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March 25, 2017

For the Economist: Readers Expect Us to Lead, Listen and Lead

The Economist is running a major series on the global news industry, well-worth checking into, excerpts available for non-subscribers. As part of that effort, I’ve been asked to contribute, among a half-dozen others (among them, Dan Gillmor, David Levy, Ying Chan, Larry Kilman), weekly thoughts. For week 2: The impact of social media on news, with the question, “Will the rise of social media fundamentally reshape the news industry, or is its impact exaggerated?”

Here’s my take, below, and a link to others’ takes:

PICTURE the journalist in the new social era. She is twitching, nervous system all lit up by the pings and arrows of outrageous (and occasionally insightful) comment traversing across her screen every waking moment. After being forbidden to participate in the social universe only a few years ago, her employers have now made getting involved part of the job description. Tweet, make new friends, “link in”, for godsakes.

At this early point in the socialisation of news, our nervous systems are most affected. Evolution is only beginning to change our brains and our hearts, and to build new muscle. We’re learning how to crowdsource, how to use audiences to find stories and angles, how to detect trending topics that really help us decide what to report.

We are learning that we are not islands of wisdom and knowledge. As the old gates rust, the old gate-keeping mentality is disintegrating with it. We were arbiters of what our readers could read. A monopoly metro was not just commercial (and why do you think those high ad rates are so hard to match online?), it operated as a community monopoly mindset. Editorial page writers called it agenda-setting, but it was really deciding what was best for everyone.

Now that world is fast fading into history. I think the best metaphor for what is replacing it is this notion of circles, most lately appropriated by Google. Digital life works best when it augments our long-honed human habits in positive ways. We’re used to consulting circles of close buddies, some associates, a few family members and sometimes a wide group. We know what to share with whom and what we’re likely to get back. We’re now trying to recreate that in the digital world. Technology is helping, but is still clumsy; witness the unending invitations we all get to join this or that group.

Inevitably, journalism is getting socialised. It is really a model of shared governance, borrowed from other professional cultures. Power is not as absolute, and can be better informed. Yes, readers are becoming their own editors, as I pointed out in the first law of Newsonomics. But the role of the editor and the passionate journalist, in leading (whatever the popular trend of the day) remains just as vital a part of this new sharing. The Guardian’s steadfast leadership in the News Corp scandal is one great reminder of that.

Sure, there are some publishers who recognise the business value of cheap user-generated content, and are ready to dispatch professional journalists to their earlier and earlier retirement. I think that is a losing play. I believe that readers expect us to lead, and listen, and lead.

As important as how journalism is changed by socialisation is how socialisation is changing the business of newspapers. We already know, in talking to numerous publishers, that the social/news link is valuable. Those who track incoming links (Google vs Facebook vs Twitter) will tell you that social links convert better. More registrations. More pages read. More likelihood of becoming a new reader of the site. That’s testament to the power of social recommendation—ancient, village-spawned word of mouth exponentially multiplied in our time. Algorithms will help us master this social whirl, recreating communities and circles of readers, in part inspired by the integration of game dynamics into news sites that we already see developing. What now seems like social guesswork is becoming science, and it will drive the news business in distinctly new and better-informed directions.

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