buzzfeed-legitimacy

In May, Facebook’s Product Director Mike Hudack ripped into the media for basically destroying journalism as we know it. This was done without a hint of irony or self-awareness, despite the fact that Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, so eager to serve up pat inspirational tales and shocking headlines with little substance behind them (not to mention lists and quizzes ad nauseam), has helped create that click-happy race-to-the-bottom culture in many newsrooms.

So I was intrigued when I saw a new report compiled by the social media data analytics company NewsWhip titled, “People Are Sharing More News Than Ever On Facebook.” Was I mistaken in thinking that Facebook had become a wasteland for serious news publishers? After all, the report states that for the 80 news outlets it measured, monthly total interactions (meaning likes, comments, and shares) increased from 393.6 million in January to 482.8 million in April. Furthermore, the number of news sites attracting more than 1 million Facebook interactions per month was only 14 in September 2012. As of May 2014, that number is up to 80. Maybe there’s a flaw in NewsWhip’s methodology? Nope, the math behind the study is simple arithmetic: Counting Facebook interactions.

So if Facebook is so great for news, what gives? Are all my Facebook friends just kind of dumb, only sharing linkbait, Buzzfeed quizzes, and Playbuzz quizzes?

It all depends on how you define “news.” And after looking more closely at the findings, NewsWhip’s definition goes far beyond breaking news, current events analysis, and investigative pieces. This isn’t journalism that’s being measured. It’s “content.”

Just look at the stories with the highest engagement numbers for each outlet measured. Buzzfeed’s top three stories in terms of monthly engagement were, predictably, all quizzes, with “What State Do You Actually Belong In?” taking the crown with over 3.7 million interactions. The only two other outlets measured that broke a million interactions were Upworthy and Huffington Post. Upworthy’s top story was a YouTube embed of “12 Years a Slave” Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o acceptance speech. Inspiring, but not exactly original — the speech was everywhere in the days following the show. Meanwhile, Huffington Post’s top story was a video of a beagle stealing chicken nuggets. That’s some truth to power right there.

It’s also telling to examine the highest performing topics. Music was the number one most-engaged-with topic, followed by Environment, Health, Arts, and Science. Curiously, the sub-topic known as “News” falls in the bottom five. (Wait, wasn’t the whole study supposed to be focused on news?) Meanwhile, Tech is the fifth least-engaged-with topic while Business ranks dead last. Pando clearly isn’t the biggest beneficiary of the Facebook content gold rush.

Looking at individual leaders in each category is also instructive. For newspapers, the scandalous Daily Mail beats the stately New York Times. In Sports, the glorified content farm Bleacher Report beats ESPN, which constantly breaks stories. Business Insider and the Verge top Business and Tech respectively, which suggests that a winning combination is lots of stories, most of them well-written but aggregated, with a not-insignificant amount of original analysis and reporting thrown into the mix. I’ll take it, but again Business and Tech rank far below most other categories when it comes to engagement.

Not that any of this should be surprising. But it’s important to note when reading studies like this that, “Facebook is great for news.” is not synonymous with “Facebook is great for journalism.” And while Facebook can point fingers at journalists for not doing their jobs, and journalists can point fingers at Facebook for prioritizing empty calories over robust reporting, at the end of the day readers will click on what they want to click. And when businesses, social networks and news organizations alike, rely too much on advertising for revenue, those clicks are sadly all that matter.

[Image adapted from thinkstock]