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BBC eyes new opportunities with Facebook where it has become the world’s biggest news outlet

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.

The BBC's newsroom in London / Michal Bělka, Wikimedia Commons

BBC News's social media chief says Facebook’s highly-controversial recent changes to its algorithm could potentially benefit the BBC with “strategic opportunities” to increase its profile worldwide.

The algorithm change has downgraded news in Facebook user feeds, in favour of content from friends and family, and has been widely condemned by publishers. But Mark Frankel, the BBC News social media editor, says the development is “not necessarily a bad news story” for the BBC, which he suggests can become even more prominent on the social platform at the expense of less trustworthy sources. Some of Facebook’s reasoning for the change is “music to my ears”, he says.

BBC News has built a vast following on Facebook after merging its page with a BBC World News page two years ago. “It has been going up every month and is now 46 million in total subscribers which is the largest news page and total fanbase of any news organisation in the world,” Frankel points out. CNN’s audience on the platform is 30 million, while Fox News has 16 million.

In a long interview with The Drum outlining the BBC’s strategy on social platforms, Frankel identifies a “significant” and growing trend whereby social media users are abandoning public platforms and taking refuge in more private discussions within WhatsApp groups, Reddit communities and other peer-to-peer forums. The pattern is “gaining momentum” and represents a response to online trolling and abuse, he says, and constitutes a challenge to news organisations in being party to closed discussions which are often “very valuable and interesting”.

Frankel oversees a ‘social news’ team of six producers and an assistant editor, which sits alongside the ranks of BBC online journalists in the BBC’s main newsroom in the basement of New Broadcasting House in London. Its work is focused on the BBC News pages on Facebook and Instagram and a trio of accounts on Twitter (@BBCBreaking, UK-focused @BBCNews and @BBCWorld).

Further social media producers based in Singapore, Toronto and Washington

DC keep the operation going around the clock.

Facebook algorithm changes 'not the end of the world'

The Facebook page is clearly the most significant and Frankel says his priority is to ensure that its licence fee-funded content is recognised by users as coming from the BBC and not from Mark Zuckerberg’s $527bn behemoth. Numerous studies have highlighted how social media users struggle to recollect the sources of content they have consumed. “The biggest challenge is actually an attribution one,” he says. “What counts the most is that [audiences] recognise the BBC as a destination in its own right and when they see content that we have produced and positioned on a Facebook page not as something from Facebook but see it as the BBC.”

Facebook and other social platforms are assisting the BBC in improving the consistency of its branding. The BBC’s wide portfolio of programme and channel brands have also been told to use a “similar template”, Frankel says. “You have the BBC ‘dog’ (corporate logo) in the top left hand corner, there is an ‘ident’ in the first few seconds, subtitling and captioning that is consistent, and the red from BBC News travels within the video and is at the end board.”

He acknowledges that some of the Facebook controversies affecting commercial news publishers – who claim they are not being adequately rewarded financially for their content – have given him reason for worry. Outside of the UK, the BBC looks to generate revenue from advertising to support its programme budgets, he points out. “I wouldn't say that I am not concerned about some of the things that are happening.”

But he will not accept that Facebook’s changes to its news feed are “the end of the world scenario that I have seen written up in many publications over recent weeks,” he says. “I think for a number of reasons, potentially – and I underline the word potentially – there are strategic opportunities here.”

While Frankel says the BBC has not been immune to the news feed changes and that “all publishers and broadcasters have seen a dampening of organic reach”, he adds that the BBC content that is making it through to Facebook users is being more enthusiastically received. “There’s clearly less of our content that is being surfaced to people in news feed but if you look at the content that is appearing… people are enjoying it, responding to it and passing it on to their friends. In many ways we have seen an increase and uplift in engagement.”

Trusted news brands could enjoy a greater prominence than has been possible amid the tsunami of news and fake news that has characterised social media in recent years. “A number of us in the industry have been talking about the volume of disruption and fakery and false information that circulates in social media and why social media companies can’t do more to tackle it. You get a company (Facebook) sticking its neck above the parapet and saying ‘We want to do something here’….and it’s a little bit rich for us all to clamour about how this might affect the visibility of our content,” Frankel says. He is encouraged that publishers which can generate “meaningful interactions, trustworthy content and quality journalism” will be prioritised by Facebook. “Frankly that’s music to my ears as a journalist who feels very strongly that I want to see more content of a higher quality being read and visible in people’s news feed.”

