Facebook tweaks its algorithm again, news publishers could pay the price

Even as Facebook tries to convince news publishers like the New York Times to publish directly on its platform — instead of just posting excerpts with links to their websites — the company continues to demonstrate why that is such a Faustian bargain. On Tuesday, for example, the social-networking behemoth announced some new tweaks to its news-feed algorithm, and warned that publishers might see a decline in “post reach and referral traffic” as a result.

In its post about the new changes, Facebook tried to soften the blow by pointing out that referral traffic to media publishers has more than doubled in the past 18 months, and that it is always trying to help publishers find the right audience for their content by “optimizing how it is discovered and consumed.” The problem, of course, is that no one really knows what Facebook means by terms like optimization. Does it mean choosing the most high-quality content? Showing users what they want? Some combination of both? It’s unclear.

What is clear is that news publishers — and media companies of all kinds — have no real choice when it comes to dealing with Facebook, regardless of the terms of engagement. The social network is one of the largest digital platforms in existence, with a global audience of more than 1.4 billion, and it is also the way in which a majority of younger users find their news. Choosing to avoid Facebook simply isn’t an option if you want your content to be found.

Unfortunately, how Facebook feels about your content can differ from one moment to the next. Fans of the social-gaming company Zynga know this all too well: games like Farmville were once worth hundreds of millions of dollars because they were promoted by Facebook — but that vast audience disintegrated almost overnight when the social platform changed its algorithm.

What’s ironic about the latest negotiations with publishers is that news companies got much the same treatment not long ago: several outlets created “social reader” applications that built up millions of readers, until the social platform changed its mind again and downgraded their content, and those readers vanished.

(This is just an excerpt. You can find the rest of this piece at Fortune)

Updated: BuzzFeed isn’t doing itself any favors on the credibility front

Updated at 4:21 ET on Friday, April 10

Not long after this post was published (thanks a lot, Ben) BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith admitted that he had made a mistake in removing both the Dove post and the Monopoly post referred to below — saying he “blew it” by asking editors to delete those posts, against their better judgement and in contravention of the site’s own standards and practices guide. He said he reacted impulsively and was wrong to do so, and that neither removal had anything to do with advertisers being involved. Both posts have been reinstated with notes that say they were “inappropriately deleted amid an ongoing conversation about how and when to publish personal opinion pieces on BuzzFeed.” I think Ben deserves a lot of credit for admitting his error so quickly and publicly.

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The brouhaha

If you’re not glued to media Twitter the way I am, you might have missed a seemingly minor kerfuffle — or perhaps it was more of a brouhaha — about a post that BuzzFeed removed concerning the recent Dove soap campaign aimed at making women feel better about themselves. Writer Arabelle Sicardi wrote a critical piece for the Life section about the company’s approach and BuzzFeed editors took it down and left in its place a note saying it wasn’t the right “tone” for the site (that note appears to have also been removed). After much criticism from journalists, including a piece at Gawker’s media blog, editor-in-chief Ben Smith posted a tweet with the text of a memo the Life editors sent around about their decision to remove the post (thanks to the folks at the Internet Archive, the original post is available here if you want to read it).

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No more hot takes

In a nutshell, Smith argued that the piece was removed because BuzzFeed is trying to do fewer “hot takes” — that is, personal posts about the writer’s response to some event or news (I asked whether it would have stayed up if the writer had sought out others with the same views, but haven’t gotten a response). As more than one person pointed out in the aftermath of this decision, whatever the merits of the original post might have been — and many people thought it was more than fair — removing an entire post due to its content is explicitly forbidden in BuzzFeed’s code of conduct, which I wrote about when they first released it publicly. It specifically says “Editorial posts should never be deleted for reasons related to their content, or because a subject or stakeholder has asked you to do so.”

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The siren song of advertising

To make matters worse, Dove happens to be an advertiser with BuzzFeed, creating the impression that the site took the post down because it was critical of an ad partner (Smith says he didn’t know Dove was an advertiser until the Gawker story appeared). And that’s not the only incident of its kind — another post, which was critical of the board game Monopoly from Hasbro, was also removed after Hasbro and BuzzFeed announced a partnership related to the game. And according to several sources, the “robots.txt” file that tells search engines what files or pages to avoid when their indexing robots are crawling the site specifically refers to the post about Monopoly, as well as a post about chips — meaning those posts would not come up in a Google search on that topic.

