Facebook Tampers With Gears of Journalism, Ex-Curators Charge

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Facebook hired promising journalists in their 20s and early 30s to work on its secretive trending news project but did not treat them -- or journalism -- well, according to a recent Gizmodo report based on interviews with ex-curators.

The curators served as training modules for Facebook's algorithm, they said. They selected trending news, and decided which news sites each chosen topic would link to.

With more than 1.5 billion users worldwide, Facebook is a potent force for distributing content, and the question an uneasy media industry increasingly is asking itself is whether this is the new face of journalism.

The issues have gained increasing importance of late.

Sixty-three percent of Twitter and Facebook users who participated in a recent Pew survey said they got their news from those platforms. That was up from 52 percent for Twitter and 47 percent for Facebook in 2013.

Facebook has a secretive, imperious culture, according to the disgruntled curators -- all of whom were hired as contractors through third-party companies.

They were treated as disposable outsiders, housed in a conference room for two and a half months, and it was clear that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg could kill the project at any time, they told Gizmodo.

They received some benefits, including limited medical insurance, paid time off after six months, and transit reimbursement. However, they apparently felt they were not part of Facebook's culture, as they were excluded from company perks, such as a happy hour held at 8 p.m.

The curators had to read through a list of trending topics ranked by Facebook's algorithm; determine the news those topics were related to; write headlines for each topic and a three-sentence summary of the linked news story; and select an image or Facebook video to attach to the topic.

Curators could deactivate or blacklist trending topics, mainly if they didn't have at least three traditional news sources covering it.

Curators generally had to write 20 posts a day, and were timed on how long they took. Facebook reportedly tried to foster competition among the curators to speed up their work.

Some readers evinced little sympathy for the curators' complaints:

"There are analogs at other businesses where there can be an excessive use of temp workers to fill roles critical to a project with skills undervalued by the executive management of the firm," noted Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the .

Fears that Facebook may be taking over the media may not be well founded. Like Google News, Facebook is essentially a news aggregator.

Facebook sends more mobile readers to news sites, by far, than any other online social network, according to a Pew Research analysis of nearly 75,000 articles from 30 news sites.

It sends 82 percent of the social traffic to longer stories, and 84 percent of the social traffic to shorter news articles.

"Because we are nonpartisan and nonadvocacy, we ... can't speculate about whether Facebook's actions are good or bad for journalism, or whether others should use Facebook's model," Pew spokesperson Rachel Weisel told the E-Commerce Times.

News aggregators "make money by summarizing original content without, in most cases, paying for that content, helping put massive revenue and margin pressure on the organizations that produce the original content" Enderle told the E-Commerce Times.

"If those sites fail, the sources aggregators are summarizing will evaporate, but they won't have the budget to replace them," he pointed out. Publishers "need to find a way to better ensure their unique content is fully monetized and not as easily taken by services like Facebook and Google."

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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