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Is Facebook a must-buy for journalism?

Facebook's IPO is causing a frenzy on Wall Street as investors rush to get a piece of the social networking website.

Story highlights

  • Facebook set to go public this week with a multi-billion dollar Initial Public Offering (IPO)
  • The social network's 800 million users are the product being sold, says Stout
  • Stout: Facebook has become a social tool for engagement and not journalism
  • "My fans are more interested in a photo of me posing with a light saber on Star Wars Day"

Now that Facebook is friends with Wall Street, this journalist is giving her timeline a rethink.

I rejoiced when it launched Facebook Pages, as this was a chance to build a professional presence on the network separate from my personal feed.

I was also riveted by the work of Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian internet activist and Google executive who devised the "We are all Khalid Said" Facebook page after a businessman who died in police custody last year. The page helped spark the revolution that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

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And I was thrilled when Facebook hired a dedicated journalist-program manager to build ways for reporters to be more socially savvy.

But now Facebook will answer to its shareholders as a publicly traded company. To keep Wall Street happy, it will have to make more money -- quarter after quarter.

    Journalists have to face up to the fact that we -- along with about 800 million Facebook users worldwide -- are the product being sold.

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    Reporters have invested countless hours updating their Facebook feeds. Take a look at NBC's Ann Curry who joined Facebook in 2008. She regularly posts updates on big international stories. In recent days, she's been quoting Eleanor Roosevelt and photos of her commuting life in New York City. She currently has more than 519,000 subscribers.

    And then there's me with a Facebook page that deserves to stay in the archives as I stubbornly refuse to add a subscribe button. I post daily about works of journalism that have caught my eye to a small but valued audience.

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    By contrast, CNN has been embraced by the Facebook community in a big way. With more than 3.5 million fans, the network's Facebook page is one of the world's most popular news brands.

    But is Facebook an essential tool for journalists?

    When Facebook wakes up to a new reality as a publicly traded company on Friday, journalists will have to ask: "Why are we here?"

    I use social media to do three things: find out what stories matter to people around the world, interact and tune in with my viewers, and cover newsmakers who are increasingly getting social.

    I turn to Twitter for real-time information, especially during breaking news. I turn to Google+ for thoughtful conversation around stories I share.

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    As for Facebook, I believe its strength can be summed up in the marketing jargon that makes me squirm: "personal branding."

    It feels like a fan convention. My fans are more interested in a photo of me posing with a light saber on Star Wars Day than a fresh link to a developing story out of China. I've worked hard to cultivate a more sophisticated level of discourse on Facebook, which is something established reporters like Nicholas Kristof have been able to achieve with great success.

    But my Facebook page remains a fan zone, and I've come to the conclusion that Facebook is a social tool for engagement and not journalism.

    Facebook is all about consumer engagement -- the engagement of nearly a billion consumers. That's why advertisers can't ignore it.

    And here's where it cuts to the heart of my profession. Journalists have been flocking to Facebook to create content and connections on a platform that the company can use for all time.

    Not only that, we're feeding an advertising rival that's only going to get bigger after Friday's IPO.

    I'm not quite convinced that Facebook is a must-buy for journalism. After the IPO, I may be holding on to my account, but I'll be holding off on any extra contributions to the site.

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