A Facebook-only news organization? It was only a matter of time.
The Rockville Central, a community news site in the Washington D.C. area, will move all its operations and news coverage to its Facebook Page starting on March 1. This risky move by the site’s editor, Cindy Cotte Griffiths, highlights Facebook’s growing role as a platform for journalists to use for social storytelling and reporting.
When it comes to journalists using social media, Twitter has been the go-to platform for real-time reporting and reaching out to sources, largely because it’s a public platform and most of its content is accessible. But with Facebook continuing to scale and in some ways become more public, it offers journalists an arsenal of content types beyond 140 characters and an alternative destination to connect with new sources of information.
Though Facebook did receive a lot of credit and praise in aiding Egyptians in organizing themselves during what’s become known as the January 25th Revolution, it has also been highly utilized by journalists reporting on the events surrounding the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. Riyaad Minty, the head of social media at Al-Jazeera English, said the events have demonstrated Facebook’s important role in journalism by enabling reporters to actively monitor the unrest and situation on the ground.
Minty said it has helped Al-Jazeera English track what is about to happen, such as planned protests, gather valuable information in real-time and find valuable sources who can then talk on air with Al-Jazeera journalists. Though Twitter remains the prominent social platform for journalists to adopt into their toolkits, a quiet shift is taking place toward Facebook as reporters discover its utility and application in their work.
A 500+ Million-Person Directory of Sources
One of the key advantages of Facebook over other social platforms is the sheer number of potential sources it presents for journalists. At National Public Radio, its 1.5+ million-member Facebook community is invaluable for finding sources, said Eyder Peralta, an associate producer on NPR’s social media desk.
“There hasn’t been any query that we haven’t gotten good sources for,” Peralta said. From finding high school dropouts to people who have recently been laid off from their jobs, Peralta said the organization regularly posts inquiries for sources as status updates on its page and receives hundreds of valuable responses. “We’re using it as a megaphone, and people have always been extremely helpful.”
An advantage of Facebook is that users are able to privately message anyone on Facebook without having to be their “friend.” So after a reporter or producer sees a source they want to interview, they’ll contact that person through a private message from his personal Facebook profile. In some cases, users will even volunteer their phone numbers in the comments for a reporter to get in touch.
However, searching Facebook for a specific kind of source can be difficult, Peralta said. The search functionality is time-sensitive, and doesn’t include many targeting options. Although for stories in which journalists are trying to learn about a specific individual, the search functionality and learning about a source’s network of friends or their activity can be helpful. With more than 500 million people on the platform and 70 percent of them being outside the U.S., the chances of finding and contacting a source are quite good.
“Facebook provides reporting at scale,” said Malorie Lucich, Facebook spokesperson. Lucich explains that journalists have always listened to the people in their communities and brought together their collective voice by telling those stories. Facebook just makes it easier to bring this practice online, and makes it more accessible and efficient, she said.
Minty at Al Jazeera English said its reporters used Facebook to get a “pulse on reality.” While covering demonstrations and unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, they were able to track activity on Facebook to see what protests were being planned and immediately connect with people involved as sources. “It has allowed us to get a true sense of what average citizens in some countries are thinking and planning,” he said.
There are 30 billion pieces of content shared on Facebook each month. That includes news stories, links, notes, photo albums and more. With so much content flowing into the news feed, journalists are finding a voice by amplifying and reporting quality content to interested readers.
Journalists such as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times have expanded their distribution and sourcing to Facebook. Kristof, who has more than 200,000 people who like his page, has used the page to post regular updates from his reporting. Starting with the Egyptian Revolution to his latest coverage of Libya, Kristof has posted detailed descriptions and reports about what he’s seeing and information he’s receiving.
Kristof isn’t the only example, however. Ian Shapira, a staff writer at The Washington Post, used Facebook status updates to tell a moving story about a family’s sorrow. Explaining the process by phone, Shapira said he and his editor decided the story of Shana Greatman Swers, who had died due to unusual pregnancy complications, was best told through her status updates, which had a natural and powerfully personal narrative to them, enabling him to tell the story in a way that a standard print piece would not have been able to.
“Facebook has dramatically transformed the way journalists do their jobs,” Shapira said. “It’s become an essential tool, making our jobs far more efficient.”
Shapira’s reporting shows that sometimes Facebook activity is at the core of the story. Jennifer Preston, social media reporter at The New York Times who has experience in managing the news organization’s Facebook Pages from her previous role as Social Media Editor, tracked the activity around the We are all Khaled Said Facebook Page to investigate how it fueled outrage in Egypt and contributed to a bigger movement. Preston said she went back and read the status updates over last six to seven months from the page, using Google Chrome and Google Translator and could see how this page evolved into such a highly engaged community nearing one million members, and learned that the death of Khaled Said created tremendous outrage over police abuse.
