Is Social Media the Future of News?

Problem Definition

News has become an important element of community – something around which we gather, connect and converse. In the past, these conversations have taken place around dinner tables, on group hikes or at book parties. Now, via cyberspace, those conversations have gone global – and they are happening in real time.

Through social media, we are all part of the evolution of a story now – expanding it with comments and links to relevant information, adding facts and differing points of view. In short, the news has become social. And it will become even more community-powered: stories will be collaboratively produced by editors and the community, and conversations, opinion, and reader reactions will be seamlessly integrated into the news experience.

News consumers have long dreamed of a world where they are able to view information through a highly personalised lens – a lens that allows them to see personally relevant news, instead of just popular news. That doesn’t mean the news would be skewed to one persuasion (liberal or conservative for example), but rather to a specific topic or theme. The days of publishing that dictated to us what’s important and what’s not are over. We now can get the news we want, when we want it, how we want it and where we want it.

Since most of the young middle class – the typical target audience for most advertising, and hence media, worldwide – is already on Facebook etc, these services have an opportunity to popularise the notion of subscribing to news sources, thus creating personalised news for the mainstream.

Facebook and Twitter already do a great deal of this with users getting large amounts of news and links from their friends as they share and comment on links. Hence, Facebook and other social media might be our last hope for the democratisation of publishing, which in turn might open up the world to niche voices and personalised story-telling.

The old media model – the inverted pyramid – has been undone. Old model, you find news; new model, news finds you. That is, we would look around for a newspaper or TV news show previously; now, we subscribe to the Twitter or Facebook feeds of those friends who have a passion for news.

The new model for news curation and selection will be a balance of professional editing and collaborative news filtering. In one incarnation, news organisations will look at feeds from highly respected news fans, and that will drive stories that are featured more prominently. The successful news organisations of the future will pursue models for news curation/selection which are a hybrid of professional editing and collaboration among talented consumers. Only social media provide viability for such models.

The future of social journalism will be driven by disintermediation, the replacement or removal of middlemen in the supply chain. As the newspaper industry consolidates, and social media matures, journalists will increasingly work as independents, forming transient relationships with multiple publishers. A handful of national brands will survive, and hundreds, perhaps thousands of new microbrands will flourish. The public good will be preserved, and society will be more transparent.

Against this backdrop, this paper will attempt to understand how social media have changed the way we consume news.

Evaluation of Recent News Coverage Across Media

On March 23, a major fire broke out at the 150-year-old Stephen Court building on Kolkata’s Park Street. More than 50 people were killed and several more injured. A month prior to this incident nine people died and 59 were reported injured on February 23, in a fire at Bangalore’s Carlton Towers.

The role of news is never merely to keep people informed. It is also a crucial facilitator for any action required on part of the administration at any level. In these cases, the coverage would be judged effective or otherwise on the basis of the following criteria:

  1. The time taken to inform people at large
  2. The time taken to prompt efforts such as rescue, etc
  3. The quality of updates provided to stakeholders in the situation viz. families of people killed, injured, trapped, rescued, etc
  4. And eventually, the efforts/avenues that prompt follow-up actions viz. rehabilitation, inquiry, etc

Reception of News Across Media

Print Media: At most, newspapers and magazines contributed to criterion No 4. That’s because neither of these are live media i.e. their coverage is never real-time. By the time the first print report was published, the tragedy was already over and any rescue or updates were now redundant.

Also, the scope for attaining ‘complete surprise’ no longer exists. News in print is no longer new, except for investigative reports.

Broadcast Media: Radio and TV, both being live media, were respectively able to provide audio and visuals within minutes of the incident. But firefighting operations rarely allow microphones or cameras within close range i.e. all audio-visual elements of the coverage were restricted, one-dimensional (each channel has at most one cameraperson at the spot), etc.

Also, the peripheral infrastructure require for live broadcasts is complex and its setup is cumbersome. This dilutes the efforts’ focus on reporting facts by allocating considerable attention towards getting the right elements in place, editorialising, etc.

Most of the time in such incidents, the story is over by the time a broadcast crew is ready with its setup. In the Kolkata fire, there were no visuals on TV of the point when the blaze was at its worst.

Also, in complete contrast to print, broadcast media score the lowest on criterion No 4 – despite high scores on all other criteria.

Online Media: News coverage on the Internet is able to employ the best of both print and broadcast media. The reports are mostly text + photos as in print, but they are available and updated in real-time. News websites that are TV-based also have the advantage of including video elements in their stories.

But their biggest advantage is the amount of Related Information they are able to throw up at the consumer, by sorting and listing previous articles on the basis of keywords, meta-tags, etc. Their other unique advantage is Contextual Hyperlinks within stories viz. related weblinks that appear at relevant points within stories. These may be used to access further details regarding individual aspects of any story.

