Facebook and co-opetition: I don’t fear reality but I want my reporters to eat

If Facebook and journalism had a relationship, it would be: It’s complicated. David Higgerson urged “journalism … to get over its fear of Facebook“. He wrote:

Facebook is huge, and needs to remain huge. To do that, it needs to remain relevant to users. It needs to ensure it doesn’t alienate people. That, in turn, is good news for journalists and news organisations. We want our content to be read. Facebook is telling us it has a huge audience and it wants to get stuff they will like to those people.

Facebook is a market reality. I don’t fear Zuck and his crew. And of course we want our content to be read, and there is absolutely no doubt that Facebook drives a lot of traffic to our content. However, as News Corps’ Senior Vice President of Strategy said on Twitter:

Yeah, we want people to read our content, to pay attention to our journalism. Facebook has a huge audience and can help us meet that goal.

But using Facebook to grow audience is only part of winning in the attention economy. The other challenge we must face is how to monetise that attention. The readers of my two papers see our Facebook Page as the freesheet of the digital age. Hell, they say as much. How do I help those readers help me pay for the journalism we’re doing? That’s a really important question.

The angst about Facebook with respect to journalism is about that value exchange, making sure that we get as much out of sharing our content on Facebook as Zuck gets out of it in terms of good old dollars and cents, pounds and pence. To quote my good friend and university classmate Theo Francis who works at the Wall Street Journal, we know we are creating value as journalists, but how do we capture it.

No serious journalistic leader that I know of is saying ignore or be afraid of Facebook, and of course, we need to make sure our content is where our readers are. We’ve moved on from that discussion, and it’s time to acknowledge that on the digital side so we can focus on the hard work of figuring out how to capture the value in the attention we earn. We cooperate with Facebook in gaining attention. We compete with Facebook in monetising that attention. That is the reality we need to face. So, yeah, as a relationship it’s complicated.

But it’s time to get real. At this moment of great flux in the attention economy, we know that any ole fool can publish, but it’s a bitch getting paid. Attention is great, but it only goes so far when it comes to paying the rent or paying staff. I can’t pay my hard working reporters in Likes. I know what Zuck gets out of my papers having Facebook pages, and I know Facebook helps me win in the battle for attention in my communities. I’m working hard to figure out how to turn those Likes into subscribers, opportunities for advertisers and cold hard cash to pay my staff.

That’s not hating on Facebook. It just is what it is, and although I could do a lot of things, I have chosen to fight the fight on the front lines of local journalism. It’s a fight I aim to win.

2 thoughts on “Facebook and co-opetition: I don’t fear reality but I want my reporters to eat

  1. Hi Kevin. Great piece, and I agree with most of it. The goal has to be making a reader a loyal reader, and I think the chances of that happening increase when we’re in the space the reader has chosen to be in. You can’t pay staff in likes, but you’re more likely to be able to pay staff if the reader is more engaged.

    Some of the things you described as very obvious clearly aren’t to many. You only have to look at the Facebook presence of many local news brands to determine that.

    Rather than debating the merits of how Facebook works – which is essentially what was happening – or whether it’s too powerful, surely job one is just accept Facebook for what it is, and make the most of it, and I think that is what you’re saying.

    Then the challenge becomes the balance of sharing enough on Facebook to get the reader to come to our site, and making our content attractive enough on sites so that a) readers stay and b) share our stuff themselves.

  2. Thanks David,

    I am very realistic about things, and Facebook is a fact of media landscape full stop. Sharing is a key way of distributing and amplifying our content, and yet as an executive editor of two local newspapers, I need to make sure that I can monetise that attention, whether on Facebook or based on the referrals to my sites.

    I have been focused on increasing reader engagement for most of the past 10 years. Facebook is part of that, but I am also finding a lot of success in building engagement via the community platform strategy that I am running. It involves developing opportunities for people in my community to discuss the issues important to them on our site, not through comments but with thought out contributions on those topics.

    The real point I was making with all of this boils down to ‘show me the money’. I have to think about my engagement strategy with Facebook and other editorial strategies with sustainability in mind. It really is to keep the conversation about engagement from becoming too abstract. I have to build a loyal audience, and I have to figure out a way to capture the value of that loyal audience. It’s that simple and that hard.

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