What do Facebook changes mean for local newsrooms?

Demoting Engagement Bait
In December 2017, Facebook started out the latest round of algorithm updates by announcing plans to demote “engagement bait” and pages that regularly use posts with calls to like, comment or share simply for the sake of generating higher engagement numbers.

This means posts with little added value for audiences, such as “Like if you’re glad it’s Friday,” won’t get as much reach.

That doesn’t mean pages can no longer encourage conversation.

Facebook has said it wants to encourage “authenticity.” For newsrooms, that means your Facebook approach should be focused on adding value to your audience’s experience.

Instead of “Like if you’re glad it’s Friday,” try sharing a few weekend events in your area and asking if your followers have plans. You’ll generate comments, but, more importantly, you’ll be letting your audience know you value their experiences, getting story ideas, and making your followers’ day better.

One important note: Urgent updates where it might be appropriate to ask readers to share, such as missing persons alerts, will not be affected, Facebook says.

Emphasizing Conversation
Facebook’s next move earlier this month was to announce it will prioritize posts which “spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people.” The flip side of its move to disincentivize “engagement bait,” it appears posts with more conversation in the form of comments will be placed more visibly.

This approach creates a challenge. Headlines that tend to generate strong audience reactions, including more comments, are often controversial, inflammatory, misleading or disinformation: real “fake news,” if you will.

What does this mean for fact-based newsrooms?

Do you prioritize stories covering issues your community cares about? Do you use social media not only to broadcast your news videos or links, but also to listen to your community?

If Facebook is an important platform for your newsroom, spending time replying to comments and engaging with followers’ questions can be good for your engagement and for your station’s trusted role in your community.

Weighting Family/Friends over Pages
Another aspect of the move to emphasizing back-and-forth conversations is an increased emphasis on posts from family and friends rather than pages.

This means that pages, including news station and reporter pages, will be seeing decreased reach, as many already have been.

There are some strategies for newsrooms to continue to reach followers on Facebook.

If you use Facebook to generate traffic to your website, you will likely see referrals from links on your page go down. But if individuals share your web links on their personal profiles, particularly if those links generate comments and engagement, they will continue to be more visible under the “friends and family” sharing concept.

Videos, especially live videos, still tend to get more interaction and thus more reach. Video Q&As can also be a good way to build audience trust.

Some newsrooms, particularly publications with membership or subscription options, have also used the Groups function to grow communities with success.

Prioritizing “Trusted” News
Perhaps the biggest news from Facebook is a change in how its algorithm will prioritize posts from various publishers: it will “prioritize news from publications that the community rates as trustworthy.”

The announcement says informative, local and trusted publishers will be given higher priority.

One way the trustworthiness of publishers will be determined is through a two question survey:
Facebook has said that outlets with wider recognition and reader bases will be considered more trusted and their posts prioritized.

But the two-question survey for determining trust has raised questions. Over the last few years, research has indicated that trust in news media is down overall and is increasingly split along partisan lines.

Some analysts have suggested that Facebook will incorporate other user data into its trust metric, and some research shows readers actually access a wider variety of information sources than just those with which they tend to agree.

But it is not clear yet just how the data will be used, leading to worries that user-indicated trust levels will lead to the boosting of partisan sources.

What this means for local newsrooms is also unclear. Local news is consistently more trusted than national outlets. But local outlets may be less widely recognized by a broad Facebook audience. On the other hand, Facebook has indicated that local publishers will be prioritized, and it has also been experimenting with a “Today In” local news section.

Update: This afternoon, Facebook shared some additional details of how it will prioritize local publishers.

What is clear is that, while Facebook’s algorithm frequently changes as it works to keep users on the site, newsroom missions do not. Facebook is just one tool in your newsroom’s work to keep your community informed. Regardless of platform, the core values of local journalism, when executed well, will speak to your audience.

It’s also clear that trust matters more than ever – both for audiences and platforms. While local news outlets remain among the most trusted, audiences are more overwhelmed by the proliferation of news sources and are finding it harder to stay informed. That means newsrooms need to do better at explaining the process behind their reporting and why journalism is different than other types of content.



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