Facebook: What's In It For Journalists?

About a week ago, my editor and I started a Facebook group.

We had been reading a lot about Facebook, mostly about how "old" people had launched an invasion on the site. My editor, Bill Mitchell, is 58, by no means old, but surely long past his college years. He friended me at the beginning of the month.

Since Facebook opened itself to the public last September, it has grown a lot. The Internet market research company comScore announced at the beginning of July that the site had grown to 26.6 million unique visitors in May 2007, an 89 percent jump from the 14 million unique visitors the site was drawing a year earlier.

But despite the growth and the hype, Bill and I wondered: What's in it for journalists? For journalism? And for news organizations, at large?

So we established a Facebook group called "Journalists and Facebook." What better way to report on Facebook, than to use Facebook? We invited about 25 journalists to join the group, posted a few questions to the discussion board and waited.

Seemed to make perfect sense.

By the time we posted this story on Poynter Online, the group had mushroomed to more than 800 members, journalists and non-journalists from all over the world.

Here's the story of what we learned.

NOTE: I posted a draft of this piece to the Facebook group at 2 p.m. Wednesday. I invited the group members to help me make it better, a process one group member called "collective editing." The response was fantastic. Nearly two dozen group members posted thoughtful responses to the piece. Some even threw me line edits.

But after reading all of the comments this morning, I chose not to fold them into the piece. Two reasons: Doing so would misrepresent the process. And it would snuff out the identities of the folks who wrote in (making it look like their clever thoughts were mine). Instead, I've included excerpts from several comments at the end of this piece.

To read all the comments in their entirety (and to add some of your own) visit the Facebook group.

When Bill and I created our Facebook group, I didn't think anyone would join it. I mean, I knew some people would join it. Maybe some of our "real" friends, other Poynter colleagues, a few college students.

So, when I found, as I got ready to leave work Friday, that more than a hundred people had joined the group, I was astonished. Wow, I thought to myself, this might actually work. Over the weekend, more people joined. Sure, some of them were "real" friends, Poynterites and collegiates. But lots of them were strangers, people Bill and I had never encountered in the "real" world.

And I think this is about the time it happened. I became obsessed. I hadn't felt this way about Facebook since I signed up (and geez, that must have been four years ago). I checked the group, as well as my own news feed and profile, several times a day. (And no, I didn't feel guilty doing this on the clock. This was work, after all.)

I started friending people I'd never actually met before. I contacted Dakarai Aarons, an education reporter for the Commercial Appeal (in Memphis, where I'm moving in two weeks), and Trey Heath, editor of the Daily Helmsman, the newspaper at the University of Memphis. They accepted my requests for friendship; this was fun.

But then it hit me. Very few of my Facebook friends, acquaintances and group buddies were talking to one another. The questions Bill and I had built "Journalists and Facebook" to answer were languishing. The work we had set out to accomplish wasn't getting done.

By Wednesday morning, at a little more than a week old, the group had more than 650 members. And ... 18 wall posts, 8 discussion topics and 41 posts to those topics -- make that, 38, since three of them were mine. At my last count, 31 people people had made posts, roughly 5 percent of our group members. Had we failed?

I don't think so. Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen wrote about "participation inequality" on his blog in October. Here's what he said:

User participation often more or less follows a 90-9-1 rule:
  • Ninety percent of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don't contribute).
  • Nine percent of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
  • One percent of users participate a lot and account for most contributions. It can seem as if they don't have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they're commenting on occurs.

I don't doubt Nielsen's findings, especially considering how well they lined up with what I observed on the Facebook group. Still, Bill and I were curious. Why had so many people joined the group but not joined the discussions?

It turns out lots of people join Facebook groups carelessly. It's easy to do -- takes just two clicks of the mouse -- and it feels good, as if you're admitting yourself to a club. On Wednesday, Bill invited me to join a group called "I read the group name, I laugh, I join, I never look at it again." It has 7,854 members. Several group members have posted complaints that Facebook bars them from joining more than 200 groups. One group member, a fellow named Albert Saynotoit Williams, claims to have joined 374.

It is unclear how active this prolific group-joiner is in those nearly 400 groups. But it might not matter. Consider our Facebook group. Sure, as of Wednesday morning, very few of the members had participated in the discussion. But we can't discount the value of the group itself. We had gathered hundreds of people who are interested in the connection between journalists and Facebook. We just hadn't figured out how to get them talking to one another yet.

