What my Facebook feed looks like without news

Last weekend I attended a journalism and technology conference in my hometown of Philadelphia (congrats on an amazing eight years, Barcamp!) and was surprised to only hear the word “mobile” used a handful of times.

I quickly realized that people were talking about mobile, but they were just saying “Facebook”.

The fact that a majority of U.S. adults get their news on social media platforms like Facebook is not a newsflash. The fact that Facebook and Google now command nearly eighty-five cents of every new dollar spent in online advertising is also not breaking news. And of course, many have written eloquently and at length about the dramatic impact that Facebook has had on the publishing ecosystem.

Still, what I think is interesting to practically consider is what kind of experience Facebook would be without news, and to gauge how essential it might be to the News Feed.

Facebook themselves knew how valuable news might be to their platform three years ago, when they were “competing with Twitter to be seen, and used, as a vital news source”, and intentionally boosted referral traffic to publishers by 170% between October 2012 and October 2013, as reported by BuzzFeed. If publishers knew then what the long-term costs of those referrals would be, we might not have welcomed the “massive new surge of traffic” or literally asked ourselves, “Can Mark Zuckerberg save the publishing industry?”.

So I took a look at what my own News Feed would be like without news, and this is what I found.

About half of my Facebook News Feed is news.

Half! This did not surprise me, but it might surprise you if you look at your feed. Granted, I see a lot of news on Facebook because I’ve liked nearly 50 news brand pages and I click on plenty of headlines every morning. Seeing news from a source I like, or a story shared by a brilliant friend is like receiving tons of tiny digital presents for my brain every morning.

The way Facebook presents news to me is convenient, targeted, smart and contextual. But it’s still news. It’s still publishers’ time, tools and journalists creating it. It’s just intelligently packaged and delivered by Facebook, and it makes up half of my feed.

If this were a traditional business supply chain, how much would news organizations be earning for their contribution?

Even most of my Sponsored Content posts came from news sources.

Wow. This was a surprise. As a colleague put it: Facebook is now not only capturing much of the advertising revenue that traditionally went to online publishers, but now publishers are also paying Facebook directly to promote their brands in people’s News Feeds. If this were a revenue battle, publishing would be getting flanked.

Coincidentally, a scan of my colleague’s News Feed revealed that nearly 80% of the posts in her feed were news, and all of the sponsored content was also from news brands her friends liked. Shocking.

Without the news, my News Feed is mostly personal photos, advertisements and a range of rants.

And all of those posts are valuable to me. I click on them, I reference them in real-life conversations and I like them with thoughtful abandon. What I still wonder though, is whether or not Facebook would be a daily destination for me if all I could do is “react” to a photo of a newborn or see a sponsored post about the next author coming to the 92nd Street Y. I’m starting to doubt whether I would value, or use my News Feed as much if it were less news, and more feed.

OK, so I know what some may be thinking by this point in the post. “Well, you work in the news, so of course your feed would be full of it.”

So I asked a friend who doesn’t work in the news industry, this question over dinner last week. How much news did she think was in her Facebook feed? Between forkfuls of prosciutto, she said “Sure, let’s look!” but her face was full of doubt about my theory that it would be news heavy.

We scrolled through the first fifty posts in her News Feed at 8pm on a Thursday night and 40% of the posts in her feed were news. There were news stories from BuzzFeed, Huffington Post Women, Channel 4 and others. Nuzzled between those posts were engagement ring photos, exotic vacations and pictures of other people’s pasta. Make no mistake, these things are essential to making Facebook a dazzling and wonderful experience, but it seemed that the backbone of her feed was still also news.

In summary, from this small set of tests we learned that the amount of news in someone’s News Feed might range from about 40% to 80%, based on the number of news sources they’ve liked and whether or not their day-job is in journalism. But that even if you’re removed from the news business and don’t think you click on a lot of headlines, it’s still likely that news is the most prominent single type of content you see as you scroll.

Now this is when this post gets kind of serious.

As someone who is working in a generously funded mobile lab for a news organization like the Guardian, my colleagues and I feel very lucky to be experimenting with and finding new ways to format news on mobile, without the constraint of monetization.

But the outlook for most U.S. news organizations is getting less rosy by the day. If revenue streams for digital publishers don’t exponentially increase in the next one to three years, there may be many less of us in business by the time our next president leaves office.

So while the industry works on incremental monetization strategies for membership, paywalls and philanthropic funding, when will the really big revenue conversation change with Facebook and Google? Or has it already, and most of us just don’t know about it? If rational terms are being negotiated, can we please put an investigative reporter on it right now? I’d read that story. I’d even save that story for later.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Facebook News Feed product is bad. News on Facebook is vibrant, and generally keeps users informed, entertained, connected and heard. But would Facebook be so habitual if there were no news in it?

And if news is so critical to the substance of the News Feed experience, why are news organizations being excluded from the business model of something that literally has our name in it?

Tell us: how much news do you see in your News Feed? Are you surprised by it? We’d love to know what you’re seeing, so please comment below.