How can we make quality journalism go viral?

‘Journalism is an imperfect but important part of democracy: we as citizens are empowered to make meaningful decisions about ideals, interests and aspirations — about who we vote for, but also whether we want to get engaged in other ways. The precondition for that is knowing something about the world that goes beyond your personal experience’ - Dr Rasmus Nielsen, Director of Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford

On Dr Nielsen’s definition, journalism tells us something about the world we didn’t know. More significant journalism tells us something that informs the decisions we make, both on broadly important matters (like who to vote for in an election) and on more trivial, but personally meaningful ones (where to go on holiday next, for instance). The precondition for the average citizen ‘knowing’ things outside their direct experience is impartial, accurate and transparent reporting.

The difficulty now is that so much news is online and free, very few people are paying for news (either print or through online paywalls). A large proportion of a publisher’s revenue comes from ad impressions on their site. In 2013 The Onion ran a satirical story Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning, purporting to be written by the Managing Editor of and referencing a real story promoted on the home page of CNN. The ironic piece acknowledged a real problem that online editors have faced for some time — that pageviews are an insufficient gauge of journalistic quality, and that there is a real and unsettling question as to what the future of a publishing industry whose growth depends on pageviews might be.

This problem is compounded when the largest source of growth in pageviews is taken into consideration, which is from social media and particularly Facebook. Facebook is itself starting to make inroads into news revenue generation with “Instant Articles”: a new feature that allows Facebook users to view publishers’ content within Facebook on their smartphones, as opposed to following links that take users away from the social platform. On this model, Facebook syndicates ads for the publisher and so can also offer publishers a new source of revenue. The number of people who see a piece of content on Facebook is determined by their algorithm, which is driven by the predicted interaction they’ll have with a piece of content, based on what they’ve responded to before. But that invites some significant objections if publisher growth is too closely linked to what people respond to on Facebook. Slate’s Will Oremus asks: ‘What if people “like” posts that they don’t really like, or click on stories that turn out to be unsatisfying? The result could be a news feed that optimises for virality, rather than quality –one that feeds users a steady diet of candy, leaving them dizzy and a little nauseated, liking things left and right but gradually growing to hate the whole silly game. How do you optimise against that?’

Editors today are faced with a difficult choice: clickbait stories on social media are considered to generate significantly more pageviews, and so revenue, than quality journalism. If we appreciate quality journalism, how can we make that appreciation correlate with more pageviews, and particularly pageviews from social media?

Investigating why certain types of stories do better than others on social media is difficult because Facebook’s algorithm is not transparent and editors have no direct control over it. The key to causing certain stories to go viral lies in working with these social media algorithms, understanding how they work and the variables that affect performance. That’s not a task for a writer or a print editor, but for an Artificial Intelligence that can process and learn from a publisher’s data (both on their site and from social media). The answer lies in capturing, processing and understanding this data to replicate the human and algorithmic preconditions that determine virality. This is the only way to make quality journalism go viral.

Echobox is an Artificial Intelligence technology developed specifically for publishers which understands their content and helps editorial staff curate their presence on social media. Clients include Le Monde in France, the Straits Times in Singapore and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in the US.

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