Much of what BuzzFeed has done so far could be either mistakes in judgement or simple errors, including the removal of the Dove post (although the robots.txt file is much harder to explain). Is it BuzzFeed’s right to do whatever it wants to maintain the “tone” it is looking for in its Life section? Of course it is. And it’s possible that the standards that editors are trying to uphold in that section are different than the ones that it is trying to encourage or stick to in the News section of the site. But it’s not clear whether that’s the case — and even if it is whether any readers will be aware of that difference. And while I don’t think the vast majority of readers will either notice or care, those who do notice might start to wonder how much they can trust the site as a news source.

That trust is something BuzzFeed is trying to build up, presumably, so that people (including advertisers) will take it seriously as a news entity as it tries to expand into foreign reporting and investigative news. And just like Rolling Stone magazine with its flawed investigation into the UVA rape story, BuzzFeed risks losing some of the trust it has banked by not being transparent about what it’s doing and why. It’s possible that there won’t be any short-term repercussions as a result of such behavior, but long term it could be harder for the site to argue that it is a reputable news entity — if in fact that is something it cares about, which I think it is.

Marty Baron is right — the forces reshaping media can’t be argued with

Washington Post editor-in-chief Marty Baron isn’t exactly a raging digital-first zealot as far as newspaper executives go, so it’s refreshing to see just how blunt he was in his assessment of the industry in a recent speech he gave at the University of California. Some might argue — as my friend Chris Anderson, a CUNY journalism professor, did in a tweet — that much of what Baron is saying amounts to time-worn clichés and things that everyone should know by now. And I think there’s some truth to that. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people who need to hear them anyway.

One of the most crucial points is that the forces of change that have been disrupting and transforming the media industry for the past decade or so aren’t something that can be argued with, or reasoned with, or held at bay through the powers of persuasion. They are like a fast-moving glacier or global climate change — a force of nature that you can either figure out how to adapt to or be swept under by. Trying to hold it at arms length is like King Canute commanding the tide to stop.

“As we make this move, the first casualty is sentiment. The forces at work don’t care about how we prefer to do our jobs, how easily we adjust to change, how much we have to learn. They don’t care about any extra workload. This transformation is going to happen no matter what. And there is only one realistic choice available: We can do what we must to adapt and – ideally – thrive. Or not — in which case we are choosing to fail. If this pace of change unnerves you, there is no consolation. Things will only get faster. And for those who resist the change rather than embrace it, there will be no forbearance or forgiveness. Their destiny is to be pushed aside and forgotten.”

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Part of the sentiment that needs to be done away with, Baron says, is around the permanence of print. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many newspaper executives continue to see their print operations as the jewel in the crown — despite the fact that they are making less money all the time, and have fewer readers. Although print still makes up a substantial proportion of a newspaper’s assets, Baron says, publishers have to disabuse themselves of the notion that print will always exist.

“We can start by discarding the lingering notion that paper will remain for long a big part of what we do. It will not. For a while, yes. But it will not last. Let’s also abandon the idea, still common in newsrooms, that what’s on the front page is more important, has greater value, carries greater prestige than what we disseminate on the web. It isn’t more important. It is a statement of our values, a defining and tangible representation of what we see in the world. We want to be smart about the front page. We want to be careful. It is important, just not more important than what’s on the web.”

Baron goes on to talk about how newspapers need to lower the barriers — both physical and psychological — between the business side of their companies and the editorial side, since all parts of the business need to co-operate in order to survive. Newsrooms must “participate in creating products that appeal to advertisers, boost readership, and deliver satisfying results for both,” he says, without abandoning the principles of independent and honest coverage. And newspapers have to think differently about how they tell stories as well, he says — instead of thinking instinctively that traditional forms are inherently superior to new digital alternatives.

Is any of this revolutionary or even surprising? Not really. Not to anyone who has been paying attention over the past few years, or to anyone who has seen a newspaper balance sheet. But I don’t think the Washington Post editor was talking to those people. He was talking to the vast middle layer of newsroom managers who think that if they nod towards the web and talk about “engagement” or pageviews now and then, their job is done. It isn’t, of course. Whether they feel it or not, the glacier is in motion, and they will be swept under unless someone convinces them to pay attention. It’s not clear to me that even speeches by people like Marty Baron will accomplish this, but it’s worth a shot.

Onward!

Anyone who knows me is probably aware that the sudden death of Gigaom last month hit pretty hard. Not just because I spent five years of my life there, but because I felt that we had built an amazing team, and had done some really first-class work covering all aspects of emerging tech and the networked economy. So it’s great to be able to say that a big chunk of the Gigaom team — including me — are joining Fortune magazine next month, where we will be able to continue that work.

