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Social media – newspapers’ frenemy

Many newspapers rely on social media to drive traffic to their sites, yet recent initiatives by the social media giants suggest that they not only want to have their cake, but they want to eat it too. What should newspapers do? David Benady reports.

By David Benady

Newspapers are facing crunch time as they grapple for a slice of the future of news with social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Social media referrals are a vital source of web traffic for their news stories, with some estimates suggesting the main platforms account for over 40% of traffic, with Google News and Search also big referrers. The more that readers share, like and comment on stories, the bigger and more engaging those news brands become. The importance of social media is set to grow as people rely on their smartphones for more of their digital activity.

News brands are becoming dependent on the social media platforms for distribution, but equally, the platforms need the stories and articles from the news brands to build interest and keep users sharing, tweeting and updating.

This should make for a powerful and mutually beneficial partnership as the two progress to a glorious new future together. But some fear the tech giants are making all the running in this partnership and are looking to move in on newspapers’ turf and take control of their relationships with readers.

Land grab?

Tools such as Facebook Instant Articles, Google Accelerated Mobile Pages, Twitter Moments and Apple News - which help the tech companies direct users to news stories - suggest that the US giants are looking to become the primary distributors of news. The news brands could find themselves relegated to a subservient position in the relationship with readers, eventually taking a lower share of ad revenues and finding that their content becomes devalued, vying to stand out amongst the kitten videos and family snapshots.

At the Guardian, social and community editor Laura Oliver, says Facebook is by far the biggest referrer of traffic. “We have an incredibly powerful main brand page which we use to show off a range of all the journalism that the Guardian does and to try and get that in front of as much of the Facebook audience as possible,” she says. She accepts that social will be a crucial gateway for people accessing its content and that its main website may not always play a major role in the future.

“Treating the goal of all social activity as driving people back to our site just doesn’t fit the behaviour of some platforms and their users,” she says.

This raises some serious questions - such as how the news brand can reach and engage with people in their social environment and how this approach will change the nature of the Guardian’s journalism. And how will the audience change in this new world?

The Guardian is a partner in Facebook’s Instant Articles initiative, which many believe could set the direction for the future of news on social media. This allows Facebook’s mobile app users to click on stories and read them within the smartphone app, rather than having to clunkily click out to a newspaper mobile site. Launched in May, Instant Articles has partnered with top news brands such as the New York Times, Washington Post and the BBC, as well as the Guardian, which are experimenting with the service.

The advantage for publishers is that they get to keep all the ad revenue from advertising they have sold, and 70% of revenues from ads sold by Facebook. This helps publishers monetise mobile advertising, something they have struggled with.

Short term gain, long term pain?

However, some believe the initiative puts too much power in the hands of Facebook. Alice Aldridge, lead planner at social media agency Deep Focus London, says Instant Articles offers a quick way for publishers to boost their short-term ad revenues but in the long-term risks newspapers handing relationships with readers to the social media platforms. “They need to think more about who their audience are and how they can create more value for them,” she says, and adds: “They shouldn’t need to be dependent on the platforms to drive traffic, it is that shift of power, news media brands having more confidence in the trust they have built up over centuries and saying we have the best content, we are willing to show an angle on social media, but for a richer experience, you need to exchange directly with us.” Another fear is that Facebook will get its hands on the crucial data about readers, dwell times and what drives clicks that is seen as a potential goldmine for the future.

Other social media are also looking for ways to boost their standing as news providers. Twitter Moments is being tested in the US, essentially a human-curated Twitter feed featuring the best tweets about a breaking news story. Messaging app Snapchat has created the Discover platform for news and magazine stories. Google’s AMP offers mobile users news stories on mobile web pages which are stripped right back in order to speed up their loading times.

So this is an era of unprecedented experimentation for newspapers as they test out some of these new tools and adapt to a world of smartphone news consumption.

Newspapers divide into two groups. High circulation mid-market and tabloid papers tend to have lower followings on social media. But the papers with lower print circulations such as the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent are far stronger on social media. And social is of course harder for those with rigid paywalls such as the Times and Financial Times - only subscribers need click on social media links.

According to a study by social media monitoring firm Brandwatch, the Telegraph achieves amongst the highest engagement from social media users of any UK newspaper, even though it doesn’t have the highest numbers of Twitter followers or Facebook likes. This means its stories are retweeted, favourited, liked and commented on to a high degree, rather than users just clicking on links and reading the stories.

Telegraph tweeters

As Malcolm Coles, director of digital media at Telegraph Media Group, says: “The Telegraph has a very strong Twitter presence, with politics and news, and we expect people to respond to that and they have in large numbers.” He points to the Brandwatch study which shows the Guardian posts 2.7 times more content than the Telegraph, but the Telegraph’s social media audience is 1.2 times more active. He says this is testament to the quality of interaction from the Telegraph social media feeds. The Telegraph offers a variety of specialist digital sections, with football, sports and news amongst the most popular, with other sections such as TV, culture, arts and jazz. These generate their own social media activity. The paper also encourages individual journalists to build their own followings. “We have never had greater reach for our journalism than we have today, we are reaching different audiences than the paper has historically reached,” says Coles. About half of Telegraph web traffic is mobile and much of that is driven by social media referrals.

He says there is a “permanent” revolution at Telegraph Group as it tries out different ways of reaching readers - and it is interested in getting involved with Facebook Instant Articles. Coles accepts that social media referral does encourage a “drive by” mentality with readers. He says there is far greater engagement - and loyalty - for readers on the Telegraph app than for those who come in from a social media referral.

Mirror enjoys Facebook success

This spirit of experimentation is also very much alive at Trinity Mirror, where head of social media Heather Bowen says: “We are constantly looking at our analytics and trying new things to work out what type of posts are the most effective and then sharing more of these sorts of posts, as well as adapting the style of language etc to the platform and audience.” She claims the Mirror’s Facebook page gets the most interaction globally of any newspaper Facebook page, according to research from Newswhip.

The main question for newspaper publishers is how they fund high quality editorial in a world where traditional ad revenues are hard to come by.

With the rise of ad blockers on desktop and mobile, digital ad revenues are also under threat, though Facebook’s app is less vulnerable to ad blocking.

As Charlie Cottrell, head of editorial at social media agency We Are Social, says: “Through traditional media, ad revenues are increasingly difficult to generate so they are looking at different models to fund their editorial to keep it ticking over with the quality they want. The potential of Facebook or Apple is something that needs to get explored because it offers distribution and potential ad revenue. It’s a trade off - they lose their own data, which is very important to help them evolve, but they gain distribution and share of ad revenue from the news stream. It’s better than nothing.”

The situation has reached a turning point, according to James Lovejoy, the researcher at Brandwatch who wrote the report on newspapers’ social media presence. He says many millennials - young people - get all of their news from Twitter and Facebook. “It’s a scary thought. It already is a primary form of news for some people,” he says, adding: “I can’t see how that trend won’t continue to grow.” But he thinks there will be a limit to social media’s ability to distribute news. “When I consume news, I want to look at a page that tells me the most important thing happening in the world, rather than what my friends show me.”

Newspapers and social media platforms are locked together in a relationship of mutual dependence. But like most partnerships between profit-seeking businesses, this situation is unstable. If the social media platforms act as digital newsagents distributing the content of news brands, all well and good. But they may gain the upper hand in the relationship and become the gatekeepers to the news.