Examining the Career Paths of Facebook’s News Curators

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(See here for the post on Tow’s website)

Social media is increasingly a primary source for news and information in this country. A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 63% of Facebook users report that the social media website is now a primary source of news, Wired notes that more than 600 million people view at least one news article on Facebook in a given month.

Given Facebook’s growth as a provider of news, it is not altogether surprising that a May 3 article on Gizmodo about the alleged suppression of articles from conservative-leaning sources has sparked significant public debate. Gizmodo’s reporting details a grim view of journalists at the social media giant. But who are the news curators at Facebook?

Curiously, the Gizmodo article pointed readers to a LinkedIn listing of Facebook employees with the title of “curator”. We’re in the midst of a large project, Newsroom21, examining employment trajectories of employees in modern newsrooms. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to use our methodology to add context to this story.

Our results show most curators are trained journalists with diverse backgrounds; most have prior experience working in digital media, and most are accustomed to the work of freelance or contract labor. From our perspective, the reality is that social media organizations are increasingly the spaces where audiences are finding news, and therefore, it’s not altogether surprising that they’re appropriating employees from “traditional” news outlets. It is, however, somewhat surprising that there is such a high concentration of employees with print news backgrounds, as compared to television, digital media, magazines or other news sources.

Traditional organizational research shows that when companies enter into a new market, they will often hire employees with related skills in order to improve competitiveness. Nevertheless, the strong presence of print journalism compared to other industries is somewhat surprising and merits further exploration. On the other hand, it’s also not surprising the exact nature of these job roles is in flux as organizations such as Facebook determine the best way to incorporate a news function into their products.

The figure below shows a network map of the employment histories of the 18 news curators listed publicly on LinkedIn. For this analysis, we’ve de-identified the data and generalized for the purposes of discussion. In order to create the first visualization, we looked at the prior employers listed by Facebook news curators, and we categorized those employers into nine different categories in addition to Facebook.

Final Network Viz - FB Data
The thickness of a connecting line and the intensity of the color indicates that more employees moved between those two industries.

At a high level, this suggests that although traditional journalistic skills are desirable, preliminary data suggests a prioritization of “digital business” savvy – as evidenced by the presence of marketing skills or digital media skills. It is interesting to note that in many cases Facebook was “appropriating” employees from traditional industries – the third and fourth most commonly listed industries were magazines and print newspapers. On the other hand, the first and second most popular commonly listed industries were digital media and marketing / public relations.

Furthermore, none of these news curators came from other technology companies; point to the need for experience with traditional news norms in this particular job role

Looking at the work histories, however, provides a more nuanced perspective. The above illustration merges the prior job transitions for all employees who listed news curator at Facebook as a current position. By focusing on the 18 distinctive work histories, there appears to be an emphasis on the marriage of traditional journalism with digital business skills. Almost every curator had experience working with Web content; those who worked in marketing and public relations generally worked in an editorial or production-based job role. Of course, additional research is needed in order to be able to substantiate this type of directional finding, and this is exactly what we’ve set out to do with the Newsroom21 project.

As was reported, most of the curators at Facebook are contractors; in other words, they are on short-term contracts in positions that do not offer set benefits such as healthcare. In turn, most curators work at least 2 jobs, stitching together an income with freelance work. On average, current curators had spent a little more than a year at Facebook (1.2 years), while overall they averaged 1.7 years in a job role, although this number is skewed by a number of long-term freelance jobs.