Should Facebook, Yahoo and Twitter really judge what's news?

Some new features show a growing interest in keeping users informed

By Zach Miners
Fri, December 06, 2013

IDG News Service (San Francisco Bureau) — Where did you first learn about Amazon's crazy plan to deliver packages via drone? "60 Minutes"? The New York Times? Increasingly, the answer is likely to be Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo, and that's just how the online giants like it.

Those companies aren't news providers in any traditional sense, but they're trying harder to become the go-to place where their users learn about current events. It opens up new streams of revenue for the companies, but some experts wonder what it will mean for how we consume news.

"Facebook's algorithms don't spring out of nowhere," said Jeremy Gilbert, who teaches media product design at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "Why does Google favor one source over another?"

They are not necessarily malevolent forces, but Internet companies' power to influence what citizens read and see -- and what they don't -- is becoming greater.

Over the past week, Facebook has revealed new features to make news articles appear more prominently on its site and to entice users to stay engaged. Last week the company said it was testing a way for users to save articles for future reading, in the manner of apps such as Pocket or Instapaper. This week it announced an update to its ranking system that will ensure people see more news articles in their feeds, based on things like their connections and what content they've looked at in the past.

Meanwhile, Yahoo has made some high-profile news hires, such as talk show host Katie Couric and The New York Times' David Pogue, in an effort to bolster its original news programming. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said Couric will lead a growing team of correspondents who will cover the world's most interesting stories and newsmakers.

These sorts of projects, along with other news-focused pursuits at Twitter, are meant to serve several purposes. Chief among them are keeping users active on the sites; growing advertising dollars; and, in Yahoo's case, adding a little bit of star power to a Silicon Valley company.

Some of their initiatives overlap more than others. Yahoo appears to be the most interested in creating its own news content, while Facebook, Twitter and Google seem more satisfied just to distribute it.

The effect is that Internet companies and the media have a symbiotic relationship: Social networking sites leverage the news to grow their advertising and users, while the media uses social sites to boost their own page views and ad dollars. Yahoo might become an exception now, as it decides whether to focus more on exclusive or on distributed content.

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