Three Major Ways Social Media Is Changing Journalism
Kurt Wagner '12
In the past five years, social media has become a dominant and growing source of news and information for hundreds of millions of people around the globe. Social media is fast, it’s free, and it’s always with you in your pocket courtesy of your smartphone.
But social media hasn’t just changed the way we consume news. It’s also changed the way we create news. As a professional journalist who covers social media, I know this as well as anybody.
How, exactly, has the news industry changed thanks to the rise of services like Facebook and Twitter? In three major ways: It’s gotten faster, clickier, and more personal than ever. Let me explain.
News travels fast, but social media ensures that news travels at lightning-quick speeds. Thanks to services like Twitter and Facebook—and the ability to publish news online at any time of day—the old practice of submitting a story for the morning’s newspaper is all but dead. When news breaks, journalists are expected to cover it. Immediately. And social media plays a big role, because you can now publish bits of news to your followers as soon as it’s available, so you don’t have to wait for the full story to start sharing the news.
The benefit for journalists is that social media makes it easier to build a reputation. The standard newspaper byline now includes other elements, like Facebook and Twitter profiles where journalists can interact with readers, share unfiltered thoughts, and amass a following that can travel with them from one job to the next. The downside, though, is that moving fast means people are more prone to making mistakes, or worse, careless reporting. The race to be first is real, and moving fast doesn’t always correlate with getting things right.
Digital journalism is heavily dependent on advertising, and that means readers, or as they say in the internet age, “clicks.” Social networks, particularly Facebook, can be major traffic drivers for publications looking for free online distribution. In Facebook’s case, the company uses a software algorithm to determine which articles get the most distribution, and there are certain things publishers can do to help their cause. Recently Facebook has prioritized posts that include videos, particularly livestreamed videos. It has also prioritized stories that publications publish directly to the network—that means that the stories are hosted on Facebook so that users aren’t clicking to head off to other websites. You may be thinking, well this doesn’t generate any clicks. True, but Facebook is advertising alongside these articles and sharing that advertising revenue with the publishers as incentive.
The distribution power of Facebook means that publishers are not only changing the types of content they create (more videos), but it’s also changing where that content lives online. Facebook isn’t dictating what journalists consider news, but it is changing where we find that news, and in what form it is delivered.
Social media, especially Twitter, has given journalists the chance to build a public profile that would have been extremely difficult (if not impossible) to build even 10 years ago. Twitter and Facebook allow journalists to weigh in on topics as they unfold, and the virality of social media means those comments can reach readers well outside of their industry or geography. As a journalist, having a social profile allows readers to put a face to a name, and lets them get to know you on a more personal level. The hope is that this following will enjoy your work, not just the work of your publication, and then follow you as you move along in your career. (The downside of this personalization: Social media also makes it easier for unhappy readers to reach journalists they disagree with or don’t like; female journalists in particular can be the target of aggressive harassment.)
Overall, social media has done a quick job of changing a centuries-old profession. And the changes are still coming.