Journalists are beginning to see the light – as far as social media is concerned. According to a report on the Middleberg/SNCR Survey of Media in the Wired World[i], the “use of social media tools by journalists is surging“ with “91% of journalists agreeing that new media and communications tools and technologies are enhancing journalism to some extent.” However, with Facebook increasing to 500 million users in 2009[ii] and Twitter growing by about 300,000 users per day[iii], it is imperative that communicators not only agree that social media is enhancing journalism, but also take a more direct approach to putting these tools to better use.
Shift to Interaction
Social media has influenced how the news audience and journalists interact with each other. Before the advent of social media, feedback from the audience was limited to sending letters or making phone calls to journalists. With social media, the news audience has become part of a dialogue that has increased their significance to newsmakers and journalists.
As we saw during last year’s Iranian protests, Twitter can be a very effective tool for citizens to report news. Another example where citizens used Twitter in this same capacity was during a recent uprising in China where Chinese citizens broadcasted status updates to revolt against the government. Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese prisoner, was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize because of his nonviolent struggle for human rights in China. The Chinese government, in an effort to suppress recognition of Liu, mandated that the media keep from informing the public that he had received the prize. Even though the government had instructed news outlets to censor this information, Chinese citizens “tweeted” the news to friends. Some messages[i] read “tell your friends, family and classmates who Liu Xiaobo is and why he is loved and respected…” and “Update: people are setting off fire crackers [in celebration] at Peking University.” Chinese citizens covered the news in place of journalists. Twitter provided them with a way to inform each other and act as communicators when the traditional form of media could not.
The State of News Media 2010 [i] report verbalized exactly what citizens in China have manifested. “Social media has helped the news become a social experience,” where consumers don’t really need journalists to be information gatherers and would rather interact with them.
Audience and Consumption
Internet users have made a name for themselves in the news industry. According to a Pew research study[ii], two out of three Americans say they search the Internet for news on particular subjects. Nearly half say they get news online about three to four times a week, and most people say they have more than one source they go to when visiting online sites for news. The amount of time spent reading the news on the Internet increases for those who get the news on their cell phones. A media research report found that 82% percent of these “on-the-go” consumers are online on a typical day versus 67% of other Internet users[iii]. These numbers reflect the constant increase in online news searches that has tripled in the past six years[iv]. What is interesting to note is that, although online news consumers still rely heavily on traditional newspaper sites, the small percentage of Americans that use social media to get the news, about 7%[v], have started to affect how journalists develop and execute stories.
In 2008, the State of the News Media report discovered that “audiences [were] moving toward information on demand, to media platforms and outlets that can tell them what they want to know when they want to know it.”[vi]. Consumers today want and expect regular updates and also expect to respond to news that directly affects them. While journalists are more accepting of social media than they have been in previous years, their use of it is still in its infant stages. Research has found that many journalists are still applying traditional journalism practices, such as story promotion and content creation, to navigate through new media. A study conducted by Cision and the George Washington University further details how journalists have been using this technology. According to an article on the Guardian News site[vii], the study found that two out of three journalists surveyed used social media sites to do their online research.
Many journalists are also using sites such as Facebook and Twitter to find sources, promote their work, and search for information on their beat. In an about.com[viii] article, Mandy Jenkins, a social media editor for The Cincinnati Enquirer, said she used Facebook to her advantage by connecting with professionals, monitoring news feeds, and “friending” interests groups. “With Facebook’s openness,” Jenkins said, “you can see who else is in the group and contact them for a quote when you need it.” It may seem like a journalists’ dream to have contacts and sources at the click of a mouse. However, journalists have overlooked the fact that social media sties have a community building structure.
For journalists, it may be a step in the right direction to respond to social media sites by using them as resources. However, journalists need to keep in mind that the primary utility of these sites is to enhance the dialogue between the media and the community. The majority of the news audience has adopted online news as a reliable source for information and methods of bringing online users back to traditional platforms has been unsuccessful. Data also supports that journalists have not effectively engaged the social media community. While 21% of social media users are sending news or “retweeting” through sites such as Facebook and Twitter, only 4% are doing so regularly[ix].
Social media has its place in the news industry, and if used in the most effective manner, could expand the news audience, enhance content, and improve the overall nature of journalism.
