Share This: The Facebook Effect on Digital Publishing

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The App-Vantage

Social news isn't just about posting a link on Facebook anymore. As we've already heard from The Wall Street Journal example, publishers can go beyond a page and a simple like and build entire apps within the Facebook environment. The Wall Street Journal isn't the only publication turning to social applications to create a different kind of experience for its readers. Another popular daily paper that has a news app is The Washington Post. Last fall, it launched The Washington Post Social Reader, a free app that lets you read news on Facebook. Katharine Zaleski, executive director of digital news at The Post, says the app was downloaded more than 19.5 million times in its first 6 months.

"The Social Reader shows how you can build a news experience from social behavior," Zaleski says. "We are seeing that news is increasingly social, and I think it makes sense to build social apps."

"We're not suggesting that social apps are better in some way, they're just different," says Bowen. "They allow users to get a socially curated view rather than the view of a specific editor, and some people find that interesting. We're experimenting to see what people find most engaging."

Like Bowen, Zaleski feels Facebook and other forms of social media have shown that people not only still follow the news-they love telling others about it.

"News publishers, especially The Post, see the large impact Facebook and other social platforms can have," Zaleski says. "Facebook continues to adapt, and it has shown us that users find sharing news and information enjoyable and highly engaging."

And the impact of social media has made this an exciting time for publishers, Zaleski adds. "I think we're seeing a revolution in the way people engage with the news," she says. "More people than ever before are not only reading news, but they are contributing to it, and it's an exciting adjustment for us."

Readers Become Editors

In some ways, social media has empowered readers in a manner they've never experienced before. No one knows that better than Ken Doctor, an analyst and author of Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get. Doctor has been following social media's effect on digital publishing from the start.

"In news, we're becoming each other's editors, deciding what we'd like to read by touts, tweets, and transferred links," he says. "So we've joined editors, the traditional news gatekeepers, picking and choosing the day's news we'd like to read and think our friends and associates may like as well."

Among the ways to "pick and choose" the news are popular apps such as Flipboard, which lets people create iPad magazines from links their friends have shared on a variety of social networks. However, Doctor cautions that Flipboard may ultimately prove to be not as much of a boon to the news industry as it seems right now. He says the tablet aggregators are "both a discovery tool and potential threat to publishers."

"Think of Google in 1998," Doctor says. "For free, it started sending lots of traffic to content sites, and they loved it. Then, within a few years, people started going directly to Google"-through such avenues as Google News and other news aggregation sites-"and publishers lost traffic and audience. Now think of Flipboard in 2012." Doctor continues,  "Same story: Great discovery place for content and traffic driving, but if and as it becomes a major destination site, publishers can lose audience and customer contact."

Of course, that was also once the danger with Facebook, as users started spending more and more time on the site. So far, though, both publishers and Facebook have found ways to enjoy mutually beneficial relationships and continue to find new ways to share, promote, and uncover new content.

Introducing Interest Lists

Facebook, of course, isn't going to sit back while tools such as Flipboard grab its users' attention, which is why, in early March, the social network launched Interest Lists. Facebook software engineer Eric Faller wrote in his announcement of the new feature that Interest Lists "can help you turn Facebook into your own personalized newspaper, with special sections-or feeds-for topics that matter to you."

For example, Facebook users who love football can subscribe to the NFL Teams Interest List and get plenty of pigskin news right on their pages, eliminating the need to go to teams' pages or to sites such as Likewise, if a user is more politically minded, he or she can subscribe to the 2012 U.S. Presidential Candidates list to see updates from all the campaigns and posts from such news outlets as CNN and FOX. Users even have the power to make their own lists based on their own favorite topics.

Shortly after the list launch, Jennifer Van Grove, a writer for the technology news site VentureBeat, opined in a column for the site that the Interest Lists "are absolutely a home run."

The lists "have the promise of better distributing Facebook content to the social network's 845 million monthly active users," Van Grove wrote. "More content, that people have an expressed interest in, means users will spend even more time on Facebook, and share, ‘like,' comment, and engage more, activities that will distribute content farther and wider."

Because it's based on Facebook, users can access their new Interest Lists at home, at work, or on-the-go-an attribute Van Grove seemed particularly enamored of.

"The real kicker is that Facebook's social newspaper experience, unlike the myriad of apps toying with the same notion, works independently of a person's platform," she wrote. "On web, mobile, PC, or tablet? No matter. It's just Facebook, so the experience stays the same and you can continue to get your news sections uninterrupted wherever you are."

In his March announcement of the Interest Lists, Faller noted users' ability to create lists not just for themselves but as a means to introduce others to new topics. So, once again, while the ways to do it may change-from Interest Lists to news apps to simple "share this" buttons on websites-people will continue to have the ability to tap into that desire they've always had-to turn others on to the things they enjoy. And it's a trait that long predates the internet.

"Facebook picks up on what people like to do, share, as they always have," Doctor says.

Zaleski agrees-there's a human element to sharing. "People share for emotional and personal reasons," she says. "News makes them laugh, and they want to make their friends laugh; news makes them concerned; news makes them feel informed, and they want to inform their friends." In other words, news producers are just tapping into the human urge to share the things they like with the people they know.

Mike Thompson ( is the editor of The Rivereast News Bulletin and a freelance journalist.
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Dow Jones & Co.
Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence
in Journalism
The Wall Street Journal
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