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Feb. 22, 2018, 12:20 p.m.
Audience & Social

This TV station took a “marvelous” Facebook fast — and thinks other media companies should too

“What we took away was that we can easily live without Facebook.”

“It felt like a spa vacation.”

Many publishers are uncomfortable with their dependence on Facebook for traffic, particularly in light of recent changes to Facebook’s algorithm that deprioritize news. But that discomfort almost never extends to actually leaving the platform. Readers are still there, the line of argument tends to go — what would be the point of leaving? News companies aren’t going to leave en masse, so an individual news organization leaving won’t put a dent in the giant platform’s power.

Still, maybe you never know how you’ll feel until you try. Not everybody is going to be Brazil’s Folha de São Paulo, which in early February announced it was getting off the platform completely. But more of us could be like the Danish regional TV station TV Midtvest, which for the last two weeks of January did the company equivalent of deleting the Facebook app from your phone and took a 15-day Facebook break.

Spoiler: It was so great that Nadia Nikolajeva, the digital director at TV Midtvest, compared the two-weeks to going to a spa and also called them “marvelous,” “exciting,” and “eye-opening.”

Nikolajeva pushed for the break not only out of frustration with Facebook, but primarily because she wanted to get data about what it would look like. “I wanted it to hurt a little bit,” she said. “One week is super easy, but if we only made it one week, we would not get enough interesting data.” The “hurt,” she explained, wouldn’t just be felt by people like her whose job includes social media performance, but also the journalists who’ve grown accustomed to getting likes and Facebook shares, and who like that feeling. (Worth noting: TV Midtvest is a public television station predominantly funded by television licensing fees, so it’s not very reliant on advertising.)

The Facebook fast was an open experiment; TV Midtvest warned readers and viewers that it was coming, and tapped four ordinary Danes, including a 19-year-old student, to take a two-week Facebook break at the same time. The student, Emil, reported back that he downloaded a news app during the period and plans to continue to using it even though he’s back on Facebook. “That really warmed my heart,” Nikolajeva said. “If [teenagers] use Facebook to get news, and Facebook decides they don’t want to show news there, what will happen?”

TV Midtvest’s traffic was surprisingly stable during the two-week period. Users fell by 27 percent, sessions by 20 percent, and pageviews were down 10 percent. That was significant, but not as much as might have been expected, considering that up to 40 percent of TV Midtvest’s traffic was coming from social media before the experiment began and almost all of that was from Facebook. “We lost this fly-by traffic, but we found out we had a very stable, not super-high but significant number of readers that came to us by themselves,” Nikolajeva said. “That was very exciting to find out.”

Most people on TV Midtvest’s team were not particularly eager to get back to Facebook when the two weeks were up. “What we took away was that we can easily live without Facebook,” Nikolajeva said. Being off the platform freed up time to be more creative with articles, proofread, and get new ideas. We did miss the interaction with readers, the dialogue and the reactions to our journalism,” Nikolajeva said. “But then we thought, why don’t we make more of a dialogue-friendly design on our website?” (The backlash to the comments backlash?) TV Midtvest’s on-site comments are actually currently handled with the Facebook plugin, which Nikolajeva said she hopes to change.

Nonetheless, TV Midtvest is back on Facebook now, but being more thoughtful about it. “We’re asking ourselves, okay, why am I sharing this post? What am I getting out of it, am I doing it mindlessly? Do I want meaningful reactions? Do I want people to click on the article? What’s the point? We’ve started to use it more critically, much less mindlessly.” The team is sharing fewer stories about criminal activity and violence, which tended to get a lot of traffic but had a short lifespan. Nikolajeva had also been concerned that people wouldn’t be able to find its breaking news during the Facebook fast, but they did, she said. Traffic, meanwhile, has been up and down; the site is getting about 10 percent more users than it did during the experiment. “So it’s not really a lot that we get from Facebook, and that tells me that we’re on the right track, finding the balance,” Nikolajeva said.

There was one wrinkle, and that was “damn Apple News.” Nikolajeva had hoped for two weeks of big-platform-free traffic data, but seemingly out of nowhere, Apple News picked up two TV Midtvest stories and drove major traffic. It was mysterious: Apple News isn’t officially open in Denmark; media companies can’t yet sign up to use it. “We were trying to wean ourselves off one big platform, and in comes Apple News,” Nikolajeva said.

Still, she said, the experiment was an eye-opening experience. “I will not be spending a lot of energy on Facebook as a platform,” she said. “I’ll work toward communicating to our readers and viewers that if they want the full TV Midtvest experience, they should use our news app. Find the news you want to see yourself, or get a personalized push in our app. Don’t expect to be informed by platforms that are beyond our control. We are trusting our readers that they will understand that, that we can have a dialogue with them about it.”

A TV Midtvest mug that reads, “I survived two weeks without Facebook.

POSTED     Feb. 22, 2018, 12:20 p.m.
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