Wednesday, February 10, 2010

As Facebook Turns Six, Reporters Mixed on Its Role for Journalism

Editor’s note: In order to test Facebook’s influence on local journalism, the Gordon College News Service conducted all of the research and all but one interview for this article over the social media site.

By Alysa Obert
Gordon College News Service
February 10, 2010

Dan MacAlpine, veteran journalist and editor of the Ipswich Chronicle on Boston’s North Shore, initially hoped to wait out the Facebook craze. He figured it was going to be “just another AOL” and wasn’t convinced that it would last. So he decided not to put too much time into it.


There were also the moral, ethical and just awkward obstacles to overcome for MacAlpine as an editor. “There is so much ambiguity with web laws right now and I didn’t want to get caught in them,” he said. “Besides there’s the awkward aspect of, oh, ‘my aunt is on Facebook but she’s not going to friend me’ stuff.”

But just this week MacAlpine decided to create a Facebook page for his newspaper. What caused the change?
“The traffic that a Facebook site creates,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

MacAlpine is not the first to resist and then succumb to Facebook’s influence on journalism. WGBH of Boston, WERS of Emerson College, the Salem News, and the Hamilton Wenham Chronicle all use Facebook as a place where tech-savvy readers can “read all about it.” As the social media site celebrates its sixth birthday, its presence has extended to, if not caused, the changing face of the newsroom, leading some to wonder if it is social media’s version of the Associated Press.

Many stories are found and told through the site. For instance, in December Jaho Coffee of Salem, MA, introduced another one of its experimental drinks, a Tiramisu latte. While the drink was made at the shop, its presence was made known on Facebook. In fact, Jaho’s Facebook page has 984 followers and the story was “picked up” by countless “friends.”

Jaho is not the only one sharing news on Facebook. WGBH of Boston has 2,000 followers, and Nick’s Famous Roast Beef in Beverly, MA, connects hundreds of aficionados sending their praises from places as distant as Chicago. So MacAlpine’s motive for more readership traffic may be an understatement.

The Atlantic Monthly reported that in December of 2009 alone Facebook received 193 billion page views, almost as much as Yahoo and MSN combined. More important than an impressive statistic is what this says about how readers get their news.

In a Facebook interview with GCNS, Derek Thompson online editor and blogger for The Atlantic Monthly, said, “Facebook is a raft. Journalists are always trying to find out how to report stories and share them in new and exciting ways. Facebook is one such way.”

But Thompson also suggests there is a negative side to Facebook’s news for reporters and readers.

“Relying on Facebook as a newspaper substitute is dangerous,” said Thompson. “Friends are reading what their friends are reading, who are reading what their friends are reading, and so on.”

Getting news through neighborhood gossip is not a new concept, but some suggest that the set up of Facebook worsens the problem exponentially.

Information becomes splintered through the comment sections and discussion boards. Though they can generate story ideas, people often read comments alone and not the articles. “That is, a bit like being in a restaurant and drinking the sauce around the chicken you ordered,” said Thompson. “Don't pretend you had the chicken just because you had the chicken reduction.”

While Facebook has the potential to further enmesh the circles we run in, it provides a larger readership if only in that circle. “If a friend posts my column on Facebook more people will read it,” said Thompson. “So it’s good for me.”

As to Facebook’s influence on the news, time will tell whether it is a facelift or a face plant. 

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