Cumulatively, the Internet is the only medium with fair scores against all four criteria.

Social Media: Facebook and Twitter have emerged as a unique category of news aggregators within Online Media. Their relevance was obvious in this fire incident, because the news first broke on Twitter.

The biggest USP however is the fact that people tweeting these facts/updates were not reporters or relevant officials but real people who were directly involved in the situation – bystanders who were close enough to the site to relate what was actually happening, and even people trapped inside the building. The most obvious advantage – there was no editorialisation.

See below a screenshot and the whole lost of tweets by a specific user on Twitter.

Image

Any random search for the terms ‘Kolkata fire’ at that point in time on Twitter, was yielding the most recent and authentic information. This authenticity was established by the fact that most of these tweets included pictures clicked by the user’s mobile phone.

  1. A landmark building in Calcutta has been on fire for over 45 mins before the brigade showed up. 7 ppl stuck http://yfrog.com/5ongjkj
  2. 8th guy shows up at the other end of the building in Calcutta and ppl are begging him not to jump. Flurys building http://yfrog.com/1ggu6kj
  3. The fumes are getting worse & the fire fighters are obviously grossly I’ll equipped to battle the Calcutta Fire http://yfrog.com/9e3qsj
  4. It’s a bleak scene in Park Street Calcutta’s prime commercial area. There are more civilians helping than officials. http://yfrog.com/1q9raj
  5. 60 min & finally the second truck arrived. Flames have started erupting outside in the Calcutta Flurys building fire http://yfrog.com/ag1dyj
  6. Last 3 need to be rescued. No clue how that single ladder will help. Calcutta Flurys Fire http://yfrog.com/2o211gbj
  7. The first fire fighter I have seen get up there. They have a single sorry ladder to do this. Calcutta Flurys Fire http://yfrog.com/6zs1hj
  8. The fighters couldnt get ropes up so the victims themselves broke out cable tv wires and are setting up a line http://yfrog.com/5zy5rj
  9. @pallavn are you stuck here as well?
  10. Water pressure was inadequate to reach the top floor & they are now out of water. 2nd ladder emerges Calcutta Fire http://yfrog.com/074a0xj
  11. More than an hour in and they finally bring out the big guns Calcutta Flurys Fire http://yfrog.com/a464699051j
  12. @pallavn I had parked behind the building unfortunately. Gonna be here for a bit.
  13. All rescued.This is such a tragic sight. Our offices are in Park Plaza & this has been a regular hangout forever http://yfrog.com/3dta1sj
  14. Calcutta Fire Brigade doesn’t have the equipment to battle a fire this high up. It’s Bara Bazaar 2008 all over again. Crowds furious.
  15. Another gas burst apparently worsening the blaze and the Calcutta Fire Brigade isn’t able to cope competently http://yfrog.com/7b8qlfj
  16. 4 jumpers, few minor injuries, 0 deaths reported. Last of the blaze remains http://yfrog.com/7dcozjj
  17. A third loud noise worsens the blaze; crowd actually cheering when they manage to aim the water right http://yfrog.com/baasqj
  18. Finally some more water power seems to get the blaze to relent, everyone apparently evacuated safely http://yfrog.com/a0qd4j
  19. Music World, Peter Cat and Flurys and other retail places are all safe but soaked. One side of the buildings ok now http://yfrog.com/j3xavcj
  20. Just saw a whole group of families in tears rush towards Flurys. Don’t want to do this anymore #Kolkatafire http://yfrog.com/b9sinqj

Read through the Tweets above. This isn’t just news. It’s more like you have been allowed to listen into a conversation between everyone involved in the news. It is this participatory experience that is unique to social media.

Also note the use of hashtags (#) like #Kolkatefire. What this means is that everyone Tweeting about this incident will tag their updates with this parameter, so that if you click on this tag anywhere, you get access to all the real-time updates on this topic worldwide. The volume of information, the wide range of perspectives, etc are what ensure holistic news consumption – a feature inherent to only this and no other medium.

News on Twitter has also infiltrated other media. During the Stephen Court fire, TV channels were showing screenshots of Twitter results, while news websites were constantly carrying a link to Twitter results in an effort to provide the latest information. (See the ‘On Twitter’ widget below) It’s almost as if social media have evolved into news agencies!

Image

The impact of these tweets is so significant that Internet search engines like Google have now started including social media feeds as results on any search. Search for any developing story on the Internet and you will certainly find a significant amount of results from Twitter, Facebook, etc. [See below under ‘Latest Results’]

Image

Reaction to News Across Media

Print Media: Reactions to stories in print are mostly in the form of Letters to the Editor. Compared to the much shorter reaction time in live media, these letters are too little, too late. In case of the Kolkata fire, an inquiry was already underway by the time the first reactions were published i.e. they did not amount to much.

