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Is Facebook 'Subscribe' for real? Booming new traffic explained

January 25, 2012 |  1:20 pm

Facebook

As their Facebook "subscriber" lists have spiraled upward -- into the thousands and tens of thousands in recent weeks -- many journalists have looked on in awe and wonder.

Executives at the social media behemoth say the "Subscribe" function, introduced in September, has instantly become a hugely popular feature. It allows the public to follow journalists, artists and political figures without taking the more personal, and potentially intrusive, step of "friending."

The manager of the Journalist Program for Facebook said in a posting Wednesday that subscriptions have jumped more than threefold since November for a sample of 25 journalists around the country. Vadim Lavrusik, the program manager, suggested that the exponential growth -- CNN weather reporter Bonnie Schneider somewhat suddenly has 72,000 subscribers -- is a reflection of the "organic discovery mechanisms" built into the social network.

Journalists have alternately expressed happiness (any audience expansion is a good thing) and skepticism over what's behind the booming Facebook Subscribe numbers.

Linda Thomas, a morning news anchor in Seattle, put out a series of Facebook messages trying to determine why her following on the site had suddenly leaped to nearly 5,000. Media analyst Jim Romenesko responded:  “Subscriber (and LIKE) spam is a huge problem for Facebook. I have 14,000+ Facebook subscribers and guess that not even 25% of them know my work and have any interest in it.”

When I asked Romenesko why he was skeptical that new subscribers were real,  he said it was partly the fact the newcomers to his Facebook page seemed to have no connectedness to his other friends and subscribers. Many came with oddball names, like the one that appeared to be a takeoff on  "Adolph Hitler."

Romenesko conceded that some of the subscribers might be real people, genuinely interested in his news feed, which focuses on the media industry in the U.S. But he added: "I suspect the vast majority are simply spammers."

USA Today's Gregory Korte said he was initially "mystified" by his booming following on Facebook subscribe, which now numbers more than 21,000. "I mean, I'm not kidding myself," emailed Korte, who covers Congress, "I'm not a celebrity journalist, even among the C-SPAN set." But he figured the fact he ended up on a Facebook list of journalists to subscribe to might have goosed his traffic.

I've watched my own Facebook subscriptions jump to more than 17,000 -- almost all of them signing on in the last six weeks. That made me a little giddy at my wondrous, ahem, allure. But I also couldn't help wondering (with apologies to Woody Allen) why so many would want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.

I emailed several of my new subscribers -- including Zarrouk in Morocco and Giovanni in Naples -- but got no response. Finally, I heard back from one, Chris in Montreal. He told me he had found me through Facebook's recommendation on his Subscribe page.

Chris figured I popped up because he had subscribed to other writers in the media and tech fields. The 33-year-old fine arts student credited Facebook's algorithms with helping him compile a news feed that is "synchronous and relevant.”

Facebook's Lavrusik said the function can be a boon to journalists, and said they should not be skeptical at the far-flung provenance of their subscribers. In the report he posted Wednesday, Lavrusik pointed to updates NBC's Ann Curry posted on a recent trip to Iraq. (Nearly 2,300 people "liked" her update describing her late-night arrival in Baghdad.) A New York Times reporter has regularly posted videos of protests in Moscow.

"You can distribute your content but also contact sources using that profile," Lavrusik said. "So it opens the door to really use it not just for distribution but to improve the journalism process."

Now USA Today's Korte is trying to get the most out of his new audience, figuring out when and how to query them for stories he is working on. Having been schooled in competitive newspaper towns, Korte said he sometimes tends to be cautious, lest competitors see what he is working on.

But he also doubted competitors would spend much time burrowing into his Facebook feed and so is "trying to push myself out of my comfort zone and practice what I preach about 'open source' journalism."

RELATED:

Facebook's Timeline will become mandatory soon

Facebook encourages users to share more by adding new apps

Facebook updates its status: It wants to be an entertainment hub

-- James Rainey

Twitter.com/latimesrainey

Photo: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The social media site introduced the "Subscribe" button to allow users to follow journalists, artists and others whom they had not "friended." Credit: Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

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