What Facebook’s timeline changes really mean for Australia’s publishers

Facebook’s news feed is being altered to show people more content from friends. Share Wars author Andrew Hunter looks at the threats and opportunities this poses for publishers.

Facebook’s news feed is a zero-sum environment. If your friends’ content is winning, someone else is losing. It might be that news brand you Like.


Andrew Hunter

The size of these losses will not be known for a while. But with Facebook driving between 30-50% of audience to news sites, tens of millions of dollars in annual advertising revenue could be at stake, just across the major news brands.

Nielsen’s July News site rankings will also be interesting. Publishers with a greater exposure to Facebook could lose out in total audience. Careers are made and broken on those numbers.

News of the changes came in a pair of posts last week from Facebook’s Adam Mosseri and Lars Backstrom.

Mosseri confirmed Facebook's news feed algorithm is always under construction

Mosseri confirmed Facebook’s news feed algorithm is always under construction

Mosseri confirmed what had long been suspected about the news feed: its algorithm is always under construction. Dials are constantly being tweaked with the aim of engaging users for longer in the content flow.

That’s why Facebook’s news feed has always favoured nimble publishers attuned to social signals.

As you can see from the most-shared Top 10 at the bottom of this article, Buzzfeed knows what they’re doing. Keep an eye on them in these uncertain times as past performance suggests they will thrive in future versions of the news feed.

Mosseri and Backstrom’s posts can be taken as a set of entrails to sift through rather than a strict rulebook for publishers. To Facebook’s credit, they mark a new level of transparency about the philosophy driving the content rankings in what has become the “front page” for hundreds of millions of people.

It’s no accident that one of the prominent news feed values is titled ‘A Platform for All Ideas’. Facebook wants it known that it does not favour “specific kinds of sources — or ideas” in the wake of accusations of left-wing/progressive bias.

facebook tab on mobile

The posts also indicate that tactics such as publishing native video will no longer drive extra reach.

Spam and content that disappoints or misleads (sharebait) are put on notice. But don’t expect Facebook’s product managers to make personal judgments about bad content. They’ll be relying on user feedback – including signals such as the “unfollow” and “hide” buttons – to separate the good from the ungood.

To get cut-through, news brands will need to have readers initially sharing from article-page tools or pasting the url into their feed. Posting 10 stories a day onto your brand’s Facebook Page will be less effective.

Again this direction should favour Buzzfeed as well as local players such as Junkee and Fairfax’s Daily Life, publishers that already create edgy and opinionated stories targeting groups of passionate people (such as parents of young children or opponents of Sydney’s lockout laws).

Junkee Media

But what does this mean for the quality of content or the viability of the news feed as a genuine source of news?

My preferred definition for quality is “fitness for purpose”. Does the content do what it’s supposed to? Quality content in this context will always deliver on its promise. It will contain fewer grammatical errors and other mistakes. By that yardstick, the upcoming changes should improve content quality in the news feed, particularly if sharebait and spam are extinguished.

The greater issue is the echo chamber. Tech companies love personalisation. A tailored experience improves engagement and user satisfaction (until someone misses an important story). Big media businesses are all about the mainstream: here’s a whole lot of news you need to know about in order to understand your world. The two concepts are opposing forces in the Facebook news feed and the latest pronouncements from Menlo Park make it clear that personalisation trumps serendipity.

This idea is unsettling for journalists. And it’s directly linked to the much larger existential tension with the platform companies: the question of who owns the audience.

Supposing we cannot solve this issue now – or that the issue is already moot – what can publishers do to give their stories the best chance against the imminent onslaught of baby photos?

Facebook’s advice is to build shareability into the content: make the stories themselves shareable.

It is this particular problem that my co-authors, Hal Crawford and Dom Filipovic, and I have been working on for several years.

The positive here is that some traditional news values drive sharing. People will share stories that are novel, surprising and about issues they care deeply about.

We don’t claim to have a formula for this. But after analysing the sharing of millions of news articles, we’ve developed a framework for editors to parse story ideas by shareability.

This is what we call our Newsbreaking/Inspiring/Teaming (NIT) categorisation.

Dear old NIT might not the most memorable acronym but it does an important job for us. It helps classify content for shareability by answering the question, “What is the reader trying to achieve by sharing this story?”

Here’s how it breaks down:


People share to inform their network and to be first with the news. Classic Newsbreaking topics are the death of a celebrity (particularly one such as Prince, who defines an era for a demographic), details of an earthquake and warnings (don’t eat bagged lettuce leaves due to listeria risk). We think Newsbreaking accounts for about 20% of sharing.


These are stories that provoke awe in the reader. Examples include the description of strange natural events, heart-melting moments, animals behaving like humans or normal people doing amazing things. Inspiring stories contribute about 20% of news sharing.


Teaming is sharing by people taking a stand on issues and using news to show their network what they value. It’s about approving of – but more often disapproving of – other people. It is sharing a story to judge. Recent teaming topics include anti-vaccination, gay marriage, racism, Brexit and support for Australian dairy farmers. In-jokes are also classified as Teaming. Teaming drives the majority of news sharing, roughly 60%.

Using our Likeable Engine software, we tracked more than 100,000 Australian stories from news sites in May, 2016.

Following are the 10 most-shared stories on Facebook during that period with our Newsbreaking/Inspiring/Teaming designation assigned.

Top 10 most-shared Australian stories on Facebook, May 2016 *


Source Story title NIT category
  1. Brisbane Times
Queensland town for sale for $750,000 Inspiring
2. Business Insider An American expat explains the Adam Goodes controversy … Teaming
3. Business Insider A Queensland restaurant has banned children under 7 after a mother told the owner to ‘f*** off’ Teaming
4. BuzzFeed 23 Subtle Ways To Cover Your Home In Harry Potter Teaming
5. BuzzFeed 17 Times Ryan Reynolds Perfectly Summed Up Parenting Teaming
6. ABC News Facebook support for branded milk goes viral Teaming
7. BuzzFeed Finding Dory Might Include Disney Pixar’s First Lesbian Couple Teaming
8. 9News Perth parents of quintuplets release first photoshoot of newborns Inspiring
9. BuzzFeed Taylor Swift Seems To Slowly Be Morphing Into Jenny Humphrey Teaming
10. The Guardian Climate change Australia scrubbed from UN report after government intervention Teaming

* The first Newsbreaking entry came in at No.24, ‘Australia’s oldest man dies peacefully in his nursing home aged 110’ (Daily Mail).

Andrew Hunter is a co-founder of Share Wars. The Share Wars book All Your Friends Like This – How Social Networks Took Over News is out now, published by Harper Collins. He is also market lead for MSN Australia.


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