d be a rush to switch away to another third-party commenting tool like Disqus or Topix,” said Kelly.

Switching third-party commenting services also poses a risk: You might lose comments that were made via the original service. “That would be something to figure out, a hurdle to leap,” said Kelly. “You don’t want to just wipe the slate clean.”

Keep your engagement options open

In general, social media is a valuable complement to news sites, and it can even make sense to integrate that experience directly into your site. The trick is to not rely too heavily on any one social media service to provide, or host, most of your online engagement for you.

Expect that public tastes in social media will evolve, as will individual social media services. Fostering useful engagement directly on your own site is a good way to hedge against possible future vagaries in social media trends.

After all, it’s still possible that Facebook and Twitter might someday go the route of Friendster.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Amy Gahran, 05/05/11 at 10:25 am

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
Read More

Newspapers under siege as 65 percent of digital ads go to tech companies

By Nancy Yoshihara
6/14/2016 | 10:00 pm GMT

Newspaper revenues and circulation, print and digital combined, continued to decline in 2015 while both cable and network TV enjoyed...

The Diversity Style Guide: Important resource updated and expanded

By Nancy Yoshihara
6/5/2016 | 10:00 pm GMT

Anyone who dismisses or ignores this guide should not be working in journalism. The updated Diversity Style Guide is one...