Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Headline Writer!

You may recall Elton John’s album “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player.” That’s what I thought piano-1589154_1280of when I heard about Facebook’s move to lessen the role of people in Trending topics.

As reported in the Washington Post: “Facebook just greatly diminished the role that human beings will play in the platform’s Trending topics bar, announcing … that actual people will no longer write topic descriptions for the site.  [This] comes months after the company faced an unusually high level of scrutiny for alleged political bias in its Trending feature. Humans will serve a janitorial role in the process, while the algorithms take more control.”

It is an interesting state of affairs when algorithms are deemed to be more unbiased than people – and we are serving the machine in a “janitorial role” (of course, Facebook did not come out and say this as I have – another article attributed the change to the need for scalability).

It seems clear, however that they are still smarting from the bias accusations. Perhaps Facebook’s trying to counter this by giving machines, which we think of as logical, more of a role.

There was a great article in Time magazine about the danger of placing too much trust in algorithms. Rana Foroohar wrote about Cathy O’Neil’s new book Weapons of Math Destruction, which highlights the growing role of algorithms in everything from job performance evaluations, to grading teachers, credit decisions, etc.  They determine which ads we see, and increasingly point us to (and describe) news topics.

Rana writes:

“The Big Data algorithms that sort us into piles of “worthy” and “unworthy” are mostly opaque and unregulated, not to mention generated (and used) by large multinational firms with huge lobbying power to keep it that way.”



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How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Algorithm

The latest Facebook algorithm changes are in, and the tally is Facebook 1, headline writers 0.  As was dont-panic-1067044_1920widely reported over the past few days (e.g., see this TechCrunch piece), the social network has taken measures to reduce the number of click bait stories in our news feeds.

They’re trying to improve the user experience, by studying which types of stories people bounce from and coming up with a formula that flags the content (and marks the source as a click baiter).

Apparently this has a lot to do with the headline – does it withhold crucial information to tempt  curiosities, or over hype the article contents? Facebook offered these tips to help publishers comply. The changes are designed to reward quality and punish excesses of content creators.

Here, Facebook places us in an awkward position. I mean, who would argue for more click bait? The problem is that the types of things they’re now watching for are exactly the time-proven tactics that work, i.e. draw the user in. If the headline doesn’t pull, the shitting thing doesn’t get read.

The devil is in the details – I am not a believer in hypey headlines, and promising more than articles deliver. But hype is in the eye of the beholder, or now the algorithm. I used their sniff test while reading the esteemed NY Times, some of their stories could take a hit according to the screening logic.

Tell me please, exactly how a computer is supposed to make these judgments at scale?

It all gets back to what I was saying earlier, about fighting excesses.  When more brands are plying more content, you get lots of listicles, crappy info graphics and irritating come-ons that are too tempting to resist.  Inevitably, quality declines. (See my post about Open Spaces Marketing to learn how to avoid this trap).

Algorithm writers have been trying to stay ahead of the content deluge for years, guiding users to the higher quality stuff. Recall Google’s Panda update in 2011 (see this Search Engine Land piece) to smack down content mills. Few mourn the decline of those sites.

Looking at it this way, these companies are our friends, and doing us all a service.

As I like to say, if you live by the algorithm, you can die by it too.

As Google says, and as I imagine Facebook would agree, write great content for people not algorithms, and you’ll do just fine (OK, well we may need to rethink our headlines too).



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Publishers & Platforms “In a Relationship” but “It’s Complicated”

Key Takeaways from Digital News in a Distributed Environment

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I enjoyed Columbia Journalism School’s event last week: Digital News in a Distributed Environment. The half day session was divided into two parts.  In the first, Dr. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen,  director of research for Reuters Institute of Journalism (and Columbia alumnus), shared highlights of their 2016 Digital News Study (which you can download from the link), a massive global survey of consumer news habits, attitudes and preferences. Then Claire Wardle presented preliminary results from Tow Center’s Platforms & Publishers report, which will be coming out later this year.  She provided the idea for title of this post in one of her slides.

The session was a great follow-on to last month’s Daily News Innovation Labs Platforms and Publishers session, which I attended and blogged about. It revealed a lot about how we consume news, the influence of tech, and implications and changing realities for journalism.

In this post I share some of the highlights, especially as they relate to the U.S. market.  Tow Center Director Emily Bell opened the session, and Dr. Nielsen moderated. The panelists included:

You can view a video of the event here.

