When Facebook shook up social networking last week, the company aspired to do more than just give users a new way to brag about the cool bands they are listening to. Facebook wanted to change journalism itself by improving tools for publishing, consuming and gathering news.
The changes were neatly summarized in this Nieman Journalism Lab post by Facebook’s Journalist Program Manager Vadim Lavrusik. In it, Lavrusik notes a handful of ways that Facebook will change news. But, on closer examination, Facebook still has an uphill road when it comes to being a must-have tool for journalists.
First, the good news about publishing. Facebook has made it easier for journalists to publish via their status update; the changes eliminate the old 420-character limit in favor of a more comfortable 5,000-character allotment. They’ve also rolled out a way for anyone to “subscribe” to a reporter’s public posts, without the two-way relationship usually required. Still, both these tools require reporters to move a portion of their work to Facebook, an outlet over which they have no ownership and no control. (Contrast that to Google, which rolled out a way for papers to flag top content to Google News without giving up control.)
And that could lead to the bad news: outside of a few journalistic celebrities, it’s not entirely clear that “subscriptions” are how readers want to get their news. Facebook does a great job of surfacing content that friends find interesting, but it’s not yet clear that a newshounds could view the Facebook feed as anything but a supplemental news source.
But the what caught my eye was the idea that Facebook could be an increasingly useful tool that reporters could use for newsgathering. Here’s how Lavrusik put it:
People now have the opportunity to share their stories not only with those who are in their lives now, but also with the generations to come — by creating a digital and historical footprint. This means that journalists who are trying to locate sources on Facebook will be able to learn more about those people through the historical context depicted on their timeline of public posts.
The idea of Facebook-as-ultimate-background-media-document has three fundamental problems. The first two are is social. As a media relations guy and a former journalist, I can report with fairly high confidence that the “identity” that individuals reveal when they are dealing with the media tends to be highly honed. Most people want the media to view them through the lens of a relevant area of expertise, not in total (which can feel more than a little creepy). Second, there is no check on the accuracy of Facebook information. Yes, it might be an interesting starting point, but there’s no assurance that Facebook profiles reflect the real world well enough for journalists to trust that info.
But third issue with the newsgathering via Facebook may be the most sticky: a reporter looking for someone with an opinion on a given subject has no way of finding that person, unless they are already in the reporter’s network. The search box at the top of the page only brings you to friends, would-be friends or groups. There’s no way to find the curses of a crushed Rex Sox fan unless you already know one.
Contrast that to Twitter, where the search box atop the page is a kind of instant zeitgeist for journalists. Likewise, Google Plus rolled out their search box this month, giving reporters a useful window in what the digerati are saying. And it’s not clear that Facebook could simply ape that feature: despite effort to gradually erode the private nature of Facebook information, most people still choose to keep their Facebook lives restricted to friends, where as Twitter and — in my experience — Google Plus are seen as public tools where searchable posts are a benefit, not a privacy violation.
That’s not to say that Facebook isn’t an important tool or that it won’t change the way that we create and consume content. It’s just that — for the time being — Facebook and traditional journalism are the pickles and peanut butter of modern media: two great tastes that taste weird together.