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Facebook-only news organization? It was only a matter of time.

The Rockville Central, a community news site in the Washington D.C. area, will move all its operations and news coverage to its Facebook Page starting on March 1. This risky move by the site’s editor, Cindy Cotte Griffiths, highlights Facebook’s growing role as a platform for journalists to use for social storytelling and reporting.

When it comes to journalists using social media, Twitter has been the go-to platform for real-time reporting and reaching out to sources, largely because it’s a public platform and most of its content is accessible. But with Facebook continuing to scale and in some waysbecome more public, it offers journalists an arsenal of content types beyond 140 characters and an alternative destination to connect with new sources of information.

Though Facebook did receive a lot of credit and praise in aiding Egyptians in organizing themselves during what’s become known as the January 25th Revolution, it has also been highly utilized by journalists reporting on the events surrounding the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. Riyaad Minty, the head of social media at Al-Jazeera English, said the events have demonstrated Facebook’s important role in journalism by enabling reporters to actively monitor the unrest and situation on the ground.

Minty said it has helped Al-Jazeera English track what is about to happen, such as planned protests, gather valuable information in real-time and find valuable sources who can then talk on air with Al-Jazeera journalists. Though Twitter remains the prominent social platform for journalists to adopt into their toolkits, a quiet shift is taking place toward Facebook as reporters discover its utility and application in their work.

A 500+ Million-Person Directory of Sources

One of the key advantages of Facebook over other social platforms is the sheer number of potential sources it presents for journalists. At National Public Radio, its 1.5+ million-member Facebook community is invaluable for finding sources, said Eyder Peralta, an associate producer on NPR’s social media desk.

“There hasn’t been any query that we haven’t gotten good sources for,” Peralta said. From finding high school dropouts to people who have recently been laid off from their jobs, Peralta said the organization regularly posts inquiries for sources as status updates on its page and receives hundreds of valuable responses. “We’re using it as a megaphone, and people have always been extremely helpful.”

An advantage of Facebook is that users are able to privately message anyone on Facebook without having to be their “friend.” So after a reporter or producer sees a source they want to interview, they’ll contact that person through a private message from his personal Facebook profile. In some cases, users will even volunteer their phone numbers in the comments for a reporter to get in touch.

However, searching Facebook for a specific kind of source can be difficult, Peralta said. The search functionality is time-sensitive, and doesn’t include many targeting options. Although for stories in which journalists are trying to learn about a specific individual, the search functionality and learning about a source’s network of friends or their activity can be helpful. With more than 500 million people on the platform and 70 percent of them being outside the U.S., the chances of finding and contacting a source are quite good.

“Facebook provides reporting at scale,” said Malorie Lucich, Facebook spokesperson. Lucich explains that journalists have always listened to the people in their communities and brought together their collective voice by telling those stories. Facebook just makes it easier to bring this practice online, and makes it more accessible and efficient, she said.

Minty at Al Jazeera English said its reporters used Facebook to get a “pulse on reality.” While covering demonstrations and unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, they were able to track activity on Facebook to see what protests were being planned and immediately connect with people involved as sources. “It has allowed us to get a true sense of what average citizens in some countries are thinking and planning,” he said.

Social Storytelling

There are 30 billion pieces of content shared on Facebook each month. That includes news stories, links, notes, photo albums and more. With so much content flowing into the news feed, journalists are finding a voice by amplifying and reporting quality content to interested readers.

Journalists such as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times have expanded their distribution and sourcing to Facebook. Kristof, who has more than 200,000 people who like his page, has used the page to post regular updates from his reporting. Starting with the Egyptian Revolution to his latest coverage of Libya, Kristof has posted detailed descriptions and reports about what he’s seeing and information he’s receiving.

Kristof isn’t the only example, however. Ian Shapira, a staff writer at The Washington Post, used Facebook status updates to tell a moving story about a family’s sorrow. Explaining the process by phone, Shapira said he and his editor decided the story of Shana Greatman Swers, who had died due to unusual pregnancy complications, was best told through her status updates, which had a natural and powerfully personal narrative to them, enabling him to tell the story in a way that a standard print piece would not have been able to.

“Facebook has dramatically transformed the way journalists do their jobs,” Shapira said. “It’s become an essential tool, making our jobs far more efficient.”

Shapira’s reporting shows that sometimes Facebook activity is at the core of the story. Jennifer Preston, social media reporter at The New York Times who has experience in managing the news organization’s Facebook Pages from her previous role as Social Media Editor, tracked the activity around the We are all Khaled Said Facebook Page to investigate how it fueled outrage in Egypt and contributed to a bigger movement. Preston said she went back and read the status updates over last six to seven months from the page, using Google Chrome and Google Translator and could see how this page evolved into such a highly engaged community nearing one million members, and learned that the death of Khaled Said created tremendous outrage over police abuse.

“Understanding how these tools work so that you can listen in on the conversation and understand what is going on is key,” Preston said. “That said, there is nothing like shoe-leather reporting to get the story and get it right — and to be there to capture the voices of the people in real life.”

Community Content & More Tools

In some cases, news coverage would have been impossible without Facebook. Libya is a great example of that, Peralta from NPR said. Even while its own reporters and other foreign press were banned from the country, NPR was able to get photos and videos posted by users in Libya, Peralta said.

“Having the power of a very big community you can tap into, take their pulse very easily and quickly is quite powerful,” he said.

Although Facebook is focused on personal relationships, it has been gradually inching to a more public platform in part due to changes to its privacy settings.

By using tools such as Openbook or FBInstant that enable easy searching for public information on Facebook, journalists are able to find information they are looking for that is tied to specific news events or people. And the trend toward more public information with new features on the site, such as Facebook Questions, which isentirely public, will only further Facebook’s utility as a tool for journalism.

Features like Questions and Facebook Places will offer journalists more tools for their reporting. Questions, for example, could be utilized to find specific sources, poll a group of people for their opinions, or find experts on topics and, well, get questions answered.

The Rockville Central