I find this first story intriguing, it really highlights the flaws of the algorithm-based attention economy. The story, as reported on Slate, dives deep into how a 119-work local crime brief became 2019’s most shared story on Facebook (so far). As the article notes, the story had over 600,000 shares in its first six weeks – more than twice that of any other English-language article.
What I find most interesting from the article is this snippet:
While Facebook couldn’t confirm exactly what aspects of its algorithm helped the story on its way, Savage’s crime brief appears to have ticked nearly every box that the social network is trying to prioritize. First, it was shared by a local news organization, making it more likely that people in the Waco area would see it at the top of their feeds. Second, it generated large numbers of comments, which Facebook counts as “meaningful interactions.” Finally, its sharing was driven heavily by individual Facebook users, rather than by professional publishers with large followings, which means that it would be helped along by the company’s focus on surfacing posts from “friends and family first.”
While Facebook claims it is taking care to emphasis high-quality content and sources, a 119-word local crime brief – while from a trusted news source – can still break the algorithm. The article breaks it down further, but for me the real point is how this kind of viral “success might affect news judgement. Especially as newsrooms become more bottom-line driven and corporations continue to put emphasis on clicks, shares, and views over quality and accuracy.
And no, I’m not blaming Facebook for anything here. Ultimately it’s the users who are interacting with the post, Facebook’s algorithm is acting accordingly. I’m more worried that this continues to hasten the race to the bottom in local journalism.
I shared another article earlier this week from Journalist’s Resource that also deals with the idea of clicks over quality. In it, they look at a case study comparing two local newspapers, and found:
… the one more focused on audience metrics published fewer stories about civic issues, used fewer sources and let reader traffic guide news judgment to a greater degree than the paper that viewed analytics as a secondary consideration.
I know I give Facebook a lot of crap, so I thought I would throw in some positive news. USA Today reported on Tuesday that Facebook shut down thousands of fake pages.
Just over 500 of those accounts were tied to Iran, while almost 2,000 were linked to Russia, Facebook said.
Now if they could use the algorithm to find more of these pages.
Google Local Experiments Project
I know I tend to be on the more skeptical side of these kinds of things, but the announcement this week by Google and others regarding the local experiments project is encouraging. While Facebook has acknowledged, and if offering boot camps, that a lack of local journalism is a problem, Google is taking additional steps to tackle the problem, partnering with local news organizations.
According to Nieman Lab:
The McClatchy partnership is the first experiment, to roll out over the next three years. Google will stay hands-off editorially but put in “significant” investment and add tech expertise, according to Google’s vice president of news Richard Gingras: “We will be spending many millions of dollars on this overall.” McClatchy has an existing presence in 30 marketsand will focus this effort on cities with less than half a million people, CEO Craig Forman told Axios.
Following this announcement, GateHouse Media announced that it would be participating in the Digital Subscriptions Lab, a partnership between the Google News Initiative, the Local Media Association and FTI Consulting. This is more interesting to me for two reasons.
First, paid subscription models are one of my passions. I’ve been beating this drum since the start of my career and I’m glad to see that the momentum its picks up in the past few years is not dying down. If anything, it’s increasing.
Second, GateHouse Media is my employer and its exciting to see us continue to invest in this are.
As a counterbalance to all of this, Columbia Journalism Review’s Emily Bell asks, “Do technology companies care about journalism?” In her critique, she suggests that Google is looking toward the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
For the first time in a presidential contest, regulating technology platforms is registering as an issue for the electorate and is on the agenda of at least one serious candidate, Elizabeth Warren, and has long been an area of interest for another, Amy Klobuchar.
Those who would rethink anti-trust law in order to break up the world’s Facebooks, Amazons, and Alphabets (Google’s holding company) are gaining traction. …
… The suddenness of technology companies caring about the financial stability of journalism is not at all coincidental.
I can’t say that I disagree with her thoughts, but I do hope that this is more than just political posturing.
Digiday’s Moguls and Publishing Summit
Digiday held its Moguls and Publishing Summit event, discussing the challenges around digital media. This is Digiday’s own event, so there isn’t a ton of other information around it, but I wanted to call it out because of the candid thoughts that came out of it from publishers.
Publishers offer there thoughts on all of the hot-button issues in digital media. I found the thoughts on programmatic advertising to be the most interesting. It wasn’t long ago where programmatic was the next great savior of publishing.
“Is anyone else seeing a soft [first quarter] in the programmatic marketplace? Last year, we had a strong Q1 and Q2, and then in Q3 and Q4 it just fell off a cliff — from a fill perspective. And I don’t want to pull prices down to chase fill. But it’s been a soft quarter”
“We would normally do $1 million per month on Facebook [Audience Network], last month it was $300,000.”
In my experience a lot of the big spenders in programmatic advertising are large regional, national and international businesses. I’m curious as to whether they are trending away from spending in programmatic, or if they are lowering spending overall?
I hope it’s the former. Otherwise it could be another long year in publishing. But hey, at least we have Google and Facebook to save us.