In the future, we can expect social media to continue to grow and many are highlighting mobile phones as a catalyst. Twitter and Facebook both have features that allow users to visit these sites from their cell phones. Users can text status updates and download applications designed specifically for mobile access. In addition, advertisers are constantly finding ways to increase profits on social networking sites. Twitter also recently revealed a plan[x] to increase promotional ads with Coca-Cola by permitting the brand to extend its market base to third party twitter applications - many of which are available on mobile phones.
The market for mobile phone access to social media sites definitely has room to grow. Eighty-one percent of cell phone “apps” users are utilizing social networking sites[xi]. Of Americans who get news through social networking sites, 36% are under the age of 30[xii]. Considering that most people who access the Internet on their phones are younger than the general population, mobile phone users will more than likely dominate social media access in the future.
We can also expect the federal government to increase its role in the “future of journalism” debate. A hearing[xiii] held last year before congress members discussed changes in the journalism industry and how these changes should affect regulation of media laws. Some leaders of the journalism community believe that Congress should be a major player. “Through legislation and other means,” said Jennifer Tower, president of Peoria Newspaper Guild, “government acts to protect industries vital to the country...it’s time to change the landscape for newspapers, and government must be a party to that change.” Others however, voiced that decentralizing the news media would in turn help save journalism organizations and restore balance in the government. “Our path out of today’s darkness and back into the light of good public policy and government and to a renewal of localism and community,” said Frank Blethen, publisher of the Seattle Times, “is to reclaim our free press and vigorously enforce the checks and balances in our Constitution.” While government regulations will probably increase in the future, journalists should keep in mind that the use of Facebook and Twitter information is mostly unregulated by the government and an increase in regulations could limit the ability that journalists have to freely use information found on these sites in their stories.
How well journalists integrate social media with storytelling will determine whether the road ahead is bumpy of smooth. With the right mindset it could be a smooth one. Let’s consider the Latin American model. Some daily newspapers in this part of the globe have increased their overall circulation by more than 20%[xiv] in the past three years. One paper in particular, The Cordoba daily, created an Internet site called Vos. This site is connected to their news site, La Voz. La Voz is similar to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook because it allows users to comment and “like” articles posted on the site. On Vos however, members get accounts that allow them to interact with other users and comment on site content. Latin American dailies are projected to increase revenue by 5.1% in the future because of how innovative they have become with social media.
While social media may seem like a giant, impossible to tackle, journalists need to become less comfortable with older forms of communication. Online audiences are proving that their habits and expectations are not changing.
The integration of social media and journalism may take some time to polish but the result could be a perfect match. Journalism is already a contributor to the social media industry. The story-telling nature of journalism has affected many social media sites. The news feed on Facebook and trending topics on Twitter are structured like breaking news stories in the newsroom. Capitalizing on the conversational nature of social media sites will produce a greater range of content and, as a result, attract a larger audience.
These suggestions below can help guide journalists by keeping the audience in mind:
Collectively enhance the “newsworthy” definition.
The old definition (New,Informative,Timeliness, Proximity, Interesting, Controversial) needs to be updated as a collective effort of all journalists. Social media has created an open forum where people and events that would not normally make the news are able to. This collective effort would show unity among the journalism industry and should only be a guideline that addresses ethical issues.
This “re-defining” process should consider that stories that make the news on social media sites tend to lean towards popular topics that vary on a scale from entertainment to breaking news. For local news, a working definition should weigh heavily on immediacy and proximity to compete with social media sites.
Social media positions in the newsroom – someone who is in touch with what people are saying and is an informant to the news team, i.e. what a police scanner is to the newsroom.
This position would monitor news feeds and trending tops for possible story ideas relative to their local audience and could be highly effective in finding new story topics as well as connecting to areas that are usually underrepresented in the news. Journalists should follow members of local communities. Some organizations such as CNN have already started hiring social media editors.
Get on board with mobile technology.
While the majority of Americans may not yet have “apps” to view the news, many still use their cell phones to access the Internet. Future generations will more than likely spend more time on their phones. Therefore, it is a “must” that journalists with websites make them mobile friendly. The frustration of waiting for a link to download to their phone will turn an impatient viewer away from your site.
Now is the time to get familiar and play around with social media and mobile technology because most of the country is still experimenting with this technology. If journalist keep an open mind about integrating this new platform with their practice, they will grow to become experts and find it less challenging to make the most of the journalism-social media combo.