NAB 2018

Facebook Edits Out Flaws In News Update

Facebook defended its News Feed changes and touted improvements for local publishers in an NAB Show session that gave no heed to problems engulfing the platform and local media’s growing skepticism.

LAS VEGAS — To hear Facebook tell it, 2018 has been a rosy year of algorithm improvements and sweeping monetization enhancements for news publishers.

Josh Mabry, head of local news partnerships for the platform, and Beth Lloyd, head of broadcast news partnerships, swept through the rationale behind Facebook’s recent algorithm change in a presentation billed as an update on the Facebook Journalism Project. In it, they drummed the algorithm shift’s upsides for news organizations and offered a litany of ways in which Facebook has improved prospective revenue fortunes for those within its walls.

But other than a glancing reference to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s forthcoming congressional testimony this week, Sunday’s Facebook presentation at the NAB Show had nary a mention of the increasingly strained relationship between the platform and the wary media that have entwined themseves so deeply with it.

In January, Zuckerberg announced changes to Facebook’s News Feed algorithm that presaged trouble for news outlets there. “Meaningful interactions,” largely from family and friends, would take precedence over other content on the feed. The implications for publishers was a demotion of their content, setting in a panic among many.

Mabry broke down the new algorithmic process in less menacing terms for publishers. A meaningful interaction might, for instance, stem from someone liking or commenting on a photo or status update or, say, reacting to a post from a publisher that a friend has shared. Publisher content that provokes such conversations becomes rewarded, while posts that merely drive consumption (or “engagement-baiting” in Facebook parlance) will be downgraded.

“Over time, we believe that people will start to see the content that they care most about,” Mabry said.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

In the meantime, however, publishers are likely to see declines in reach, watch time and referral traffic, none of it encouraging to hear from a platform against which they’ve laid considerable resources over the last several years.

Lloyd said that as a countermeasure, some publishers like Conde Nast and the PBS NewsHour/The New York Times are leaning into groups around topical issues and interests, such as “women who travel” and compelling new books.

“It’s a great way to find a niche group among your community and get them engaged deeply,” she said.

Other publishers have taken to using Facebook’s Messenger bot to open up conversational threads on specific topics.

Facebook has taken additional mitigating steps for media, especially at the local level. Citing statistics that 82% of users are “somewhat or extremely interested” in seeing local news content and 56% want to see more of it, the platform has introduced a new local surface that has rolled out to about 30 of its markets and emphasizes local news stories and events. It’s also testing new features including daily updates and breaking news to better surface important news content.

Recognizing the importance of helping the news industry find a sustainable future on its platform, Facebook has both added and is testing a battery of new monetization features for publishers inside of its walls. They include calls-to-action on Instant Articles as well as direct sold audience network and branded content ads and subscription solutions there. Those solutions include tests of in-line versus interstitial paywalls, interstitial upsells and meter count variations.

On the video front, Lloyd offered a few nuggets for Facebook Live content creators, a two-year-old tool that has become a mainstay of more social-media-aggressive local broadcasters.

Videos that users proactively seek will see greater distribution in the News Feed, as will shows and series that are part of an ongoing effort to engage. Facebook will also show more videos from publishers whose content users return to repeatedly.

Lloyd said Facebook is helping improve publishers’ video monetization yield with ad breaks, testing six-second pre-roll in areas like Watch and Search on the platform as well as pre-roll where viewers have intentionally sought out the content.

In all, it was a picture that still glossed over publishers’ widespread abandonment of Instant Articles and broadcasters’ recent scramble to find other social channels with a greater ROI for their video content, namely YouTube.

On the one hand, the presentation was evidence of Facebook’s ever-improving efforts to engage the news community. But given Mabry and Lloyd’s talk left no room for audience questions or back-and-forth discourse, it suggested Facebook still has some work to do on the “meaningful interactions” front with its media partners.

Read all of TVNewsCheck‘s NAB 2018 news here.


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