As Om put it in his post about the news, the death of one thing often creates new forms of life from the pieces that are left behind, and I hope that Stacey Higginbotham, Katie Fehrenbacher, Jeff Roberts, Barb Darrow, Jonathan Vanian and I will be able to do exactly that for Fortune. Here’s what the magazine said about our arrival:

“Six of the journalists from the tech web site Gigaom will be joining Fortune in the next few weeks. These journalists are leaders in covering an interconnected group of technologies — cloud computing, big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics, sensors, social collaboration, energy technology — that are profoundly remaking the foundations of global business. Readers of Fortune increasingly recognize they need to master the implications of these technologies for their companies, or face disruption by others who do. We intend to be their guide — in print, on the web, and through our conferences.”

Fortune is a great journalistic brand, and I have a lot of respect for the folks who work there, including editor Alan Murray and writer/editors like Dan Primack, Adam Lashinsky, Leena Rao, Erin Griffith, Philip Elmer-Dewitt and Andrew Nusca. Grafting pieces of other media outlets onto a new host is never an easy task, but I have no doubt that we will be able to make it work — and not just make it work, but take Fortune and Time Inc. to new heights of smart technology coverage. Onward!

Rolling Stone’s fatal flaw: Wanting its UVA rape story to be true

There’s an old adage in journalism that says: “Any story that looks too good to be true probably is.” And yet, respected media entities repeatedly print news stories that turn out to have been exaggerated wildly or completely fabricated. Why? Because in many cases the desire to tell a great — or important, or scandalous, or fascinating — story trumps journalistic principles. In the latest example, Rolling Stone magazine reported a blockbuster story about campus rape at the University of Virginia that appears to be almost completely untrue.

After months of criticism of the piece — which told the story of a sexual-assault victim named Jackie and her attempts to get the university to take action against her attackers — the magazine agreed to submit its work to an independent review by the Columbia Journalism School in New York. The review board’s report was released late Sunday night, and it contains a litany of journalistic malfeasance on the part of the Rolling Stone writer and her editors.

Among other things, the reporter involved in the story apparently failed to do even a minimal amount of checking to determine whether Jackie’s account of the assault could be corroborated, such as trying to track down and confront the individuals she identified, or trying to verify some of the obvious details of the attack. And that continued to be the case even as the story went through multiple levels of editorial oversight. As the report puts it:

“[This] is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all.”

Why would an institution like Rolling Stone — which has made a name for itself in the past with deeply reported features like the piece it did on former NATO commander Stanley McChrystal, which got the general fired — take such a risk? Former New York Times editor Bill Keller argued in an interview with the Times that the pressure from the internet to engage in “clickbait” exacerbated the problems with the story, and there is some truth to that. Even though Rolling Stone is a monthly magazine, it is part of a much more competitive media landscape than ever before.

But the real reason why the magazine and its editors failed to perform some of the most rudimentary journalistic tasks is the same as it has been in almost every previous example of such malfeasance — including the New York Times’ reporting on the case for intervention in Iraq in 2003, and the more recent Newsweek blockbuster feature on the secretive inventor of Bitcoin, which also turned out to be almost completely fabricated. And the reason is that the writers and editors in question desperately wanted the story to be true.

Campus rape is arguably a huge problem in America, and an extremely painful one, and stories like the one told by Jackie are all too commonplace: male fraternities as a breeding ground for such behavior, campus officials overlooking or downplaying such incidents, victims being blamed for their own assaults, and so on. Jackie’s tale was the perfect synthesis of all of these sub-themes, and as such it could be counted on to be both a massive attention-getting device and an important political and cultural document. The perfect combination. The report says:

“The problem of confirmation bias – the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here.”

This desire to have a story be true is such a powerful drug that it can overcome even the most hard-core and deeply-ingrained journalistic instincts of senior editors at institutions like the New York Times, Newsweek and obviously Rolling Stone. It can convince a writer that checking a source’s report isn’t worth it, and it can convince editors not to bother requesting such a check. In the case of the Rolling Stone feature, interestingly enough, having more editors apply their expertise to the story may have actually exacerbated the problem rather than curing it, according to former Columbia journalism professor Bill Grueskin.

There’s one other aspect of the Rolling Stone controversy that stands out, and that is the almost complete lack of repercussions for any of the writers and editors involved in the story. The magazine should be congratulated for asking for — and then making public — an independent investigation of its practices, something that happens all too infrequently. But how could it then decide to absolve its staff of any penalty for their failure, and on top of that say it doesn’t plan to change any of its editorial processes?

If the trust of readers is one of the most valuable currencies we have in the current media landscape — as I would argue it is — then Rolling Stone banked a substantial amount by agreeing to the public review, but has spent all that and more by failing to take even the most rudimentary steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.