More People are Getting their News from Social Media

That may not surprise, but the numbers and growth tell an interesting story; according to Rasmus, 51% in U.S. now get their news from social media, a number that has doubled since 2013.  12% cite social as their main source of news.

Consumers say that it is less about the social aspect, and more about user experience: they like getting alerts, easier access, and “one stop shop” aspect.  They also appreciate personalized recommendations, above and beyond stories shared by friends.

Facebook is the number one social news destination here.  Twitter is important too.  Fewer are getting their news from aggregators and apps.

Mobile and Social News are Joined at the Hip

The Reuters study revealed the close linkage between mobile and social news. Those who get news on their phones tend to do so through social media, rather rather than by visiting branded mobile news sites or apps. “The smart phone is the defining device of digital news,” said Rasmus.

Despite Video Hype, “Text is King”

Rasmus said that online video news consumption is not as popular or growing as quickly as some might expect from all the hype.  Again, this gets back to user experience: 78% say it is quicker and more convenient to read news  and scroll through headlines rather than watch videos.  Also, they are turned off by pre-roll ads, and feel that video doesn’t always add value to a news story.  People are more likely to watch video on news sites.

It’s the Media Brand, Stupid

Although it would seem that platforms hold all the cards, due to audience reach and deep pockets, Rasmus said their results confirm that media brands are central to how users navigate the digital news world.  The pecking order is: newspaper, broadcast, and native web brands.  Hard news media brands are trusted over individual journalists.

The platforms value cooperation with publishers, as news draws users and drives conversations.

Despite this, journalism “has a PR problem,” he said.  They need to do a better job of differentiation and branding; and social media adds challenges.  The source of news may not always be obvious, and publications lose control in terms of how (and which) stories are presented.

Publisher Challenges and Opportunities 

If you thought things could not get worse for publishers, you were wrong.  Few want to pay for digital subscriptions, and ad-blocking increases revenue challenges.  Yet digital news consumption is growing as older audiences cling to TV. For media, it is not just about distribution – it is about access to new (younger) audiences and experimenting with storytelling formats.

The session was interesting and informative, and I eagerly await the release of the Tow Center report.

A few things that it would be great to learn about in a follow-up study are:

  • The impact of social network ad dollars on organic reach for news brands
  • How trusted are corporate brands as sources of online news?
  • What about the role of influencers in news distribution?
    • Are they more or less trusted than friends and editors?
    • Do people prefer algorithmic selection over news recommended by influencers?
  • Is native advertising offsetting revenue declines in other areas?

I’ll be writing more in the coming weeks on implications for PR and marketing.



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Platforms as Publishers: 6 Key Takeaways for Brands

I checked out a NY Daily News Innovation Labs event last week: Platforms As Publishers: where are We news-644847_1920Now? A panel of experts spoke about their work with the social media platforms, and implications for the news business.

Claire Wardle of Tow Center moderated the session, which included Samantha Barry, of CNN; Allison Lucas, from Buzzfeed; Vox Media’s Choire Sicha; and Carla Zanoni of Wall Street Journal.

The timing was interesting, given all the excitement about Facebook Trending News.  Also, there was a reference to BuzzFeed’s exploding watermelon video that recently went viral (yes, they did use safety goggles).

You will only learn so much at an event like this.  News is a competitive business, and they likely keep most of their cards close. Still, I found it to be interesting, a friendly and apparently open dialog.

Some say that the platforms are the present and future of the news, content and marketing arenas.  Publishers need to go where audiences are, and marketers should be right there too. It was great for this PR guy to have a front row seat on the conversation, and learn more about how some of the top names regard and work with the social media platforms.

The Tow Center ran a nice recap, as did NY Daily News.

So can brand publishers get in on the action too?  What if you want your news to run on social media?

Below I include key takeaways for brands.

  • Don’t just focus on traffic; use social media to build relationships and create a news and content habit that makes the brand relevant.
  • Listen to the audience, use social media to learn new storytelling ways
  • Size does matter, platforms make deals with the largest publishers; who in turn hire small armies of editors, and content, social, engagement and revenue experts. Unless you are a major brand with similar clout and budgets, you need to find other ways.
  • The only constant is change – if you are doing the same thing you were six months ago, you’re probably losing, in the words of CNN’s Samantha Barry.  Experiment and innovate, or be left behind.
  • Have “cool kids” AKA early adapters blaze a trail with new projects and then bring others along
  • Vary strategies and metrics based on goals, features and audiences of each platform

See below for curated tweets on Storify.

