Tweetstorms are usually the work of one person, but what if you could bring other voices in too? That’s what The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and Chicago Tribune did this week: They worked together to tweet about the riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.
The threaded tweets linked back to the papers’ own coverage of the 50th anniversary of the assassination and how it affected their respective cities. Here’s the Post’s coverage, here’s the Sun’s, and here’s the Tribune’s.
Fifty years ago today, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in Memphis.
When word reached Washington, D.C., chaotic riots left 13 dead and more than 900 businesses damaged.
Baltimore would erupt two days later, and stay on edge for nearly a week. Its riots were blamed for six deaths and hundreds of injuries. More than 1,000 businesses were torched, damaged, looted or destroyed. https://t.co/eB8JWI5IUcpic.twitter.com/ywN7Je7e6y
The thread was the original idea of Tauhid Chappell, who until recently was an embedded audience editor on The Washington Post’s local desk (he’ll soon start a position as the engagement editor at the Philly Inquirer). The project was run by the Post’s Julie Vitkovskaya, digital operations/projects director, and Ric Sanchez, social media editor; the Tribune’s digital news editor Elizabeth Wolfe, and the Sun’s audience editor Steve Earley. In a shared Google doc, they planned out tweets, including the timestamps for roughly when each would go out. The first tweet was sent at 7:01 p.m. ET on April 4, almost exactly 50 years since King was pronounced dead and the riots began. The papers will continue to tweet for as long as the riots lasted in their cities: The Post will stop adding to the thread on April 7, the Tribune will add to it through April 8, and the Sun will add to the thread through April 14, when the Baltimore riots ended.
Vitkovskaya has been thinking about how a group tweet thread would work within the Post — for example, the Post’s main account could start tweeting about a story like the violence in Gaza, and then the Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Loveday Morris, could continue tweeting and reporting from Gaza itself over a period of several days. “We see this as a tool we’d like to use again,” she said.
The Facebook anguish continues. A Medium post investigating declining Facebook reach has set off the most recent alarm bells among publishers. Kurt Gessler, deputy editor for digital news at the Chicago Tribune, posted that since January, the Tribune has seen a significant drop in the reach of its posts on Facebook, despite having grown its fan base.
The post sparked a sigh of validation across publishers as others chimed in on social media that they’re seeing similar declines.
@kurtgessler This looks somewhat familiar to me as well. It’s not just you.
Facebook’s news feed algorithm changes have been part of publishing reality for many years. But to Matt Karolian, director of audience engagement at The Boston Globe, “last month was probably the worst we’ve had in reach in about a year. The fact everyone else is seeing it is a little bit troubling.”
Aysha Khan said Facebook reach has also been sliding at the Religion News Service, where she’s social media editor.
“Reach spiked in the summer, and we started hitting 15, 25K reach on bigger posts that were polarizing,” Khan said. “It wasn’t just political posts, but any kind of interviews. Anything that had potential to get a big reaction got a big reaction. But then we noticed that kind of stopped, and by January, it was just gone. Now we’re worse off than we were to start with.”
The change has happened even as RNS has been doing more video, including live video, and photos, things that Facebook has encouraged. Khan said RNS is still trying, though, with plans for more regularly scheduled live video and videos generally.
There are so many factors that go into how much reach a post gets, from the frequency of said posts to the subject matter to the levers Facebook is pushing, so theories about the declines abounded. One was that the decline was local to Chicago. Other publishers in other markets reported the same trend, though.
Brandon Doyle, CEO and founder of Wallaroo Media, a social media consulting firm, said he’s seen declining organic reach in the first quarter across about 20 publishers he tracks. He speculated that Facebook is suppressing publishers’ organic reach so publishers will spend more with Facebook to promote their posts. Facebook also could be in the middle of another algorithm tweak that it’s yet to announce publicly, he said.
Other popular theories were that Facebook’s preference for video over text posts and for publishers that are using its Instant Articles format over regular links is disadvantaging some. Facebook hasn’t responded to a request for comment.
