If social media were a person (go with us, here), it would now be a teenager. LinkedIn and Facebook were born in 2003 and 2004. Twitter, Snapchat, and the other youngsters are already big for their britches. Anyone older like Friendster didn’t survive puberty.
As most people with 14- and 15-year-olds will attest, this is about the point at which you step back and examine how well the adolescence is going and set new ground rules for what comes next.
Essentially that was the gist of reports from three Nordic media houses speaking to INMA’s Europeans News Media Conference in Amsterdam on Thursday. One has grounded Facebook. Another has mapped out plans for its various platforms to start taking life more seriously. And the third has decided to be the cool parent, encouraging its preteen Snapchat to explore its boundaries, under careful supervision, to see what it can accomplish.
Deciding to all but give up Facebook was a tough call for Nadia Nikolajeva, head of digital at TV Midtvest in Denmark.
“I’ve built my career around Facebook,” she said. “Facebook has made sure that I’m successful today. For many years I’ve been a true Facebook fan and a Facebook lover.”
But despite — maybe actually because of — how much Facebook dominated TV Midtvest’s online existence, Nikolajeva started to become increasingly uneasy with the relationship late last year.
So this past January, she called for a two-week companywide cold-turkey detox experiment, 14 days of doing absolutely nothing on or with the platform, to see how dependent they really were. No posting. No checking metrics. No interactions with the public. It didn’t matter when there was break news or when the company was launching some new initiative. Everyone had to use different channels.
“It was super super inconvenient,” Nikolajeva said in obvious understatement. “We agreed that we can’t be this addicted to Facebook. We must look into what would happen if we didn’t use Facebook.”
TV Midtvest lost 27% of its users over that period. “This is the number no one wants to have when it comes to Web site and digital numbers,” Nikolajeva said. “We were getting very nervous. What if no one comes to read our news again?”
But surprisingly, they dropped only 10% in Web site page views. “It turns out that the instability we had in our newsroom was the instability we had with Facebook,” Nikolajeva explained. “Facebook users who come from this stream of news in the feed sometimes spend mere seconds before they jump back out. And we never realised that before.”
Journalists missed conversing and engaging with readers through Facebook comments. “But we thought: Why don’t we have tools built on our Web site for doing that? Why are we relying on Facebook?” she said. Now TV Midtvest is looking into developing tools on its own system for polls and other things for which they previously used Facebook.
“Before this experiment, we used Facebook mindlessly. We did it because that’s what had worked for me for many years,” Nikolajeva said. “But after these results and all these eye-opening insights, we use Facebook mindfully. Everything we do is purposeful.”
Readers also came to some realisations, she said, such as the value and pleasure of selecting their own news to consume rather than depending only on what Facebook selected for them.
As a result of all this, Nikolajeva decided not to launch any Facebook projects in 2018. Instead, she and her team are putting their time and resources into developing a streaming app of their own that better suits their needs.
She now highly recommends other publishers carefully evaluate their relationship to Facebook and challenge themselves to do better: “Whether it’s your use of Facebook or another social platform, or your business model — I can really, really recommend to face your fear.”
Jens Pettersson, managing editor of Upsala Nya Tidning (NTM) in Sweden, is going in the other direction with Facebook after an irate reader — who happens to be his wife — complained about problems the newspaper was ignoring with the national railway system having overcrowded cars and always running late.
“We started thinking what can we do on this subject without having to hire a lot of new reporters,” Pettersson said.
In December 2017, the company launched a Facebook group focused on the railway issues. NTM used the group to publish information they uncovered about apparently disastrous changes made when a new ticket system was implement. And then they asked group members to use the platform to report on their experiences. The influx of pictures and stories was unprecedented.
“The reports from the people in this group were really terrifying,” Pettersson said. “The conditions were really, really bad.”
Over nine months, the Facebook group swelled to 1,635 members, 1,340 posts, 6,832 comments and 17,441 reactions, generating more than 75,000 Web site page views on the topic.
Members of the group were sharing articles faster than journalists could report them. The initiative garnered a lot of industry attention and awards for local news and engagement.
NTM has now launched a number of other topic-focused Facebook groups, on issues such as garbage and bicycles, although none yet match the runaway success of the railway group.
Jonathan Falk Systad, a video-journalist with Snapchat Discover at VG in Norway, said his media house was prompted into seeing where Snapchat could take them in part by a 19-year-old woman's extremely critical review of the newspaper's old-fashioned ways.
It struck a nerve.
“There’s a whole new generation coming after us that have totally different media habits,” Systad said.
To tap into that group. VG publishes a daily edition on Snapchat Discover focusing on news weekdays and feature stories on weekends. So far, it has grown to about 315,000 subscribers. The entire endeavour is intended to push the boundaries of what news coverage has meant before in VG.
It’s all very visual, Systad said: “What we tend to do is we try to use a balance between animation and pictures and text. We try to make something worth looking at and not just read.” It often incorporates animated text, selfie vids, and experimental design.
They also focus on short texts, he said: “This is by far the hardest one for us to do but it is oh so important. We try to present it in a more playful way.”
Sometimes a story is just one paragraph — called a notice — when it doesn’t really need more.
Sometimes a story is broken into a collection of little Snapchat posts that individually link to a poll or a video or something else interactive. “We tend to let the reader decide for himself or herself what they want to be immersed in,” Systad said.
Often a story gets boiled down into just six Snaps according to a format designed for engagement with brevity. “We want to be a balance between entertainment and education,” Systad said.
His primary advice for other media houses: “Don’t try to be something you’re not. What are we? Adult journalists. What are we not? Cool teenagers.”
“Snapchat will die someday, no doubt about it. And something new will come after it. The competence, the lessons we’ve learned now, doing this for some years, has given us a great advantage for when that time comes and that migration.”