 

 

 



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The One thing that Could Settle the Facebook News Controversy

There’s one thing that could put the whole Facebook Trending News bias controversy to monkey-236864_1920rest – but I haven’t seen it yet.

In case you are not familiar with the story, Gizmodo ran this piece last week: Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative Views. The story hit a nerve, given election season timing and concerns about the growing influence of Facebook and other social networks.

To quell the controversy, Facebook made a number of statements and released details of their process for how the trending news “sausage” is made (which was a real page turner for news feed geeks like me).

These moves did not settle the matter. The major news organizations covered the details – but predictably and ironically from their left and right leaning perspectives.

The New York Times story by Mike Isaacs saw no evil; he covered the checks and balances, implying that these filter out biases:

While algorithms determine the exact mix of topics displayed to each person… a team is largely responsible for the overall mix of which topics should — and more important, should not — be shown in Trending Topics. For instance, after algorithms detect early signs of popular stories on the network, editors are asked to cross-reference potential trending topics with a list of 10 major news publications, including CNN, Fox News, The Guardian and The New York Times.

But the Wall Street Journal’s Deepa Seetharaman saw something more insidious:

Facebook researchers last year ranked 500 news sites based on how popular they were with the social network’s users who identified their political alignment as conservative or liberal. According to those rankings, eight of the 10 national news outlets that play an outsize role in determining trending topics are more popular with liberals.

I’ll leave the topic of Facebook’s response to a crisis for another post (they broke the first rule: don’t piecemeal information, that just prolongs the issue).

It seems to me that there must be some unstructured text mining tech that could settle the question. Isn’t it possible to analyze Facebook Trending News stories to find and tabulate the ones with a slant – and compare the numbers for left and right-leaning stories?

It is no simple task, given the complexities of how this all works. Facebook’s document reveals the processes, which blend human and machine effort. Even after the algorithms and editors pick their shots, the feeds get further tailored based on user preferences and actions.

But the bigger question: Is it really even possible to edit or curate without bias?



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Google and Facebook Updates

The Wall Street Journal wrote last week about Google’s plans to give marketers and publishers a way tonews-97862_1280 post stories to search results.  It is not the same as AMP (accelerated mobile pages) – in this case, Google will actually host content.  AMP caches content for faster page loading.  As the article said:

“Google has built a Web-based interface through which posts can be formatted and uploaded directly to its systems. The posts can be up to 14,400 characters in length and can include links and up to 10 images or videos. The pages also include options to share them via Twitter, Facebook or email. Each post is hosted by Google… and appears in a carousel in results pages for searches related to their authors for up to a week… After seven days, the posts remain live but won’t be surfaced in search results. Rather, they can be accessed via a link.”

They are now testing the feature with a small number of partners – the article mentions some of the first to jump in, and links to a page where you can join a wait list.  It did not say if there will be a fee.

In other news, Facebook reported a change to their News feed algorithm  MediaPost reported that it now takes into account the time a user spends on an article: “Facebook is once again fiddling with its News Feed algorithm — this time to give more play to posts that users spend more time viewing.”



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Instagram, another news feed to hack

News broke yesterday about changes to Instagram’s news feed.  As noted on their blog:instagram-1183715_1280

“To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most… The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post.”

This means, of course, that an algorithm will determine what you see.

The new functionality will be introduced in the “coming months.”  It follows Twitter’s recent change to an algorithm-based timeline.

Ragan’s PR Daily covered the news, and included comments from tech journalists:

Techcrunch reporter Josh Constine wrote that “getting seen on social media will become more of a competition than ever.”

It’s not only the average Instagram user who will fight to be seen, either. Constine explained that brand managers stand to lose their reach on Instagram, just like many business pages did when Facebook changed its algorithm….

Wired reporter Julia Greenberg wrote that Instagram is probably moving to an algorithmic feed to bolster its users’ activity, especially since Instagram’s interaction rate was down almost 40 percent last year.

Greenberg said the move is not only to gain and keep users’ attention—the goal of any social media platform—but also to make Instagram attractive for marketers. 

Digiday wrote about the winners and losers. Topping the list are Instagram’s ad business and your sister’s baby photos. They deemed Twitter to be the top loser (is that an oxymoron).  Seems Twitter can’t catch a break.



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