Facebook launched its new Facebook Newswire service, FB Newswire, yesterday in a move to attract more journalists to the social media website. Journalists are considered “influencers,” people who set trends, create styles and draw others to causes, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s own influential book, “The Tipping Point.” While there is some controversy over who, precisely, is an influencer, there is no doubt that journalists have a material effect on how other people think and feel about things. This makes journalists a very important target market for social medial websites like Facebook.
The new service will collect and distribute information about breaking stories around the world culled from users’ Facebook posts. The FB Newswire service, which is free and available to the public, challenges number one seed Google News, along with Yahoo! News and Twitter, currently the Big Three in the online news aggregation sweepstakes. The grand prize for the sweepstakes winner is a larger slice of the estimated $46 billion that advertisers will spend on internet advertising campaigns this year.
Both Google News and Yahoo! News collect articles from “trusted news sources” and present them to anyone looking for information on breaking news stories. A “trusted source” is any website affiliated with a recognized news organization, periodical, scholarly journal, government agency, or non-governmental organization that has established a track record of providing accurate information. The aggregation process makes it easier for reporters and researchers to find articles about breaking news stories in one place, on a single web page. It also makes it easier to follow the development of ongoing stories, such as the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, for example.
Google News has been content to collect and present links to articles written by third parties. Yahoo!,however, has hired reporters, set up news bureaus, and recently signed former CBS News anchor Katie Couric as the “global” anchor for Yahoo News in a bid to become its own “trusted news source.” This puts Yahoo! into more direct competition with AOL, another news aggregator that has branched out heavily into producing its own original content through its acquisition of The Huffington Post.
Facebook and Twitter have a different approach because both organizations are collating and distributing information culled from members’ comments to their Facebook Pages or their Twitter Accounts. Neither company has the means to determine the reliability of the information collected from these unknown sources, but there is no doubt that both Facebook and Twitter have been instrumental in providing coverage for breaking news stories. In some cases, the social media sites have actually been at the center of major news stories such as the evolving episodes of the “Arab Spring.”
The problem with “first person” or “citizen” journalism is that the news media do not know whether or not the information collected from these sources is trustworthy. News organizations have one inviolable rule: every breaking news story must be corroborated by at least two sources. If such corroboration is not available, the information can only be considered hearsay, which is neither admissible in court or acceptable in a responsible publication.
Recognizing the seriousness of this deficiency, Facebook has partnered with Storyful.com to provide external verification of the news stories that FB Newswire promotes. Founded by well-known Irish journalist Mark Little in 2010, Storyful bills itself as the world’s first social media news agency. The company monitors social media websites, using data mining techniques,comparing the coverage of the same events from different sources, to verify the information contained in articles. The company also employs a team of veteran editors to vet news stories in real-time. This positions the new Facebook service between the collation of articles from trusted sources that Google and Yahoo! offer, and Twitter’s uncorroborated information that users glean from the Twitter feed.
The Twitter feed has one interesting attribute that offsets Facebook’s verification process. Every major news organization in the world, and untold thousands of smaller ones, posts tweets with links to every story that they publish on their websites. The vast majority of Twitter links to news items come indirectly from the same trusted sources from which Google and Yahoo! are collecting their data. The problem with Twitter’s approach is that it is difficult to extract the information hidden in the Twitter feed.
Storyful is the News Corporation-owned internet equivalent of the Associated Press (AP), a company that was on the leading edge of news gathering technology back in 1846, when it was originally established to collect and distribute news from the front lines during the Mexican-American War. Today, the venerable nonprofit organization collects stories from 6,700 member news organizations around the world and redistributes those stories through their internet feeds to tens of thousands of subscribers. Some stories are distributed as-is, while others are rewritten by AP editors, and still others are original reporting from thousands of the AP’s own reporters stationed in 243 news bureaus in 120 countries, making it the most powerful non-governmental information-gathering operation on the planet….until the advent of the internet.
That preeminence is now being challenged by the social media newcomers. What the Associated Press has been doing for 168 years is essentially the same service that internet providers like Google and Facebook are now offering today, free of charge, distributing information to journalists who then post stories that get picked up by Google and Facebook. It is the same process, updated for 21st century technologies.