“Understanding how these tools work so that you can listen in on the conversation and understand what is going on is key,” Preston said. “That said, there is nothing like shoe-leather reporting to get the story and get it right — and to be there to capture the voices of the people in real life.”
Community Content & More Tools
In some cases, news coverage would have been impossible without Facebook. Libya is a great example of that, Peralta from NPR said. Even while its own reporters and other foreign press were banned from the country, NPR was able to get photos and videos posted by users in Libya, Peralta said.
“Having the power of a very big community you can tap into, take their pulse very easily and quickly is quite powerful,” he said.
By using tools such as Openbook or FBInstant that enable easy searching for public information on Facebook, journalists are able to find information they are looking for that is tied to specific news events or people. And the trend toward more public information with new features on the site, such as Facebook Questions, which is entirely public, will only further Facebook’s utility as a tool for journalism.
Features like Questions and Facebook Places will offer journalists more tools for their reporting. Questions, for example, could be utilized to find specific sources, poll a group of people for their opinions, or find experts on topics and, well, get questions answered.
Minty said Al Jazeera English used Facebook to encourage users to submit content from demonstrations and protests directly to Al Jazeera, which they would publish through its citizen journalism platform, Sharek.
However, Minty also cautions that journalists still need to verify information being received or posted on Facebook to make sure that it’s reliable. For example, in some cases protest pages and information was set up by immigrants living abroad and the information wasn’t coming from people living in the actual countries where the events were taking place. Journalists need to fact check by getting in touch with people on the pages to get a better understanding of who is behind the online identity, he said.
Facebook-Only News Sites?
Whether it’s through a Facebook Application — built to be a destination for news and discussion — or a Facebook Page that users can subscribe to and receive posts in their News Feed, news organizations are experimenting with building Facebook-only news portals to take advantage of the social distribution on the platform and an existing audience.
The Rockville Central is taking its community news site to Facebook and will focus on curation and civic engagement, instead of duplicating content others have produced. Of course, the big disadvantage is it can’t host its own ads, which isn’t the site’s goals. A larger news organization, Boston.com, which is dependent on ad revenue, has built a Facebook News Application called “Your Boston” using NewsCloud’s Open Source application platform.
In many ways, the application functions like a news site of its on within the Facebook platform. Users are able to comment on and share stories, ask questions, contribute to a calendar and even post ideas. The most active participants are rewarded by being featured as top users.
‘Incredible’ Distribution & Community
With so many users on Facebook, it serves as a great distribution platform. Minty from Al-Jazeera English said each of its Facebook posts gets a lot of feedback, often receiving more than 1,000 comments. But more importantly, he said, Facebook makes it easy for readers of their content to connect and engage with one another.
“The interactivity and ability for people to discuss the news is what is most beneficial to us,” Minty said.
Al-Jazeera English also added its live stream to all of its Facebook Pages, and the number of views has been “incredibly high” since launching, Minty said. It doesn’t force its readers to go to a site, instead encouraging them to consume the content where they are most comfortable — on Facebook, he said. When breaking news happens, they post an update notifying its readers that a live event is happening and they can watch it directly on the page. The page also became an alternative destination when people in the U.S. were unable to access its website’s live stream. Minty said they took to Twitter and Facebook, letting readers know they could still access its live stream on its Facebook Page.
“Facebook is an incredible distribution platform,” Minty said. It is indeed, as evidenced by the fact that Al-Jazeera English‘s Facebook Page has had 150 million post views since January 25th, according to Minty, and its Arabic page has been growing at a rate of 10,000 new “likers” per day.
Facebook has been ramping up to improve its relationship with media organizations and journalists. Last July, the company announced its efforts to help media organizations make better use of their products to increase engagement, traffic and more. Since July, the average media organization has seen more than a 100% increase in referral traffic from Facebook, Lucich said.
The company is also looking to work directly with journalists by providing training and resources into how they can best utilize the platform, and by taking feedback on how the platform can be improved, Lucich said. With that in mind, the company recently posted a new position for a Journalist Program Manager, which will be in charge of programs and projects that help journalists use Facebook as a reporting tool.
“We’re only just beginning to see what’s possible with social journalism, as innovative journalists are reporting, finding sources and engaging with readers through Facebook Platform and Facebook products,” Lucich said. “The possibilities are endless.”