It’s a Facebook world

Social media is becoming a primary news source, news outlets risk waning revenue.

By Channy Lee / Illustration by Gavin Huang.

On April 13, 2016, NBA fans turned to Facebook for live coverage of LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant’s final game. Sports news outlets including ESPN, USA Today, Yahoo! Sports and the Los Angeles affiliates for Fox and ABC utilized the social media platform’s live-streaming feature, broadcasting live reactions to the game and Q&A sessions with fans.

Facebook’s live-streaming tool is too new to monetize, with no estimates for how much the traffic can potentially earn, but it highlights the rise of new means of distributing content and reaching wider audiences. While Twitter has long been dubbed the future of a breaking news platform with its distribution to the masses, Facebook is challenging the open platform’s status as a journalist’s best friend. But concerns are rising over the increasing influence they hold on who publishes what news, who views it, and how it is told.

Given that advertising follows traffic, content distribution concentrated in social media channels affects how content is monetized. “Facebook has by far the biggest content distribution network — where the money comes — in the world … But it does not produce content by itself,” says Masato Kajimoto, a professor specializing in social media in journalism at the University of Hong Kong. News organizations used to monopolize content creation and distribution, he explains, so revenue from advertising was stable. But that monopoly is long gone. Content creation is the media outlets’ job while the social media dominates distribution. The new business arrangement declares Facebook the winner, with profit from content consumption determined and driven by the billion-user social media platform.

Concerns that the social media platform has “swallowed” journalism are not unfounded. Over 60 percent of users on Facebook and Twitter consume news through these channels, while around 40 percent of adults in the U.S. now consider Facebook a source of news, according to a study last year by Pew Research Center. Facebook is persistent in establishing itself as a platform that can account for content production and publication from start to finish, attracting more users to spend more time on the platform. Launching Facebook Live was part of the concerted effort. Signal and Instant Articles, intended to improve monitoring of information flow on news feeds and to optimize of both Facebook’s publishing and viewing experiences, respectively, have been more tools of hype for those following the evolving system of news distribution.

Facebook has repeatedly rejected the idea that its power over content distribution allows it to act as a gatekeeper to discovery of news, as users alone control what they view by telling its algorithms what they are interested in. Skeptical journalists argue that embracing and working in the context of these algorithms incentivizes content production based on what will result in more views. It is amid this drive to produce what people want to see that Kajimoto’s greater concern lies in what the changing system might imply about people’s reception of journalism in the digital age.

“If demand drives supply, then what we have been seeing is the fact that not many people would like to consume — pay for — or appreciate quality journalism. That is worrying,” he says. Technical capability has taken a huge leap with the increasing involvement of social media, but the costs that go into producing content and the value of news are at stake.

And regardless of the debate over whether social media is hurting or helping news outlets, more social media platforms are prepared to play a greater part in delivering the news. In this context, Kajimoto suggests the future of journalism relies on the audience.

“If the audience demands good, quality journalism delivered through social media, news organizations can spend resources to provide it. If the audience is satisfied with quick headlines and funny offbeat puff pieces, the future is not bright, no matter what relationship there is between news outlets and social media companies.”

The article was originally published on the website of the N3CON SEOUL 2016, n3con.com. 

About the author

Lee Tae-hoon

Lee Tae-hoon

Lee Tae-hoon is publisher at The Korea Observer. He previously worked for the Korea Times and Arirang TV. You can reach him at lee@koreaobserver.com.

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