The following piece is a guest post from Todd Reubold, the publisher and co-founder of Ensia. Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.
The recent uproar over whether Facebook is suppressing news from conservative media outlets, coupled with the fact that the company is paying large media outlets such as the New York Times and NPR to produce live video (that then gets featured on Facebook) is overshadowing another growing issue: how Facebook is making it difficult for smaller, often independent, media outlets to share their stories and reach new audiences.
Why does this matter? As Mark Zuckerberg himself wrote last week on his Facebook page, “the world is better when people from different backgrounds and with different ideas all have the power to share their thoughts and experiences.”
Zuckerberg went on to write: “Every tool we build is designed to give more people a voice and bring our global community together.” But I believe this is not the case when it comes to smaller media outlets. Let me give you an example based on my own experiences running Ensia — a magazine covering global environmental issues.
Pay to Play
As a relatively new media outlet, we have paid to promote Ensia on Facebook in order to gain new followers, which now number over 10,800. That’s fine. Facebook is a business, after all. But here’s the kicker: Due to the way Facebook positions content in the News Feed, most of our posts only “reach” several hundred of our followers. If we want more of those 10,800 people to see our content, we have to pay again (and again and again and again) to promote individual stories.
This isn’t likely a concern for large media outlets. For example, NPR — which has close to 4.9 million followers — will still get 138,000 views if only a similar percentage of its audience sees a given post.
During a Facebook town hall Q&A a couple years ago, Zuckerberg said that quality content and effective communication are the secret to getting content in front of readers. Great, but our followers on Facebook have to see the content in the first place. People signed up to follow our page, so they obviously want to see some content from us.
Also, since the Facebook News Feed algorithm is a black box, we can only guess at what “quality content” means. Quality according to whom? Does it have to do with more likes, shares or views? Is it all of the above? Something else? There are just too many questions for anyone to feel confident that organizations’ pages are being fairly distributed to the audiences that have chosen to follow them.
Some of you are probably thinking, “If you don’t like it, go elsewhere.” But studies have shown that more and more people get their news from social networks, with 70 percent of Facebook users using the platform to access news stories daily. Of course in an ideal world, media outlets wouldn’t be scrambling for Facebook’s attention, but that’s the world we live in. To not play in this sandbox would be doing our publication a severe disservice.
What to Do
In the spirit of offering solutions, here are a few suggestions for how Facebook might help bring independent media to a larger audience — or at least place it on more equal footing with bigger media outlets.
1) Stop providing preferential treatment to large media outlets.
For example, rather than just rolling something like Instant Articles out to the New York Times of the world first, why not work with small, medium and large media outlets from the outset? This would help Facebook better understand the needs and challenges of organizations at different scales. And similarly, rather than providing financial support to already well-funded publications to produce Facebook Live videos, why not have an open call for proposals and fund the best video news ideas?
2) Facebook should only charge for ads or promoted posts that reach new audiences.
I know this is an option right now, but as a small media outlet with a limited marketing and advertising budget, we’re forced to use nearly all of our funds to reach our existing audience. That doesn’t make sense, especially in light of Facebook’s mission “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” The current model gives organizations the power to share, but whether stories actually reach a given audience is left up to Facebook algorithms.
3) Why not let users see all the posts from media organizations they’ve chosen to follow in their News Feed?
That will allow smaller media outlets to compete for their audience’s attention on equal footing with the big guys.
As Facebook’s Will Cathcart recently said in an interview with The Verge’s Casey Newtwon, “[Facebook’s] role is to help the people who use News Feed get what they want. Part of what they want is to be informed on the topics and interests they care about, from the publishers they care about.” If this is truly the case, show all the posts from media outlets someone decides to follow. And if a given media outlet publishes too much content or stories that just aren’t that interesting, followers can simply unfollow with the click of a button.
4) If a follower doesn’t click on (or comment, like, share) a media outlet’s stories, say, once a month, they “fall off” and you have to pay for them to see your content again.
This will likely incentivize publications to produce more of the content their audiences want to see and engage with.
5) Facebook should develop more transparent, tiered advertising rates for different types and sizes of organizations.
Right now there’s no rhyme or reason. One day it might cost $10 to share one of our stories with 500 of our followers, and the next day it will cost $20. This would allow smaller publications to better plan and allocate limited marketing budgets to reach new audiences within Facebook.
If Facebook wants to, as Mark Zuckerberg says, build “a platform for all ideas,” the company should stop providing preferential treatment to large media outlets and start treating high-quality, independent media outlets more equitably.
Todd Reubold is publisher and co-founder of Ensia, a magazine publishing stories about emerging environmental issues around the world.