Let’s count the number of adjustments newsrooms have made over the past five years to improve their reach on Facebook. There were clickbait-style headlines, “You won’t believe what happened when…” Then specifically not using clickbait terminology. More standalone photos. Statuses without story links. Updates that played on readers’ “emotions.” Video. Video. More video. Then live video. Publishers even “pivoted to video,” laying off a bunch of talented text-based journalists, mostly because of Facebook.
Now that Facebook has made its biggest algorithm change yet, threatening to take news out of the “News Feed” almost altogether, publishers are adjusting again.
This time, accidentally perhaps, Facebook could be pushing newsrooms into an approach that would make sense even if Facebook didn’t exist or wasn’t so dominant in its influence on the audience.
For a publisher’s post to achieve organic reach, Facebook says it will have to generate “meaningful interactions.” Simply clicking on a link and presumably reading a news story isn’t enough anymore. Sharing a story with friends, commenting, and having a significant back-and-forth with others in the comments will be the algorithm’s indication of “meaningful.”
Facebook has also suggested that publishers invite its members to interact and be turned on to their work through Facebook groups.
After basically tricking readers with clickbait and pushing into video because Facebook saw it as a significant revenue opportunity (not because readers were asking for video), publishers could be rewarded for engaging readers in conversation and actually listening to them.
Granted, it’s hard to imagine an algorithm distinguishing between a healthy, civil and productive conversation about the news, and what’s more typical of a lengthy back-and-forth comment thread: trolls name-calling and raging against each other.
Some publishers will probably do well under the new Facebook algorithm for the wrong reasons, while important news stories that are crucial to the well-being of local communities aren’t seen. Fake news stories can generate plenty of engagement and comments, for example, and in a test that Facebook ran overseas previewing this algorithm tweak, they thrived while legitimate news stories disappeared.
But if the change prompts newsrooms to genuinely engage readers, to be part of a conversation with them and to listen, it could finally be a Facebook-driven adjustment that improves journalism.
It could help the bottom line, too. Publishers’ scramble to grow reader revenue—in part driven by the advertising dominance Facebook has achieved with the help of publishers’ content—will depend heavily on the trust and engagement of readers.
Hearken, a company that shows newsrooms how to involve the public in their journalism, has found that stories built on a foundation of genuinely listening to readers are far more likely to prompt paid subscriptions or memberships.
The Coral Project, a Knight Foundation-funded effort by Mozilla, the New York Times and the Washington Post to reimagine online story comments and build related reader engagement tools, has found similar evidence of the value of listening.
Newsrooms that don’t read the comments, don’t interact with readers, and treat social media like an RSS feed distribution (in some cases, quite literally) will fail at the new Facebook, and likely fail at reader revenue, too.
The (relatively) abrupt and extreme nature of Facebook’s algorithm change this time could be a blessing in disguise for publishers.
A series of algorithm tweaks was already threatening publishers with greatly diminished reach on Facebook, but it was a frog in gradually boiling water type of effect. By very clearly signaling that news will take a backseat, Facebook is forcing publishers to take steps that they needed anyway if they were going to get serious about reader revenue.
In addition to listening to and engaging readers (which could fix some of the Facebook reach problem as well), publishers need to know who their most loyal readers are, collect their email addresses and be able to surface content with them directly via email newsletter or mobile notification.
Again, it was already true, just not fully acknowledged by media, but Facebook’s algorithm change also shifts the power to surface newsrooms’ content from publishers to readers. Having a relationship of trust and engagement with those “news junkies” in a community who influence others will be important to a publisher’s reach. And building a user experience that makes readers feel good about sharing a story with their friends adds to the million other reasons publishers need to fix pressing issues with website and mobile site designs.
A prominent “Email this to a friend or share it on Facebook” won’t hurt, either. Even better: “Sign up for our newsletter to get notice of more stories like this.”
Matt DeRienzo is executive director of LION Publishers, an organization that supports local independent online news publishers from across the country. He is a longtime former newspaper reporter, editor, publisher and corporate director of news.