Journalism needs a better aggregator than Facebook

Bubblegum forests and lollipop trees

For many people, social media is where they get their news. According to research from the Pew Research Center, 44 per cent of Americans get their news from Facebook although some have contested this. Our own numbers aren’t much different. In the past three months (January to March) 49.5 per cent of sessions to our site came from social media. According to a survey on one of the biggest project in our community (the South Cariboo Rec Centre expansion survey with 750 responses), 54 per cent heard about the project through Facebook, compared to 48 per cent from the newspaper and 27 per cent from the radio.

As newsmedia, we have to make an important acknowledgement here; for a lot of people, social media is currently the best place to get news.

When you’re on Facebook, the articles that you see, outside of advertising, are shared by your friends and family (presumably they have similar interests) or from pages you follow. Furthermore, Facebook doesn’t show you every post. By choosing posts you’re more likely to engage, you stay longer on the site, giving them more opportunities to show you advertising.

In comparison, everything from your local newspaper to the New York Times websites are poorly tailored to your needs. Your local newspaper’s website will have stories about local students, council and even some good provincial and international stories, but won’t have a story on that obscure European soccer team you follow but have some local stories you’re not interested in. Similar problems exist for the national and international media. If you want to get your news exclusively from reliable news sources, you have to put in the work to go to a number of different places. Civic-minded individuals may put in the work but many aren’t going to.

The Shattered Mirror report from January 2018 by the Public Policy Forum on journalism in Canada started their report with a quote, “In a land of bubblegum forests and lollipop trees, every man would have his own newspaper or broadcasting station, devoted exclusively to programming that man’s opinions and perceptions,” from The Uncertain Mirror report (1970). I guess with Facebook we have that land of bubblegum forests and lollipop trees, almost.

Facebook, of course, wasn’t built as a news source and the problems are obvious. Our friends and family occasionally share fake news stories, satirical news stories as real news, really old stories as if they’re current and so on. Furthermore, despite nearly every media outlet using Facebook, for many news media, Facebook is a competitor eating up ad revenue. This is before any data security problems.

As a society, if we don’t want people to use Facebook for news, we need a better place to get news. We need a place that finds all the news we’re interested in and presents us with the land of bubblegum forests and lollipop trees that Facebook hints at but only draws from reliable and trustworthy sources. Such a place could also partner with journalists and news media in the same way that Subscribe with Google partners with them.

Some will undoubtedly argue that it is important for editors to choose what stories a reader is presented with so news consumers get a broader view of what’s going on in the world. While there are some merits to the argument, but on the internet that cat got out of the bag some time ago and is never coming back.