News and the social media revolution

January 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

We live in revolutionary times. Last month a 17-year-old Melbourne girl had the Australian news media scrambling to follow her on Twitter and Facebook after she posted photos of naked Australian Rules players online. Meanwhile a hashtag war broke out between Indonesian and Malaysian Twitter users over a football match, a story duly reported by the Jakarta Globe.

Both stories became news but their genesis happened on social media platforms. While the news media is finding more stories on social media, many of the people running news organisations have very contradictory and conflicting views on how to make sense of the social media revolution and take advantage of it.

Yes, social media is an increasingly rich source for stories and useful for broadcasting headlines and links but tips and information gleaned through eavesdropping on social media are quite rightly viewed with skepticism in newsrooms. Verifying the accuracy or veracity of information is after all a central tenet of journalism.

However there are very good arguments why the news media need to take social media much more seriously than they currently do.

The first reason has been apparent since the spread of the internet began to wreak havoc with the mainstream media’s business models and traditional revenue streams. The writing is on the Facebook wall so to speak as this pithy little video shows.

Most have to give away their news content for free online and compete fiercely for online advertising revenue. The internet has created a flat playing field for news in which it doesn’t matter if you are a broadcaster or a member of the print media.

The advent of social media is a second sucker-punch for the mainstream media. Consumers can now make up their own minds as to how they obtain their news. Social media filters and content-sharing give us alternative ways of finding the news or, indeed, having it find us.

There is already mounting evidence that paywalls and micropayments won’t work while offering tablet and mobile applications show many media organisations are trying to keep up with the wave. Some get it completely wrong. You could say the landscape has changed but too many are still using the old maps. In order to survive, news companies need to create new revenue streams outside their current news and content models. It surprises me that the mainstream media is not attempting to copy the Groupon model of ‘deal of the day’. Also, why not look into providing cool new game apps for mobile phones and tablets? Its Rugby World Cup year so why not commission and market rugby game apps? Imagine emulating this kind of success. Why not use social media to push its deals, services and products? And why not allow people to post your most popular videos on YouTube or Vimeo? It’s a tribute to your newsgathering if so many people want to watch it.

The mainstream media also appear genuinely uncomfortable with the conversation aspect of social media. We as news consumers can now instantly discuss and challenge coverage (or lack thereof). There are inherent risks in engaging with the public in this way but if managed carefully and resourced adequately, it could enhance the reputation of media companies for engaging with the communities they purport to serve.

Social media also challenges the standard maintream news narrative. One of the characteristics of news is that it is highly repetitive. Most news stories are highly predictable, dutifully reporting the traditional positive/negative dichotomy of an issue. But life is rarely that simple and one of the best qualities of social media is that it provides for a richer and more nuanced diversity of voices than are covered in the news media. It is encouraging to see more and more journalists using social networking tools for crowdsourcing information and engaging with their public. But when will their editors sanction the conversation principle?

Social media and Web 2.0’s user-generated content also strikes at the very heart of the traditional concept of a ‘journalist’. With the available technology, anyone can be a reporter although the theory and practice is that it still takes a journalist to be the interpreter of eyewitness and second-hand information posted online in the event of a news event. A respected news brand gives credibility to the information.

But the boundaries of journalism are being shaken because there are many eminently qualified and talented people who are carrying out excellent journalism as commentators and bloggers but who may not have necessarily been to journalism school or work in a news room. Many have big readerships and followings because they use social media cleverly and effectively and because they are not restricted to story telling that conforms to a traditional news narrative.

I contend that there’s never been a better time to be a young and intrepid journalist who can keep his or her overheads low, who is mobile and connected, and who is skilled in multimedia forms of story-telling. Journalism really is your world for the making because you can build your own freelance brand on the web, independent of a news organisation.

As media companies find their traditional business models failing them, they are approaching a crisis point. It doesn’t matter how excellent your journalism is because if consumers desert you and advertisers are not willing to pay you, you’re doomed. And if news organisations want to return to the halcyon days of influence before the internet came along, they really have to become more willing to experiment, innovate and engage.

As consumers, the way we get our news is changing and it is up to news organisations to adapt to remain profitable. This isn’t about how social media can accommodate journalism but rather how journalism needs to reach out to its public using social media to stay relevant.

The revolution is here. The internet and social media are the angry mob that have changed the paradigm. Undone by complacency and a failure to adapt quickly, the casualties are starting to mount and the aristocracy is fearful. And so they should be if they want to keep their heads and their palaces.

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