To say the group members weren't talking to one another at all is not entirely fair. Some of them were talking. And they provided some fine insight not only into how they use Facebook, but into what we can learn from the site.

(Even better: When I posted the draft of this story to the group Wednesday afternoon, several group members posted for the first time. This might have had something to do with the message I sent to each group member inviting response to the piece. Go SPAM!)

My favorite post (as of Wednesday morning) came on Tuesday. Dave Sommer wrote, "Hello, message board full of grieving teens. My name is so and so, from news organization X. Would any of you here like to share any poorly punctuated memories of that poor kid who drowned/got shot/died suddenly during a sporting event? MSG me!"

There are a few things I find interesting about this satiric post.

First, it makes us take a hard look at the way lots of journalists use Facebook these days. I'll admit I did it. Last summer, while I was covering higher education for a newspaper in Delaware, a student died in her dormitory. I went on Facebook, looked up some of her friends and even wrote a story about how her wall had become a make-shift memorial.

It also makes us consider an important ethical concern. How should we interact with sources on Facebook, a place on which we house our personal online identity and through which we interact with our friends and family? Other group members raised this question directly. One asked, "Should we Facebook friend our sources?" Another, "Should journalists support politicians on Facebook?"

Lastly, this post suggests that we move forward, get past the commonplace uses of the site, stop using Facebook only as a window into the lives of teenagers and college students. Because Facebook isn't just for the kids anymore. More importantly, the growth of Facebook points to a cultural shift. People of all ages are getting increasingly comfortable with the idea of interacting with each other online.

A couple weeks ago, I read a fascinating post on Jeff Jarvis' blog. The veteran journalist and director of the interactive journalism program the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism had come to a revelation that relates to this discussion. Local news, he wrote, isn't about content, it's about people.

"Our job is not to deliver content or a product," he argued. "Our job is to help them make connections with information and each other."

And that's what Facebook is doing. It connects me to people I know, and to information I care about. Surely, it isn't always journalism. Last week, for instance, I learned my friend Brent started teaching English in Baltimore.

But some news organizations are working to apply the power of social networking (a phenomenon that group member Robin Sloan called "social context") to the distribution of news content. In its recent Web site redesign, USA Today included a feature that enables each reader to build a personal page, track news stories, aggregate comments and invite people as friends. The Minneapolis Star Tribune launched vita.mn, an arts and entertainment Web site that depends on the so-called audience for most of its content. The Mail & Guardian in South Africa took its content to Facebook when it launched a "headlines" application last week. (Poynter Online's Amy Gahran wrote about this and other Facebook news applications Wednesday.)

(Disclosure: The editors of USA Today and vita.mn are on Poynter's National Advisory Board.)

A question: Should journalists try to build their own social networks? Or make use of existing ones? Or some combination?

But considering the growth of social networking, whether it is happening on Facebook, or MySpace, or Friendster, or LinkedIn, or Pownce, it seems clear that there's at least one thing journalists cannot do -- and that's ignore it.

Here are some additional (and valuable) thoughts from my colleagues, the members of the "Journalists and Facebook" group.

Andrea James: "If we are to report on the world we live in, then we have to fully live in it. And that includes the online realm. ... Anything we can do to open the doors to our newsrooms, and give people a glimpse inside, is an asset to readers."

Howard Rheingold: "Social networks have been key to journalists forever -- what journalist does not have a network of sources? What Facebook and other online social networks do is make it very easy to expand that network and to send and receive messages to and from the entire network very quickly. Evaluating and cross-checking the credibility of sources is something that journalists have always done."

John Holihan: "Facebook and other networking sites like it, have become a society within a society. Within this Internet society are hundreds of stories that you may not hear about in the every day-working world. You have a Facebook Wall that becomes a memorial. You have questionable groups being started, and you have people joining groups just to say they have over 300 memberships. It's an entire world of social behavior that can only be discovered by surfing the facebook network and studying how people use it."

Yvonne DiVita: "First reaction, Pat, is that 'everything' is in it -- Facebook -- for journalists. ... I'm sold on social media. I'm sold on the voice of the customer. I'm sold on the long tail, so this seems like a no-brainer. ... Isn't connecting to people beneficial -- regardless of how you do it? It doesn't mean you shouldn't check your facts, that's a given. It doesn't mean everyone is honest and authentic -- but it shouldn't be hard to discover the fakes (you merely need ask someone who is connected to that person... and anonymity disappears)."

