November 7, 2017

As I was listening to mixed but mostly negative news last week about newspaper company financial results, Facebook was reporting another 49 percent surge in ad revenues and a quarterly profit of nearly $5 billion.

What caught my attention, though, when I later read a transcript of Facebook's earnings conference call was a Mark Zuckerberg comment on the relative value of personal social shares and news. In the course of answering an analyst's question about video engagement, the social network's co-founder and CEO said:

"Video is growing incredibly quickly, and that goes across both social content and more passive public consumption of content. And they create different dynamics in the system, and I think that's an important thing to understand.

"When your friend posts something and you get to engage with it, it might inform you and entertain you. But you also, if you interact with it, you're building a relationship with that person or you feel closer to that person, and that is a really important part of what social networking is supposed to do. Whereas when you engage with public content, you might get informed or be entertained, but it's not necessarily increasing social capital in the same way or building relationships between people."

I take public content to include news video and "social capital" to be the core value and end goal for Facebook use.

But lest there be confusion, later in the same answer, Zuckerberg adds this thought and a clarifying example:

"We're going to focus a lot more on helping people share videos of their moments in their lives. Because in a lot of ways, I think if you take a video of yourself and your family out trick-or-treating, that's more engaging than a photo and a better representation of that than writing it out in text.

"Overall, I would say not all time spent is created equal. … What we really want to go for is time well spent. And what the research that we found shows is that when you're actually engaging with people and having meaningful connections, that's time well spent, and that's the thing that we want to focus on."

This way of thinking about news is consistent with what Facebook executives have been saying and doing for some time. In June 2016, the company said that it was going to change its news feed to give highest rank to text stories sent by friends and family.  As expected, the move brought higher traffic for some, fewer Facebook referrals for others,

Facebook developed Instant Articles, allowing news organizations to post stories and thereby improve load times on smart phones. Some outlets like the Wall Street Journal opted not to participate. Others like the New York Times said that they were disappointed in advertising and subscription results.

So in August, the company announced that it would allow direct sale of subscriptions from Instant Articles and let news organizations activate a paywall if they wish. That was paired with a Zuckerberg blog post in which he spoke respectfully of journalists and how they uncover and analyze important information.

The five-paragraph post concluded:

"We're going to keep experimenting with different ways to support the news industry and make sure reporters and publishers everywhere can keep doing their important work."

Trouble is that Facebook's explosive digital ad growth, especially on smart phones, is the killer app for the news business model, as I and others have said repeatedly. And not just for newspapers seeking to transform themselves digitally but for recent casualties like alt weeklies or DNAinfo.

Besides the eye-popping financial results, last week's conference call provided detail and examples of the effectiveness of Facebook ads. COO Sheryl Sandberg said that the company now has 6 million active advertisers, most of them small and mid-sized businesses. She offered anecdotes about a maker of personalized books that successfully targeted couples on their first anniversary and the Almeda County Fair, which used Facebook to identify potential customers in a 25-mile radius.

The ads work, and one can hardly expect (or legislate) that advertisers put part of their Facebook spending back into news sites.

As Facebook does small-scale experiments with helping news organizations and builds out a Journalism Project, its main focus remains bringing people together virtually and building what Zuckerberg calls "social capital" — along with serving ever more effective ads.

If "public content" absorbs collateral damage, that's too bad but maybe unavoidable.

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Transcript quotes are from Seeking Alpha, registration required but free.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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