Facebook wants to be in the news business, so it needs journalists

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Here’s a completely unscientific experiment I tried today. I admit my algorithm may not quite be up to the standards that tech companies such as Facebook demand but, well, maths is not my strong suit.

I have become fascinated by those companies’ sudden and urgent desire to behave with more journalistic nous, agility and integrity. Particularly of Facebook, and the enormous power it wields to shape the news with its website, Paper app and unique data analysis of its users.

With such power comes great responsibility. Yet it seems Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to usurp traditional media companies and become the direct broker of information to billions of potential readers has hit a stumbling block.

According to recent reports, Facebook routinely ensures that its recommended news stories carry a left-wing bias.

The “Trending Topics” sidebar excludes stories that might appeal to right-wing readers because the site’s “curators” are encouraged, it is alleged, to leverage bias in their story choice. In much the same way then as every single editor on the planet ensures that the bias of their readers and users is satiated.

Personally, I’m not much interested in the so-called bias row, which, incidentally, Facebook denies. (The company says: “Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to discriminate against sources of any political origin, period.”)

But If it wants to be a publisher, or a curator of other people’s content, then the more identity it can give to its output the greater the influence it will have on users.

Middle-of-the-road blandness does not make for captivating content, so exhibiting bias and attitude can be very powerful tools.

What interests me is that Facebook, and others, have decided that journalism – or the skills that journalists have developed and honed through their decades of hard work and professionalism – might not be as archaic as they once perceived them to be.

If the geeks really are to inherit the earth, then they need to learn how to write headlines too.

Zuckerberg and his key executives are – at least this is the claim – employing more journalists than ever, training them in how to spot and write a story, how to bring meaning to content and use mysterious ancient techniques such as grammar and spelling to enthral users.

Wonderful news for all those journalists looking to reinvent themselves, find new jobs or start on the path to what I can promise is an enriching and satisfyingly unpredictable career.

So I went on to LinkedIn – where else? – and searched for all those Facebook employees in the UK who have some experience of “writing and editing”. There are 815 Facebook employees on LinkedIn and I found only one who boasts of possessing those skills – she’s a “content strategist”.

I did say this was unscientific so perhaps there are loads of editorial employees who don’t have a LinkedIn profile or perhaps haven’t updated it, or may even be freelancers so will be missed by my crude search terms. Or perhaps I used the wrong methodology.

So I then searched under “online media”. There are 73 staff members that LinkedIn lists under this “skill” – people who work in “customer immersion”, “demand”, “brand partnerships” and “auction dynamics”. Perhaps I need to update my CV.

Of course, this is just the UK. Facebook’s content strategy must be far more advanced over the pond.

So I did the same thing with American Facebook employees, all 10,344 of them according to LinkedIn. And 175 of them are editors or writers, just over a third of whom have more than 10 years’ experience.

Curators, strategy directors, copywriters, storytellers, SEO specialists and – heavens above – even a few who proudly call themselves journalists.

So 1.6% of Facebook’s workforce are, according to LinkedIn, editorially-skilled.

Again, my search technique is deeply flawed. There could be plenty more out there who refuse to use LinkedIn.

But it’s still a useful measurement of how serious a company is in attempting to become an expert in a field which it believes is crucial to the overall health of the business.

Facebook wants to be the world’s biggest publisher and source of news, a place where journalism can thrive, new recruits trained and skills honed.

Yet in America it employs the same number of editorially-skilled people as an averagely-sized national newspaper that has been forced to make significant cuts to combat the rise of free digital content.

And in the UK – according to LinkedIn – it employs one writer.

If technology companies like Facebook are truly seeking to invest in content and utilise the skills of those who live and breathe it, then instead of recruiting from within they need to widen their talent-search.

They need to find people who know how to connect with audiences, whose gut instincts can identify absorbing from dull, who understand the power of emotional manipulation, who appreciate that information is not just a commodity but a means of enlightenment, who believe insight and meaning are as important as clickbait and bias.

In short, they need journalists.

Grant Feller is a journalist, media consultant and director of G-F Media

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