Others wondered if reach is declining for some because people are getting tired of reading about politics (“I know people who have literally unliked all the news sources they used to follow pretty religiously — maybe Facebook is responding to that,” Khan said) or Trump is raising the bar for news.
Lifestyle sites offered some evidence of these theories. LittleThings has been pushing hard into video, and March was its second-highest traffic month of all time, which reflects continued strong Facebook referral traffic, said Joe Speiser, co-founder of LittleThings. (LittleThings also attributes some of its success to A/B testing on Facebook, a step he says many don’t do.) “Facebook’s made very clear video is a priority,” he said. “You can go through the feed yourself. Video is everywhere.”
Thrillist chief creative officer Ben Robinson said he thinks that Thrillist’s recent emphasis on video has helped lead to an all-time high in Facebook referrals, along with the adoption of Instant Articles. While a lack of political coverage hurt the site during the run-up to the election, he said it may be seeing the flip side of that now.
In a follow-up email, Gessler said he’s working with Facebook to try to figure out what’s going on, but that he didn’t think the decline was related to politics news burnout or the Cubs’ World Series win and post-series lull. The shift seems too big to just chalk up to stories’ subject matter, he said.
“Maybe it’s a little of everything,” he concluded in his post.
Whatever the reasons, the post brought a fresh round of soul-searching and hand-wringing over the hold Facebook has over publishers’ audience. “There’s a large segment of the population that gets most of its news from Facebook,” Karolian said. “If there’s been an overall decline in high-quality news that’s circulating on the platform, that is generally concerning from a philosophical standpoint.”
If it’s true that Facebook’s preference for video is a factor, few publishers are equipped make the switch to video, nor is it clear that they should try to make a hard shift to a medium they’re inexperienced in and which most publishers can’t monetize on Facebook anyway. And just doing more video perpetuates publishers’ dependence on Facebook, which can change its algorithm again at any time, as it’s done many times in the past.
To some, the issue points to the need for publishers to diversify their audience sources through search, direct traffic and newsletters, while others registered resignation.
“In my mind, we’re kind of at the mercy of the algorithm,” Khan said. “But there’s a lot of stories that are getting underwhelming responses that readers can’t even see. It is this constant thing, trying to figure out how to incorporate it into your workflow. At one point they were pushing images, and then they were pushing video, and live video. I don’t think it’ll ever stop.”
Starting in January of this year, we at the Chicago Tribune started to anecdotally see a fairly significant change in our post reach.
We weren’t seeing a huge difference in post consumption or daily average reach, but we were just seeing more misses than hits. At the Tribune, we have a fairly stable and predictable audience. We had around a half million fans at the end of March and have seen slow but steady growth in the last year. Most Facebook posts fell into the 25,000 to 50,000 reach range — with a few big successes and few spectacular failures each day, usually based on the quality of the content or the quality and creativity of the share.
But starting earlier this year, we started to see far more misses. And not reaches in the low 20,000’s but 4,000 reach or 6,000 reach. Digital Editor Randi Shaffer was one of the first to notice.
Some of our data looked fairly normal. Our average daily organic reach looks volatile but familiar. We used average daily because Facebook doesn’t give you monthly.
But, our per post metrics were falling. Our average organic post reach was on the decline, but not that far off a prior low of mid-2016.
Still, averages can be strongly affected by outliers. It was our median organic post reach that was far more revealing. Yes, we were on a downward trend — and that trend put us at record lows. The middle was falling precipitously. Our median post was being seen by fewer and fewer people, organically.
To try to get a handle on the nature of the issue, I decided to download 15 months of Facebook post data — no small feat since Insights only lets you grab 500 posts at a time. Then I merged the 30 csv files and sorted the organic post data into four buckets: less than 10,000 reach, 10,001–25,000, 25,001-50,000 and 50,001+. The results literally stunned me. The number of posts that fell into the category of lowest efficacy—the ones seen by the fewest number of people — was skyrocketing.
