How a 171-year-old news agency is the hidden mainstay of news on Facebook

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

New research reveals that the bedrock of journalism on Facebook is far more stable than one might have thought of a news environment stigmatised by rampant clickbait and fake stories.

It turns out that the biggest provider of stories by far on the world’s biggest social media platform is the world’s oldest news agency, Associated Press.

A study by news analytics company NewsWhip found that the AP – set up in 1846 by a group of New York dailies to provide coverage of the Mexican-American War – is generating almost 35m engagements a month on Facebook, a fact disguised by the agency’s comparative anonymity, masked by the brands of its members and clients in the news industry. This huge number of engagements (likes, comments etc) can’t be matched by any single news publisher, even the phenomenal Mail Online, which currently leads the chasing pack with 27m interactions.

The AP’s most popular content is its breaking news, its political coverage, and its celebrity and “odd” stories.

In an interview with The Drum, the AP’s global news manager Mark Davies admits that the scale of AP’s contribution to news on Facebook came as a surprise, even to him. “I had a gut feeling that we would be somewhere in the top 20 but we were quite surprised to see that actually we came out as number one,” he says. “I think it’s very reassuring that very accurate, unbiased reporting is still driving engagement and obviously stimulating debate on social platforms.”

In the midst of the fake news debate, and fears that voters are being misled by lies and propaganda masquerading as journalism, these are significant findings. But the picture is more nuanced than the comforting idea that Facebook users are largely basing their opinions on facts professionally compiled by a venerable news wire with an adherence to balanced reporting.

Virtues meet virality

Patterns of news consumption are in flux.

Headlines have never been as important as they are now in this mobile-first media era, and every client of the AP can create its own alluring title for the same agency article. Thus a piece on a new book about millennials that carried the original AP headline “New book urges parents to reorder life for the sake of the kids” was repositioned by the Miami Herald publisher, McClatchy Group, to the more judgmental “Why kids today are out of shape, disrespectful – and in charge.” The revised headline was a viral hit, earning 330,000 social interactions across McClatchy’s portfolio of titles.

AP understands that this is how contemporary audiences engage with news. The agency, while maintaining its age-old reporting practices, is determined to respond quickly to changes in news consumption by investing heavily in data analytics and automated news gathering.

Social media is inevitably affecting the way that publishers behave in selecting stories from AP’s wire. News editors will be drawn to headlines that suggest a piece will be widely shared and drive traffic numbers. So AP, which is primarily a B2B business, increasingly tinkers with its own headlines to grab the attention of the professional journalists in its client base.

Thus, the rather staid “At Afghanistan’s brick kilns, debt can last generations”, was transformed into “Brick workers enslaved for life as Afghan warlords profit”. The result was a 114% uplift in customer use of the story. Similarly, an immigration story originally headlined “Identifying body No. 421, pulled from migrant shipwreck”, had a 102% increase in customer use after being given the catchier title “Shipwreck CSI: Identifying the victims of the migrant crisis”.

But Davies says that the agency remains mindful not to oversell its journalism with exaggerated headlines. “We will never be in the business of clickbait and we are very strict about that,” he says. “If we can see a way of making a headline more engaging, or doing something that works on mobile - because so much consumption now is on mobile and you don’t get a second chance with a headline - it’s got to be clear and it’s got to be concise and that’s where we are always looking at making improvements.”

AP operates from 263 bureau locations in 106 countries. It claims that half the world’s population sees its content ever day. These days it is also a consumer-facing news publisher with 14.8m downloads of its news apps and 1.38bn page views of its content last year. It also scored 2.6bn views of its video content, which is of growing importance. AP made 47% of its revenue from television clients last year, and 10% from digital native publishers, with a relatively small 23% coming from its traditional newspaper customer base.

Davies says that it has long used Teletrax analytics to monitor the “story arc” of how customers and audiences engage with its video content and that the NewsWhip data is enabling it to apply similar tests to written stories.

Data is shaping disaster reporting

One of the key findings to emerge from this “qualitative approach” to studying content use is that audience engagement with big disaster stories is not as enduring as it used to be. The immediacy of news in a social media environment means that users quickly digest the initial facts and then expect the narrative to move on. This understanding is having a significant effect on how AP allocates resources to a big breaking story. “The interest in a story drops off far more rapidly than we perhaps expected,” says Davies. “When there is a major breaking story you throw a lot of resources at it but we could actually see in some cases it was smart to pull resources out because interest in the story was dropping quicker than we thought.”

I’m sure that AP’s response to Hurricane Harvey’s flooding of Houston, will have included an immediate decision to plan for third day coverage of the disaster by focusing on the human interest angles which Davies says audiences now crave on stories ranging from natural disasters to major terrorist incidents. “From day three onwards… the interest switches to the more human elements, be it those affected by the incident or [us] telling the story of the incident through the eyes of one or two players. We have actually seen the shifting interest and that allows us to cover the story better for our customers.”

This provision of “compelling human reporting and personal stories” remains part of AP’s neutral approach to the news, Davies argues. “People can relate to those stories particularly when it helps them to make their own viewpoint on an issue - we are not giving them opinion, we are giving them the facts.”

The recent white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, provoked waves of media coverage, from traditional new outlets and partisan websites alike. A separate NewsWhip study of engagements on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest, found that the Charlottesville news story that provoked the most social media interactions was a Chicago Tribune piece lifted directly from the AP wire and carrying the original AP headline: “Trump blames ‘many sides’ after violent white supremacist rally in Virginia”. (Only one piece from outside the mainstream media, a viral blog from Republican commentator Allen B. West, out-performed that Tribune article).

Of course, AP’s clients often don’t stick to the original headlines. News publishers have long been accustomed to taking agency copy and presenting it in a way that suits their political agendas. Davies warns that there are strict limitations on this. “We have a broad range of customers and, within our terms of use, they cannot distort or misquote our reporting, and if we do see instances of that we will definitely follow it up with the publisher,” he says.

The AP produces a lot of news. The NewsWhip study found that AP’s 30m-plus monthly Facebook engagements were coming from between 1.25m-1.35m content matches detected each month. Two-thirds of the Top 10 Facebook publishers are AP members or clients.

But, as Davies points out, the AP is only one of several major global news agencies, all of which are now generating journalism intended for social media. “When you think of Reuters, AFP (Agence France Press) and Bloomberg, all out there with very big operations, I think that if you could survey the overall impact of news agencies on engagement on social platforms around the world I think you would come up with an exponentially larger figure,” he says.

“That really would be eye opening.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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