The AP (and it is always referred to as “the AP”) racked up $628 million in sales in 2011 and netted $193 million for a profit margin of 30.7 percent. Facebook rang up $7.87 billion in sales in 2013, and cleared $1.5 billion for a profit margin of 19 percent. Any one of the four contenders, Facebook, Google, Yahoo! or Twitter, would love to snap up the AP, but they cannot do that because the non-profit collective is owned by its members….and they are not selling.
News Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdock, an arch-conservative, does not like the Associated Press because he can neither buy it nor control the AP’s obstinate impartiality. However, he just might have been thinking about driving the AP out of business when he paid $25 million for Storyful in December of 2013. Storyful’s business model closely resembles the Associated Press model of collecting, verifying and redistributing news stories from social media sources. As more and more news content flows from newspapers and periodicals to the Internet, the Storyful model may eventually overshadow the AP paradigm.
The alliance between Facebook and Storyful is a complete turnabout for the media mogul. In 2009, Murdock and former Associated Press CEO, Tom Curley, launched a futile effort to drive social media sites out of the news business, claiming that sites like Facebook were inappropriately republishing copyrighted work belonging to their organizations. The social media sites contended that they were not responsible for copyright infringements committed by their users. The old media lost out to the new media on that point.
The role that Storyful will play in its joint venture with Facebook will be to provide at least the appearance of impartial verification of facts through the use of its data mining technology and its network of knowledgeable reporters and editors. This puts Facebook into a unique situation.
While Google News makes an effort to determine whether the publications it culls stories from are responsible or “trusted” sources, they make no effort to independently document or verify the content of the stories that are linked to the summaries posted on Google News before the fact. They do, however, evaluate stories after the fact and will occasionally penalize outlets that post inaccurate or misleading stories by pushing future stories from offending outlets further down in the listings in the Google search results page. Twitter makes an effort to verify that the public figures and organizations posting on their site are who they say they are, but makes no effort to verify the accuracy of the items posted.
Facebook, by partnering with Storyful, is reassuring users that Facebook Newswire stories have been vetted by Storyful’s editors and data verification techniques.. This raises the age-old question: who polices the police?
Ultimately, in social media, the consumers will police the police with their feet, trending toward social media sites that can provide documentary evidence of their veracity while veering away from outlets that offer opinion as fact….unless the opinions agree with their own prejudices.
Facebook’s efforts to attract more news organizations into its customer base follows signs of defections among some of Facebook’s corporate clients, who have reacted negatively to new Facebook rules reducing the number of text-only messages advertisers can post. Facebook wants them to purchase more display advertising instead of using the free text only messages.The company has also reduced the number advertisements on their pages to drive up the per unit cost of each advertisement.
Facebook was motivated to re-examine their advertising policies by feedback indicating users were being turned off by the increasing number of increasingly obnoxious advertisements. The company has also seen a 400 percent increase in number of Facebook users who follow links to news stories posted on Facebook, indicating a growing market for those referral links to offset any advertising losses.
There are a number of ironies in the confusing landscape of internet news services that illustrate the underlying reality of the interconnectedness of everything on the internet. Facebook announced the inauguration of its new Facebook Newswire on its own Facebook page, but the company also tweeted the news on Twitter. Google News now lists 231,000 references to Facebook launch because it is, after all, news. Thousands of reporters and would-be reporters tweeted the news to each other and, in thousands of those cases, those tweets generated Facebook posts, many of which were being found and listed by Yahoo News, which reports that 2,802 articles about Facebook’s new venture have been posted at the same time that Google was reporting 231,000. Analysts believe the Google numbers represent a large number of duplicate entries.
This alone indicates how over-extended the news management system has become, and the need for a new mechanism to winnow the chaff to find the kernels of wheat in the news feed. The fact that virtually every news story that gets published anywhere today become the subject of another Twitter Tweet illustrates the steepness of the slope Facebook Newswire has to climb in order to become a “trusted source” reporters will rely upon when they put their jobs on the line by quoting from a “reliable source.”
By Alan M. Milner
Look for me on Twitter:@alanmilner