In December of 2016, we had only 8 posts with 10,000 reach or less. In January of 2017, that had grown to 80. In February, 159. And in March, a ridiculous 242 posts were seen by fewer than 10,000 people. And while late 2016 saw record lows in that lowest quartile, that 242 is far above any prior month in our dataset. And we were seeing a steady decrease in that 25,001 to 50,000 quartile. That had gone from 248 in January 2016 to 141 in March 2017.
What did this mean? In baseball terms, we were hitting far fewer doubles and we were striking out 1 every 3 times at the plate. Four months earlier, we struck out 1 of every 90 at-bats.
And it was happening despite solid growth on our Facebook page — which, logically, would translate to increased reach.
Yet many of our posts were seeing diminished organic reach despite picking up more than 130,000 Facebook fans.
So why could this be happening? Let’s look at some of the possible factors.
Increase in post frequency
One possible explanation is that during this period we slightly increased the number of posts per day. However, the rise was quite small and doesn’t coincide with the recent trend.
We went from roughly 20 posts per day to 24 posts per day. And however small that may look per day, that number adds up over time. In this timeframe, that represented a 25 percent increase in monthly posts.
However, Facebook’s formal guidance is 24 to 48 posts per day. And we looked at the cadence of 23 other newspaper Facebook pages and determined we were in the mid- to low-end. For the last six months, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (661,551 fans) posted 74 times per day and the Houston Chronicle (385,086 fans) 58. Big thanks to Digital Editor Elizabeth Wolfe for crunching these numbers with CrowdTangle to prove our normalcy.
While it may be unlikely that frequency is our culprit, it’s a change in behavior we have to consider.
And moving ahead, this may be more of an issue. NewsWhip in its dive into three years of social data directly recommended quality over quantity in its five primary takeaways: “Post fewer but quality content that delivers value to your audience’s lives.”
Content type mix
In addition to frequency, Facebook also has its optimal content mix — 50 percent links, 25 percent video and 25 percent photos. To be honest, we don’t come close to this. But neither does any media organization comparable to the Chicago Tribune. Of those same 23 newspaper Facebook pages we looked at, most were posting majority link content types in the last 6 months. USA Today had the lowest percentage of links at 78.14% and the Sun-Times the most at 99.28%. But in general, most newspapers were sharing links on their primary Facebook page around 90% to 95% of the time. So the Tribune, at 97.2%, was slightly high but not atypical.
And given that our content mix hasn’t changed substantially in the last 15 months, this would have to be a somewhat remote possibility.
Still, NewsWhip reported last year that links were seeing less engagement even as video was on the rise, however artificial. And we’re posting mostly links.
Facebook Instant Articles
Another factor could be our lack of Instant Article adoption. Our parent company has been circumspect in regards to Instant Articles. We’ve been testing Instant Articles, but we have yet to deploy them in Chicago. Given the changes announced last month, giving publishers a bit more control, I’m hopeful this will change.
But again, since we’ve not changed posting formats, this would seem an unlikely factor … unless the algorithm changed.
So what about that Facebook algorithm …
What I inevitably come back to is that something changed on Facebook’s side of the equation.
Given that I hope the Tribune passes muster for “authentic,” let’s focus on the second half. What exact signals are being used to determine what “timely” means? It purports to favor topics that are being discussed in real time.
For example, if your favorite soccer team just won a game, we might show you posts about the game higher up in News Feed because people are talking about it more broadly on Facebook.
So exactly how much reach lift is conferred by dovetailing with Facebook-defined trending topics? Conversely, does this punish topics not being discussed? Or did the Facebook real-time algorithm become more like Instagram’s, prioritizing content based on the volume of immediate comments, shares, likes and reactions—and squelching posts that are initially ignored? That could be “timely.”
So here we are. The data show that we are having the fewest number of our most successful posts and the most of our least successful at a time when our strategy hasn’t significantly changed and our fans have grown.
So, is anyone else experiencing this situation, and if so, does anyone know why and how to compensate? Because if 1 of 3 Facebook posts isn’t going to be surfaced by the algorithm to a significant degree, that would change how we play the game.