Most journalists fully understand the importance of social media as a means of spreading content. But we are already moving beyond this, to a point where social platforms are trying to be a one-stop shop for users. And that one-stop shop sells news.
Take, for example, Facebook’s “instant articles” or Snapchat’s “discover” function. Thanks to these, mobile users are no longer redirected to a publisher’s own website after clicking on a headline in their news feed – they can access full articles or videos within the Facebook or Snapchat app.
Will the move towards consuming and sharing news on social platforms render dedicated news websites obsolete? And what does it mean for the future of media brand identity and editorial control?
It’s Facebook’s party
An interesting place to mull over these questions was at this year’s International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. Here, media types from all over the world put their heads together for a few days of discussion and debate – celebrating innovation and experimentation, sharing best practice and considering the future of the industry.
But it wasn’t entirely a family affair – Facebook and Google had joined the party. In fact, as the event’s main sponsors, they were essentially hosting the party.
During a panel discussion on the unique opportunities offered by digital publishing, Sakhr Al-Makhadi, AJ+ Middle East Editor, spoke about the success his organisation has had online, particularly with social video. He offered advice on how to make the most of platforms like Facebook and was critical of news outlets that simply upload a chunk of a TV package and call it a webvideo.
He was, of course, right. But his rousing speech about harnessing the power of digital and “reinventing what journalism means” skirted around the inconvenient fact that journalists are increasingly dependent on commercial, non-journalistic companies in order to reach their audience – and that means playing by these companies’ rules.
One of the benefits of “traditional” media is full editorial control. The editor decides not only the content and style of the piece, but also what it looks like – how big or wordy the headline is, how prominent the picture is, and which order the reader or viewer will consume the story in.
I put this to Al-Makhadi and asked if he is unsettled by the fact that media organisations are handing a great deal of editorial control over to companies like Facebook.
“Facebook needs us as much as we need them, so I’m not worried about losing control of the story,” he responded.
Really? Facebook was doing pretty well for itself long before articles and webvideos from media organisations started popping up in people’s news feeds. If Facebook’s experimentation with news fails, or proves not lucrative enough, it won’t be the end of Facebook. But where does that leave us?
Of course, the issue of control is not merely an aesthetic one. Social platforms also have a great deal of power to decide what users see, and when, in their timelines. Anyone who wants to get good exposure must dance to the tune of the platform’s algorithm.
When Facebook began prioritising video content a few years ago, newsrooms scrambled to make more videos. As users’ feeds suddenly filled up with videos, they unsurprisingly began watching more videos. Sure, video views on Facebook have gone through the roof, but that trend was engineered by Facebook.
In this stringent set-up where content has to be tailored to suit the whims of the social platform, there is not enough space for journalists to be original or to innovate. Instead of creating content with real people in mind, we are too often creating content with an algorithm in mind.
Journalism cannot just turn its back on social networks – that would be entirely impractical, and would ignore the many positive aspects offered by the medium. But we must be bold in our approach to the “news-on-social” scene.
Bold in challenging the rules set by the social platforms. Bold in making demands of these companies in return for them benefiting from our content. And bold enough to cling on to both our editorial principles and our brand identity, so that we don’t just become part of the generic social-news noise.