Amy Webb: "Perhaps Facebook is nothing more than a neat site where we can share ideas, discuss topics collaboratively and meet new people. Does Facebook have to impact journalism at all? I'm not saying that reporters and editors should ignore new technology. ... Instead, I think we should start to take a good look at what's available now and what is ahead on the horizon. It's okay to be selective with the technology and digital tools we use as journalists. ... It seems unnatural, somehow, to me to hear folks at conferences talk about how they've 'friended' so-and-so, when they're not even sure if their newspaper has RSS feeds."

Dakarai Aarons: "As news organizations are learning how to use the Web more creatively and effectively, I think the question that must be answered is this: how do we bring some of the conversation going on in our communities to a place where we can use it to inform our journalism? ... The danger is that in using this medium, we don't become highly insensitive in approaching potential sources. A number of national outlets made that very mistake during the Virginia Tech shootings, and a number of Facebook groups were started by VT students in backlash."

David Stearns: "I guess I see no distinction between [friending reporters], and engaging with reporters in more 'traditional' social settings, like the proverbial watering holes that seem to exist in every city, where journalists, politicians, whistleblowers and other motley sources gather to share stories and information. I joined the group because I thought maybe I'd stumble across a health reporter who might be interested in the topics I'm dealing with day-in and day-out. A group solely comprised of journalists is valuable. But one that plugs them into a potential font of trends, data and other story leads, would seem even more valuable to me.

Mark Comerford: "Why are we surprised at the 90/9/1 rule? We have in large part been the ones who have socialized our audience (even the word for people who partake of our product implies a certain passivity, a certain power relation) into being talked at, or talked to but seldom talked with. This has been going on for decades. Politicians talked at/to the voters, teachers talked at/to pupils, experts talk (down) to non-experts, media talk to/at just about everyone. So now the paradigm starts to shift."

Rebecca Skloot: What's struck me since I joined Facebook is what a great tool it is for writers (and editors) looking to connect with writers and editors they don't yet know. This probably stands out to me because I'm a long time freelancer -- a profession that depends in large part on finding editors you don't know (which you often do through friends who've written for them), and keeping in touch with the ones you do know. Search for "freelance journalist" or "freelance writer" on facebook, then look at their friends list ... there's plenty of networking going on here. ... Finding email addresses for editors used to be hard -- now you just enter the publication into the facebook search function (try New York Times and see how many hits you get), and viola, you can message an editor (who may want to strangle me for pointing this out)."

Laura Fries: "as i mentioned in my previous wall post, i think that the (current) functionality of FB groups inhibits discussion; you have to directly navigate to the page and click on the discussion in order to participate; there's no serendipitous discovery or pull/subscription mechanisms. ... in other words, it ain't your fault that we haven't been talking, and I think that the second the tech changes, we'll be buzzing like bees."

Kevin Dugan: "As the 179th member of this group, let me be completely transparent. I'm a 'flack' to quote Rob Pegoraro from another group topic. But I wanted to offer up one PR perspective. ... Journalists limiting profile access to PR people makes sense on the surface. But Facebook allows us to learn more about the reporters we’re pitching and their work. ... Facebook is one piece of a larger network. What can it do for journalists? Facebook already helps you find sources. Hopefully it will also help better sources find you."

Mark Deuze:
  • local journalism, nay, ANY journalism is about people (or better yet:
    it is about community). it was the late James Carey who said it nicely:
    ideally, journalism is about amplifying the conversations a society
    (community, people) has with itself.
  • new media such as Facebook or typewriters or whatever can best be
    understood as amplifying/accelerating something (cognition, attitudes,
    and/or behaviors) that was already there. We did not become networking
    individualists simply because of cell phones, laptops and Facebook. [...]
  • to belabor an old but crucial point: access to FB and other digital
    media is neither random nor exponential: a certain type (class) of
    people has access, and there is no "natural" growth from the bottom up.
    so whose conversation are you tapping into online? the same privileged
    white middle class that is already well-served by existing offline
    (advertising-supported) media. at the very least, that is a real danger
    here, an important caveat to all the justified optimism.

Thanks to everyone who commented on the piece (especially Mark Deuze, for bringing us home with some very excellent thoughts).

For those of you who haven't visited it yet, stop by the "Journalists and Facebook" group to read the rest of the comments and join the conversation yourself.
  • patwalters

    I'm a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in newspapers and magazines, including The St. Petersburg Times and The New York Times Magazine.


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