Further, space constraints dictate the amount of feedback that may be entertained at any point in time. Add to this the fact that not everyone voices – or ins this case, types out – their reactions, and you how effective (or not) reactions are in this medium.

Broadcast Media: Radio restricts listener reactions to letter read out by RJs or limited soundbites aired as part of a story. Feedback on TV works the same way. But the recent trend in both media is to redirect the listener/viewer to the channel’s email address or website or Facebook/Twitter profile.

This means that though the consumer receives the news via TV/radio, he may register his feedback only via online media. In certain cases, print too follows suit.

Online Media: Reactions on the Internet are mostly instantaneous, but the limitation here – as in other media – is that there isn’t enough credit. At the end of any comment, all you see is a generic name (Ram, John, or Ali) with no other attributes.

Also, sharing of weblinks to stories is usually via email, and not necessarily instantaneous.

Both these need gaps are filled by social media.

Social Media: The biggest contribution that this medium makes is towards criterion No 4. The immense possibilities for sharing and dissemination of news unique to social media are what will decide its future. Here’s how.

The picture you see below was available to the NDTV.com newsdesk within minutes once the news broke. That’s because any status updates that have the potential for large-scale interest usually go ‘viral’ within seconds. For instance, A posts and update and it reflects in the news feed of his connections B, C & D – each with three connections of their own, and so on down the pyramid. Even if two people pass the same news forward to their connections at each level, the spread is exponential

Image

[Note how the ‘citizen journalist’ is givencredit for his contribution to NDTV.com’s coverage]

On Facebook, this spread is enhanced further by the fact that every time anyone comments on a particular update, ALL their connections are notified – which acts as an invitation for them tojoin the conversation. The screenshot below shows how over 150 people reacted to a news update via NDTV’s Facebook page, within just two hours. No other medium is able to register such numbers under feedback.

Image

On the other hand, their website – though also on the same medium, Internet – has registered just 3 comments till date for the same story. This, despite the fact that this figured on the list of Most Read stories with page views running into thousands.

The difference lies in credit.

People use aliases etc when they comment on alien websites, or via SMS on TV or even in print. But there’s limited escape on social media. All your reactions on Facebook and Twitter become part of your online reputation because they link back to your profile on that social medium. Hence, reactions here are more real and responsible – and the closest you can get to real life conversations.Image

Accessibility and Archives

Social media’s biggest USP is their integration with technology. These are news agents that you can access on the go, via mobile computers or phones. Even when stationary i.e. at home or at work, most of the average media audience is always near a desktop computer.

Archiving in social media too is unparalleled by print or broadcast, for obvious reasons. There are no space or storage constraints.

How Social Media became both News and News Provider

Twitter started as an idea to let friends and family let each other know what they were doing at a certain point in time, any time. Twitter became a huge success and let millions of people speak out if only for a brief 100 character sound bite. In 2009 Twitter started looking like a prime commercial opportunity for people who know how to use internet marketing. Twitter responded by limiting the number of people you could follow to 1,000; and the amount of posts you could place in an hour. Twitter tried to stay in the social media realm as best it could.

Then, in June of 2009, Twitter turned a corner that no one ever thought it would or could. Twitter became a type of news media when the Iranian elections sparked massive protests and near revolution. The mainstream press and most Internet news sites were nearly shut out of Iran by the ruling order. Then came Twitter. By phone and Instant Messaging, Twitter was flooded with news coming from the Iranian public. These first hand reports coming directly from the protesters became the breaking news directly from the source, the people themselves. It took time for the Iranian government to react, and even with their attempt to block communication, Twitter still helped deliver current events in an “up to the minute” format. No one saw this coming, not Twitter, not its users, not any government.

The next history making event which Twitter turned news media was the death of Michael Jackson. When Michael Jackson died on June 25, Twitter came alive once again with the breaking news as it happened. Again the mainstream media was beaten by the social networking community on Twitter. Over 500 messages per minute showed the effect of the news and of the success of Twitter as a communication tool. The ability to deliver news as it happened had been both proven and accepted by this once little site used just to say “hi” to friends and family.

History was made in June of 2009. Not because of Iran, not because of the death of a music icon, not because of the drastic cuts in mainstream media because of the economy; but because of how a little social media communication medium had surpassed what it set out to do. Twitter, in the middle of 2009 managed to show the world how the new citizen journalist could bring reality to everybody at a moments notice; faster than any news media had been able to do up to that point.

Without a doubt, organizations are trying out Twitter as part of their engagement into the social media scene. Having developed from an incomprehensible Web segment into a must-have for business identities in no time, Twitter has a social element that allows both individuals and organizations to connect and exchange information.

