The News Industry: Facebook is not your friend

If what Bloomberg Technology reports is correct, Facebook and arguably all large social platforms have a weakness. And for the news industry, it’s time to exploit that. Inspired by the Digital Editors Autumn event, this is a short exploration as to why it really is make or break time for the news industry if they take some bold steps.

Since 2015, there’s been a decline in the sharing of personal information on the platform. The trend has been labelled ‘context collapse’ by Facebook: as the no. of Facebook friends has grown significantly, people are choosing to share more personal intimate information within tighter groups on ‘smaller’ platforms such as Whatsapp and Snapchat.

In order to fill the gap, what Facebook has identified, is that people will share the news, resulting in Facebook, Twitter, Google key growth vertical.

At the Digital Editors Network Autumn event, the main social platforms made their elegant, sales pitches on how publishers can benefit from their platforms and a call for collaboration, “tell us what you want. We’ll build it for you!” Are they always this altruistic?!

I ask: In light of Alan Rusbridger comment regarding Facebook revenue share with The Guardian — He claimed at an FT event, that Facebook is taking all the money. They have not explained their algorithms which is putting a block between what news providers do and how people receive it — and you are all here today, surely the resounding message is there is still money to be made, and the last thing publishers should be doing is giving away their trade secrets to fuel your product development process?

This prompts further similar questions to the social networks and afterwards, guests ponder: Why don’t we value our content? The balance of the value exchange between us and them is unfair! Why do we relinquish control for distribution and little insight from the data or an unfair proportion of advertising?

We appear to be at a critical crossroads where if publishers don’t start making some bold strategic moves to both protect and grow their value, then they may as well accept the trajectory they’re on; The answer to the pertinent question by the CEO of Miller Hogg: do I lose my homepage and just become a content agency, will be yes if we don’t act, creatively. This is not good news for business and also for democracy.

News is the equivalent of the fourth state, when done well. Society requires a good functioning diverse press with differing viewpoints with rigorous journalism to explain, to challenge, and to tell us what’s important so we can act. This can’t come from the general public and it can’t come from social media alone. Take Brexit as an case in point. Or Facebook decision to pull the photo of the vietnamese girl feeling napalm. Are the social media platforms going to start censoring key issues just because the advertisers don’t like them?

However, the answer to creating rigours journalism isn’t algorithm based news, or a world where all news is treated as just another content module in one long feed, by a small monolithic set of providers.

The social networks were each asked: Do you consider yourselves a news publisher? All sheepishly say no. Not yet was the correct answer.

The role of news is too important. We must act now. We can’t wait to receive further regulation on key issues such as copyright and privacy. Here are six recommendations on how we stop chasing clicks, and get them chase you.

Find your purpose and point of view QUICKLY.
Who are you? What do you stand for? What relationship do you want to have with your customers. What difference do you want to make? How is that reflected in the content and its presentation to readers? Does your front page (digital and physical) look genuinely different than your competitors?

Be first; not just to break the story, but to deliver new products and services that people will pay for. How can we restructure the newsrooms to release the gold that often sits within the teams but due to cultural and systemic reasons, never see the light of day. 
The solution is not to give away your trade secrets to your competitors. Do it yourself and let’s start removing the internal blockers.

Tell your audience
The general awareness of the news source has declined. Plus the news industry faces one of the most interesting challenges: How do you get people to pay for content when they are accustomed to a free model?

This is no easy win but brand and marketing can help by 1) clearly labelling content when it is not on a owned property and 2) tell people why news is important, we’ve seen the Guardian and Channel 4 recent pushes at highlighting the value of their editorial role.

Furthermore, the areas of trust and transparency have not been fully maximised by news organisations. This could be a key mechanism to build relationships, support the quality of the editorial and give a compelling reason why people should pay.

Value your content 
Your content has worth but if you don’t value it, no one else will. In the current climate, the constant tweaking of headlines and articles to get more clicks risks driving down the quality of your editorial and 2) feeds this clickbait frendzy. PLEASE STOP!

Not all content is born for the same destiny. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. Could news providers reevaluate their content and tier it according to what people might be willing to pay for, e.g. breaking news might be free, but content around sport and comment and opinion pieces are paid for.

We also need better measurement strategies. Rather than page impressions and clicks being the main determiner of your success and thus driving your entire monetisation model. Can we disperse this dynamic by, in line with previous point, reassess the value of content to readers on a more micro basis.

Don’t bargain with the devil until your strategy is clear. 
A good social strategy should drive reach but it must also determine how it will drive people back to your site to ‘buy.’ Otherwise what’s the point?We need a proper strategy before we partner with the likes of Facebook. For example, should news providers take the lead on the recent EU discussions where they put into effect the proposal where social media pay for short extracts of their content?

Collaboration’ has become a new form of seduction. In exchange for bright colours, ping pong table and a free lunch, News providers seem happy to hand over their trade secrets. No one is against ‘collaborating’ if there is a genuine value exchange. In this game for command of our eyeballs. Social networks might have the platforms and money. But the publishers have the content. This matters and should be a wake up call to us all. We need a clear strategy for engaging.

Data is a material not a answer in itself
Data is great. It should be used to it’s optimum benefit, but it has it’s pros and cons like anything. It’s a latent measure and shouldn’t be the sole decision maker. If we all rely on the data, we are all eventually going to get to fairly similar places and little differentiation in the market place. We need human creativity too.

Better the devil you know
Whilst, the precedent hasn’t been for the industry to share and collaborate. Many of the issues facing the news industry requires requires cross industry collaboration. Facebook is the new competitor. Let’s develop a working framework that allows organisations to prosper and not be at the mercy of any social platform that comes their way.

In conclusion, the industry faces some monumental challenges. I don’t underestimate this, but the role of news is too important not to act and lift our heads ‘higher’ out of the parapet. Let’s work together to secure a future for news and fight for the future of journalism we know is important and we believe in.