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The 2016 Global Report on Online Commenting, Chapter 2: The Facebook Factor

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The 2016 Global Report on Online Commenting, Chapter 2: The Facebook Factor

Before shutting down commenting, Trench of News24 had conducted a deep data dive and found that only a small percentage – 3,000 or less than 1% – of its 5-6 million readers were actively commenting. “The number was minuscule and our view was that by shutting comments down, it would have almost no effect,” said Trench. “We found that our average time on-site went down by about one second.”

It was the same argument that NPR used to explain its decision. Less than 1% of NPR’s 25-35 million unique monthly visitors were commenting on its site and even less – 0.003% or 2,600 were regular commenters while more than five million actively engage on NPR’s Twitter account on a monthly basis. “This [social media] is where people want to engage with us. So that's what we're going to emphasise,” said NPR’s digital editor Montgomery.

Going to the Big Blue

Given its low usage and the cost of maintenance, moving the commenting function entirely to social media platforms has proven to be a logical choice for some, especially since a lot of readers are already there anyway.

In Reuters Institute’s 2016 Digital News Report, which included data from 26 countries, half of the respondents (51%) said they use social media as a source of news each week and around one in 10 (12%) said it was their main source. In a recent survey released earlier this year by the Engaging New Project at the University of Texas at Austin, 55% of Americans have left an online comment and of those who have left a comment, 77.9% have done so via social media.

Additionally, data showed that readers may not care so much as to whether comment is available or not; only 1 in 3 Americans said it is very important that digital news sources allow people to comment on news, according to the most recent survey released in April this year by the Media Insight Project, a partnership of the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute.

Across the globe, Facebook is the dominant social media platform for news; 44% say they use Facebook for news, according to Reuters Institute’s 2016 Digital News Report. “The strategy is to get on Facebook, it’s to connect with readers where they are, instead of getting them to come to where we are,” said Hana Greiner, Community Manager of Miss Magazine in Austria.

Facebook’s expanding influence on politics was recently featured in a New York Times Magazine article where “it became clear that Facebook wasn’t just a source of readership; it was increasingly, where readers lived” and it is becoming “a self-contained marketplace to which you have been granted access but which functions according to rules and incentives that you cannot control”.

As a consequence of its increasing influence, Facebook is taking away a growing chunk of crucial online advertising on which news organisations depend. Former Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger estimated that Facebook sucked up nearly 20% of the Guardian’s digital advertising revenue last year.

Losing touch with readers and control

However, Greiner of Miss recently noticed that the articles they posted were getting only half the reach or less than before, while videos and Instant Articles seemed to perform better. “Facebook changes its algorithm and does not necessarily tell us. We just notice the difference,” she said.

Earlier this year, Facebook’s method of selecting trending news came under attack for bias. It said it would rely more on algorithms instead of humans. Yet within three days of the change, it made a mistake, trending fake news. Facebook’s newest changes in algorithm to show more links from families and friends was another blow to news organisations on which 40% of their traffic depends.

Emily Bell, Founding Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School has consistently questioned how social media platforms are living up to their expanding role as publishers and the risk that traditional publishers are taking when ceding reader relationship and data to them.

In the most recent preliminary research on the issue, she pointed out the biggest tension at the heart of the relationship between publishers and platforms: Is a reader of The New York Times on Facebook a New York Times reader, or a Facebook user reading The New York Times?

“We shouldn’t expect Facebook to act in the best interests of the news organisation,” said Coral Project leader Losowsky. More importantly, social media sites have their own priorities and needs, which may be in direct competition with news organisations.

“To outsource all of our interaction with readers to them is the wrong thing to do; you no longer have meaningful data of who these people are and how they are connecting with you,” Losowsky said.

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist of The Washington Post echoes the same worry. “I find value in reader comments that can’t be adequately reproduced elsewhere. The argument that the conversation has migrated to Facebook and Twitter is flawed,” she wrote in response to NPR closing its comment section. “Those are good places for discussion, but they are no substitute for having discussion take place where the story itself lives. News organisations should fix online comments rather than ditch them.”

More importantly, “ceding these conversations to social platforms doesn’t solve any of those problems, it simply defers any solutions and puts the conversations about our journalism even further beyond our reach, shaped instead by algorithms that reinforce the very same polarisation that bogged down the comment threads we couldn't redeem in the first place,” said Amanda Zamora, the Texas Tribune's Chief Audience Officer, in a recent speech at Poynter.

“By abandoning comments, news organisations are not only giving up an important role in shaping public discourse — they're giving up a key avenue toward having direct, sustainable relationships with their audiences,” said Zamora in the same speech. “Those relationships are vital to any future we have in this business.”


Chia Lun Huang


2016-10-17 08:10

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