Overheard in the newsroom: “What’s this Pinterest thing? Great, another share button I have to add to the homepage!”
I’m afraid this is a fairly prevalent attitude in newsrooms these days. It’s understandable, as online/IT people must feel like they’re always playing catch up to the latest Internet trends. It’s also dangerous, as it shows newspapers still don’t have a fundamental grasp of what social media is and what it means for journalism.
I’ve said this before, but I think social media is more than the latest way to deliver information. It represents a more fundamental shift in the way people process information. Newspapers survived the invention of radio and TV because it was just a new way to deliver information. But the way it was delivered was the same. Reporters reported stories, and on the other end of the newspaper/radio/television people consumed them. The relationship between journalist and news consumer stayed the same, that is, at arm’s length.
Even the Internet didn’t change that dynamic. Sure, you can get information instantly, and you can comment at the bottom of articles, but there still wasn’t any true interaction. Most Web commenters are trolls who just want to hear themselves talk. It’s an echo chamber, not a conversation. I’ve actually occasionally waded into a discussion under an article, attempting to spark some back-and-forth, but when I answer a question, I never get a response. I guess it was meant to be rhetorical.
But social media is different, or at least, it has the potential to be different. The way people relate to news through things like Facebook and Twitter is more personal. It’s more active, rather than the passive way people would read a newspaper over breakfast on a Sunday or sit around the TV set after work to catch the headlines of the day.
I think there’s a danger of people confusing the rise of social media with the purely technological advances that are happening at the same time. It goes deeper than that. People are attracted to news or information that they want to share and discuss with friends. There’s an entirely different relationship with media. It’s that fundamental understand that newspapers need to be striving to grasp.
I use Twitter a ton, I think it’s the most useful social media network for journalists. But it may be changing. And I understand why it’s frustrating for online/new media editors trying to stay ahead of the next wave.
Dave Copeland, a journalism professor at Bridgwater State, recently tweeted that his students now prefer Twitter over Facebook at the same rate they preferred Facebook over Twitter in 2008. What will those results look like in four years? Will kids even remember what Facebook was? So I get the frustration of those editors venting about the share buttons. It can seem like an impossible task to keep up with the latest trends.
If I told you that there was a way for journalists to quickly share snapshots of breaking news events through a half-dozen social networks, on a mechanism that was itself a network where people could favorite and discuss posts, wouldn’t that sound great? But people think of Instagram mostly as a way for hipsters to memorialize their lunch. I think Tumblr’s probably the next Twitter, if the recent changes in the API and moves to squeeze third-party app developers irrevocably damage the big bird. But who knows?
The real trick is going to be to create news content that people want to interact with and share, rather than just worrying about how many share buttons are on the Web site. Is the story worth sharing? Does it read/view well on a phone or tablet? If you’re targeting people checking their phone or Facebook accounts, is the story short enough to read on the train? Or if it’s a longread, is it worth the time? Will people pass it a long to their friends? Does it have a degree of interactivity that will appeal to savvy media consumers?
There are some examples of content that shares well. I love, love love the Chicago Tribune’s new crime app. In a similar vein, Homicide Watch, which was recently saved from extinction by a Kickstarter campaign, describes itself as “a community driven reporting project.” That kind of thing owes its very existence to interaction with its readers.
Locally, BostonInno seems to be doing a good job creating content that’s easily distributed via social media. I’m just getting into Tumblr, but shortformblog seems to totally understand how to communicate in its medium. Gawker is trying a new commenting system that involves article authors in an attempt to foster a genuine conversation. And to the credit of the newspaper industry as a whole, people do seem to be getting the fact that mobile and tablets are the future, and content for those will have to be built, written and designed differently from a broadsheet paper or even a traditional website.
Journalists are also going to have to integrate social media more into what they do, to think of it as a fundamental part of the job rather than some extra chore on top of the business of reporting and writing stories. To touch on my last post, it’s going to need to involved a much greater degree of transparency and direct connection with readers/viewers. Matthew Ingram recently wrote a great post about the New York Times’ public editor, saying essentially: shouldn’t all editors be public editors? Judging from some of the reaction he got on Twitter today, some people seem to have missed the message (I couldn’t find the exact tweet, but someone literally thought he was saying the NYT should hire 100 public editors.) It just shows the industry still has a long way to go.