It is Facebook’s sister platform, Instagram, that has recently provided the BBC with its most obvious growth in traction. What began two years ago as an experimental platform for 15-second “Insta Facts” clips produced by the DigiHub unit in the BBC World Service has now developed into a fully-fledged news channel with 4.8 million followers.

BBC Insta stories typically generate hundreds of thousands of reactions. A piece this week on a "Transgender Beauty Queen" provoked over 400,000 views and more than 1,300 comments.

“We have noticed that the videos we publish there are being watched by a much larger number than a year ago,“ Frankel says. “We were under-serving Instagram and publishing once or twice a day but not really spending time thinking about content in a deeper sense. Instagram has added new functionality, for example the ability to hyperlink in live stories, and tag in different ways, and that has coincided with our desire to use the platform more.”

It helps that high proportions of Insta users are young and female. "That’s a strategic objective within BBC News,” he says.

'The death of Twitter has been exaggerated'

Recently in this column the chief executive of Bloomberg, Justin Smith, identified Twitter as the world’s leading platform for news (Bloomberg has partnered with the social platform to launch TicToc, a news network bespoke for Twitter). The BBC has 37 million followers for its @BBCBreaking account (less than the 54 million who follow the CNN equivalent) and a further 22.8 million on @BBCWorld and 9.26 million tracking its UK-focused @BBCNews. Then there are its many high-profile journalists such as Andrew Neil (780,000 followers), Laura Kuenssberg (778,000) and Evan Davis (493,000).

“As a news organisation with thousands of journalists, all of whom are clamouring for attention on their stories, Twitter retains a big importance in what we do,” says Frankel. “I have always felt that the death of Twitter has ben exaggerated and it was never in as parlous state as people claimed it to be – if you have an ecosystem so populated by opinion formers it’s difficult to see it ever fading away because it’s integral to them being able to amplify their message.”

That said, he feels that Twitter does not match Facebook for connecting with the public, which is the BBC’s first responsibility. “An over-reliance on Twitter can present a challenge to journalists because they are imagining that their content is spreading faster than it actually is to the audiences they are trying to serve,” he says. “Effectively it’s just being widely discussed by more and more journalists, politicians and business folk, and I think there’s a bit of an echo chamber there.”

The BBC’s job is to put its content before “the largest possible audience, rather than by a number of politicians at Westminster or opinion formers across the world”.

Five years ago the social news team had Google+ as one of its key platforms. Frankel says that platform “ground to a halt”, although BBC News has a channel on Google’s YouTube with more than 2 million subscribers. That channel is a “big international opportunity” for the BBC to put its content before audiences in countries where it finds it hard to penetrate the local TV market.

Sky News and emerging news providers such as NowThis have enjoyed success reaching young audiences on Snapchat but the BBC has yet to win a position on the platform’s Discover roster. Without a berth on Discover, the BBC would have to invest heavily in building an organic channel that currently has only 3,000 followers. “I am very open to working with Snap in a bigger way,” says Frankel. “But it would be need to be in a way that works for both of us so that the resource commitment at our end matched the opportunity they were providing within their own platform.”

This is an area of media that is evolving at bewildering speed. Frankel says the BBC is looking at voice-activated services such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home and trying to respond to technological changes which could mean that social interaction will cease to involve a keyboard at all. “We want to be at the forefront of some of those opportunities because if you fast forward the clock five years or ten years, who knows? People could be looking at a wall and seeing news or speaking at a device in their living room and getting a whole series of different opportunities.”

In the summer he is off to undertake a project at Harvard, examining social media communities that operate in “invite-only closed spaces where journalists often find it difficult to communicate”.

This desire for a more private social media is a “growing quite significantly” according to Frankel. “People are much more drawn to spending more time in those spaces than in those public platforms and spaces that they once inhabited”.

Trolling and abuse on Facebook and Twitter are driving conversations underground, he says. “As the platforms have grown, so have the numbers of people there not just to enjoy them for what they were meant to be for but to take advantage of and abuse others. It has become a very disruptive environment for a lot of people and for a lot of very right-minded people.”

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

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