Mainstream journalism fight in social media world
Originally posted at: https://www.ugandapartners.org/2019/10/mainstream-journalism-fight-in-social-media-world/
By Alex Taremwa
It’s Friday morning at Matooke Republic, a largely digital-only Ugandan newspaper that I edit. The metrics are not tallying up, and we have already lost clients due to the nosedive of our readers from over 150,000 daily to under 30,000.
Under normal circumstances, editors in legacy media – that is, those practicing traditional journalism – do not concern themselves with revenue issues. They focus on the words and let the sales and marketing team make money. But the digital disruption shook up several trees in newsrooms.
Here I was on a Friday morning explaining to my bosses how the plunge in our audience reach was not because we did not have good content but because Facebook, a giant technology company in California, had chosen to limit the reach of posts from businesses, brands and traditional media houses.
The results were instant. Not just at Matooke Republic. Even big international cable news companies felt the pinch. Jennifer Grygiel, Assistant Professor of Communications (Social Media) and Magazine, News and Digital Journalism, at Syracuse University in New York published a paper that said that media publishers as small as Matooke Republic lost more half their reach when the changes took place at the turn of 2018.
In her research, Grygiel found that one effect of the change was to reduce the number of interactions Facebook users had with credible journalism outlets. In the United States, the focus has been on politics with Facebook algorithms noted in the midst of the last American election in 2016 and then with use of Facebook personal profile information for political advertising by the British consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in his statement about the changes in January 2018, noted that his vision of Facebook was interaction between friends and family. He said the algorithm change was made because the social media space had been clogged by updates from the media, businesses and brands, cutting down on the human interaction.
Data from CrowdTangle, a social media monitoring company, shows that Facebook traffic dropped noticeably at such credible media sources as CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, The New York Times and The Washington Post after the Facebook company updated its algorithms to favor friends and family in June 2016. Long story short, by August of that year – seven months after Zuckerberg’s announcement – the News Feed algorithm change had resulted in a drop in engagement for Business Pages. For some, the drop was as much as 50%.
Back to the Matooke Republic meeting, some of the smartest men in the room – me inclusive – sat in the corner office in September of 2018 and began to brainstorm how to beat this algorithm change. Our stories have been trending the whole month since Ugandan politician and musician, Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine), dodged a bullet a few weeks earlier in Arua where he had been campaigning for a colleague.
Some of our stories had hit over 1,000 shares on Facebook alone. The platform was a key distribution point of our content, followed by Twitter and WhatsApp. But then we were reaching ZERO people all of a sudden. We had to think, and think fast.
Here are three things we did to survive and thrive in the social media game, particularly with regard to Facebook:
More photos and video
After careful observation of our platforms, we noticed that the Facebook algorithm was targeting stories with links to the Web site but did not mind photos and video. The two formats of content travelled almost as fast as before but stories shared directly from the web to our pages did not receive much attention. That is how we adopted video as form of content distribution. The video editor, Asiimwe Vincent Smoky, suddenly became the busiest man in the room and the cornerstone of our turnaround. The pages began gaining traction and the renaissance started.
Sharing stories on personal timelines
Another observation we made was that although the algorithm limited the access of stories shared from our website to the page, the stories reached a better number of people when shared from personal profiles of individuals. We quickly encouraged our team to start sharing their stories and those of their colleagues on their timelines, the groups they are in and forums of public discourse.
We used 40 Facebook groups as a testing ground and got exceptional results.
Game changer Bitly
The other trick was to study the competition and see how they were sharing their content. We noticed that both the New Vision, Daily Monitor and a few other Ugandan online platforms were using Bitly – a website that shortens other website links. Turned out that if a link is shortened using this website, the “smart” algorithm could not flag it; therefore, people were more easily led to the website.
From my research, I have found several new techniques such as native video, live video, Facebook, Instagram stories and Snapchat stories, embedded video.
So here’s the bottom line regarding social media, namely Facebook. With over 2.5 billion active monthly users, Facebook will remain at the heart of content creation and distribution for news media. It is how traditional, journalistic media use such platforms that will determine whether we win or lose in the game that Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Netflix are winning.
Alex Taremwa, a Uganda Christian University graduate with a degree in journalism and mass communications, is studying digital journalism at Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications in Kenya. He shared this information during a September 2019 presentation at the United States International University – Africa based in Nairobi. He also participates in industry-led discussions about the place of social media in newsrooms and the effects on journalism credibility.
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