With Facebook's native applications for photos, email, events and groups already in place, a built-in news application is inevitable. Such an application would help Facebook take on Google News and further broaden its walled garden of content. Unfortunately, a Facebook News application will not bode well for media companies.
For a while now, publishers have been losing page views as readers increasingly find their news from aggregated and mobile summaries such as Google News, Twitter and Facebook itself.
Currently, news bubbles into your Facebook feed in a distributed fashion based on Facebook pages you've joined. Publishers have flocked to Facebook pages (and Like buttons) despite concerns about end user privacy, data collection and revenue. Yet, they lack the tools to personalize the delivery of stories to specific readers within Facebook. A Facebook-owned news application will transform news delivery inside the user's feed.
Suddenly, Facebook will funnel news to you from a variety of sources based on data it already knows about you and your friends. Whereas Google News (theoretically) knows little about you until you personalize it, Facebook knows your demographic, your interests, stories and pages you've liked, your friends and news they've read, liked and commented on.
As Facebook places headlines in your feed, it'll rely on you to further tailor your preferences, liking, commenting and hiding items to further refine your interests. Facebook's news feed is an ideal platform for collaborative filtering to gradually deliver content increasingly suited to your tastes.
What does this mean to the news business?
Facebook's news application will be worse for media companies than Google News. Google News generally requires users to visit a website and optionally personalize it. A Facebook news application will deliver personalized news where users already spend significant time, their news feed and to their smartphone via Facebook Mobile. Personalization will happen transparently.
Readers will increasingly get their news from Facebook, not news websites. Discussions will increasingly occur inside of Facebook rather than on news websites. More people may read your headlines, but less will likely read your story. Traffic may increase for specific stories but it's likely to decrease the number of visitors who habitually visit your website home page. There will likely be no opportunity to earn revenue from readers within Facebook.
What does this mean for readers?
Readers won't realize they're consuming news from an echo chamber designed by Facebook's feed algorithm. The role of editors to curate important stories will be diminished.
Rather than visiting local news sites to discuss stories with other residents, they'll more often see comments from a worldwide Facebook audience. Even today, I'm turned off when I see hundreds of comments on a New York Times story in my news feed. I generally don't engage. This will likely be worse (at least at first) in a native Facebook application.
As news organization struggle with another blow to their revenue model, their capacity to report will decline.
What can news organizations do to prepare?
Based on my conversations with Facebook's recently formed media team, I don't believe that Facebook is actively working on a news application yet. However, I think its appearance is likely within 12 to 18 months. There is some time to prepare.
I often tell our partners that if you want Facebook to profit from your content, use Facebook Pages. But, if you want to profit from your own content, you need a more well rounded Facebook strategy.
I think there are three things news organizations can begin doing today to better prepare for the future:
1) Host a community space on the Web for readers to interact with each other, your content and your organization. You're no longer just in the content distribution business ... play host. Integrate your virtual town hall with Facebook Connect (and Twitter) or run it as a Facebook application (shameless plug for our open source NewsCloud application). Get readers familiar with their neighbors and create relationships that Facebook can't so easily replace. We saw with our Hot Dish Climate Change community that you can pretty quickly create online relationships between readers who will regularly return again and again to see what each other are saying.
2) Engage your readers. Orient your organization and its website to more deeply interact with your readers. Public insight journalism offers some guides. The NewsCloud application provides a Question & Answer feature, Forums, Directories and Idea gathering and scoring as tools towards this end. Solicit story ideas, answer their questions more actively and reward quality participation over quantity.
3) Re-focus on quality journalism. Are you reporting crime without connecting it to unemployment and the economy? Report the story but zero in on the story behind it. Be relevant. I regularly harp on the Seattle Times for spending the past year covering the state's growing $3 billion dollar deficit while ignoring Microsoft's $1.25 billion Nevada tax dodge. Do good work and you'll keep your readers coming back regardless of what Facebook does.
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