Twitter is also a powerful tool for journalists because it encompasses all the benefits of social networking including instant delivery, branding opportunities, and advanced marketing prospects. According to CNN, during the attacks in Mumbai in 2008, approximately 80 “tweets” were being sent via sms every five seconds, providing instant update before the TV broadcasting and eyewitness information about the attacks. During President Obama’s inauguration, Twitter quadrupled its usual traffic per second and increased the number of tweets in a typical minute by four times.

As of March 2008, Twitter is estimated to total 1.5 million users with nearly 4 million Twitters following each other and exchanging 3 millions messages per day. No surprises then that news organizations use Twitter to connect with their audience, employ their sources and build their personal brands. From the organizational perspective, Twitter is an emerging media outlet with enhanced marketing segments where organizations may develop new brands and extend their product base.

For a good journalist it is a matter of personal branding. By establishing a personal account that is approachable and open to communication, a journalist can develop social relationships and promote his work. As the number of Twitter users increases, so does the potential exposure to audience. By gaining exposure, the journalist gets also feedback on his work. Feedback is very valuable because it sets the right direction and offers an alternative perspective on how the account should be like and what postings it should include so as to attract the readers.

Twitter can be used for finding prospect audience among people who share common interests. By performing a Twitter Search with specific keywords, a journalist can come up with users who can then be followers of his account or he can follow theirs.  Well established news organizations such as CNN

and New York Times are using Twitter promptly and proficiently, while Reuters is using Twitter to watch how trends move and finds it works. Indeed, the news industry has jumped in and engaged in Twitter with a hybrid approach.

In return, Twitter provides journalists with enhanced news applications that grant the audience with breaking news. Providing live coverage and real-time commentary expands discussions as long as other Twitter users continue spreading the message. Through the application programming interface (API), journalists can automatically type keywords of interest on their cell phone and post it on Twitter’s interface. With API, news organizations can monitor what is being posted with key words of interest as well as collect information on Twitter members and follow patterns. To get the full benefit of API, journalists use the TwitterFeed for breaking news, blogs, alerts, and political postings.

Serving the need of any journalist to continually come up with new and interesting topics, Twitter offers the opportunity to search, read and select among thousands of articles and newspapers to get ideas for stories. Inspirational ideas need to be shared for generating new ideas. Twitter is a valuable assistant in a journalist’s effort to keep on producing insightful articles that can make a difference.

On the other hand, Twitter faces also a small challenge that relates to its extremely low barriers of entry. Anyone can join and anyone can use its features without any control. Adapting this in the broader context of social media, experienced editors consider it is not a problem because social media can actually solve journalism’s trust and credibility problem. In the future, social networking tools will assist traditional media outlets to track a person’s location. In fact, this will facilitate social networking even more considering that, today many users are reluctant to open accounts on social websites in the fear of being harassed by other members. In the B2B context, news organizations will be able to track down journalists that do not respect their profession and report biased or offending work. As a result, not only journalism will be more credible, but the increase in social media users will result in increased profitability for the news industry. In effect, Twitter is a relationship building tool. Journalists can extract benefits from users who relate to their profession as long as they network dynamically and effectively.

Conclusion

Advancements and globalisation of digital platforms and social media technologies is empowering people across the globe to participate, and share content online. User behaviour is changing from passive to active, non-participatory to avid participation, and enabling users with a voice that was otherwise unknown or untapped. The explosive growth of online social networking is fundamentally changing our relationship with news as well. It’s no longer something we passively take in. We now engage with news, react to news and share news.

The Internet and social media haven’t become just another media for news consumption; they have also changed how people interact with news. There are cell phone owners now access news from their phone, while Internet users have customised their home page to show news topics of their interest. Others have contributed by leaving comments or disseminating what they’ve read via e-mail or social media such as Twitter or Facebook. The increase of usage and ease of entry provides an attractive interface for anyone to become a creator or advocate of information and ideas by using blogs, micro-blogs, social sharing, and networking sites.

Social journalism, an extension of those practices, is now an essential component of any news organisation’s strategy. Citizen journalists post photos of fast-breaking events, and cover stories from a different angle than legacy news organisations, but it’s the premeditated watchdog or advocacy role that defines a social journalist. Another factor is the network effect: people using social media to communicate and collaboratively produce content. Editors are still important, but the pieces are shaped by crowd dynamics and the velocity of information. Cumulatively, news on social media is the most accessible, holistic and real-time.

References

http://www.ndtv.com | twitter.com/ndtv | http://www.facebook.com/ndtv | http://www.hindustantimes.com

All this research is primarily based on detailed interactions with the newsdesk at NDTV and NDTV.com and their respective consumers.

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About sadianasr

Road safety x digital, social, policy, media at SaveLife. AIR, Urban Justice, CAIR, ICGC, UNDP alum.

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