How do you cover a problem like Facebook?Chris Sutcliffe 23rd February 2018
Back when I was news editor for TheMediaBriefing, we had an editorial matrix designed to ensure we wrote about the different topics which our segmented audiences were most interested in. It was carefully constructed, with the sort of care you might take over a house of cards or a matchstick model, so that B2B, B2C, digital pureplays, platforms and the like all got equal prominence on the homepage. We were extremely proud of it, and it was useful to keep in mind at all times as we strove to grow our audience.
And it was largely pointless because any given story, whether it was a B2C story or an events-led story or a good old piece of financial analysis, could and would get bumped by Facebook updating its algorithm and turning digital publishing on its head every week.
If you squint, the way in which Facebook could upend the publishing strategy of a B2B media publisher like TheMediaBriefing was a microcosm of what it has been doing to the wider industry since at least 2015 and probably even earlier. The best laid plans would be rendered moot by whichever new switch the social network decided to flick that particular week. The difference was that TMB was events drive, so at least we weren’t at as great threat of having our major source of income turned off as a result.
As a hangover of the old editorial matrix mindset, however, lately in these articles I have attempted not to write about Facebook every week, even though these is more than enough material to do just that. In freelancing for other publications and on the Media Voices podcast, which by design is much more reactionary, though, I still find myself covering Facebook each week more often than not. Having done so for the past few months, I have come to a conclusion that honestly I wish I had enforced at TMB: It is impossible to cover Facebook as a media analyst in any sort of meaningful way week-to-week.
Its notorious opacity when it comes to sharing information about its priorities, combined with the sheer scale of the operation, means that every message ‘Facebook’ puts out about its commitment to journalism or publishers needs to be taken with a huge heaping pile of salt. Look at the relative speed with which ‘video will be a real money spinner for publishers’ became ‘we’re not going to pay publishers to create video any more’, or any of the similar about-turns the social network has done over the past few years.
Unless you’re a social media manager, tasked with navigating the shifting maze that is the algorithm to deliver green arrows and positive numbers to your bosses, it makes no sense to try to figure out what the madness behind Facebook’s method is every week, because it will more than likely have shifted again next week.
That isn’t to say that media analysts – and any digitally literate people – should not cover Facebook at all. There are still huge issues surrounding the social giant and the effect it is having on journalism, media business models, and society, and it would be bad journalism to walk away from that coverage completely. It is, for instance, absolutely possible for a journalist to cover its reticence to admit fault in the spread of misinformation, since that is a specific story about the company itself, rather than an attempt to divine what its latest blog means for publishers. So too is coverage of dangerous remarks made by one of its execs worth doing, since it ties into a wider social trend.
Why Was Facebook So Easy to Hijack? – The Wall Street Journal https://t.co/RevsetGSBX
— Laurance Allen (@LarryVNN) February 19, 2018
It is also possible, and very worthy, to cover Facebook longitudinally, to take a look at the changes brought by the network over a scale of years, rather than weeks. For instance, in this piece for Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram provides a welcome and wide-ranging look at the effects Facebook has had over the media since it launched its ‘news feed’ back in 2006.
Different title: “The endgame of a Faustian Bargain is never pretty” pic.twitter.com/C4M5KvOVES
— David Cohn (@Digidave) February 19, 2018
The issue is that, just as our editorial matrix at TheMediaBriefing was warped by Facebook, by virtue of the scale of its influence it is genuinely hard not to write about it. The problem is that much of that coverage amounts to ‘Facebook says [x] will save/doom journalism’, and is out of date even by the time the pixels have dried on the screen.
From now on, then, as publishers try to wean themselves from the dried-up teat of Facebook, so too should media analysts stop analysing every single change to the algorithm that comes down the pipe.
Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.