Untangling the Web: The social media-news site ecosystem

Many readers now rely on the social-media-platform-of-choice-turned-news-aggregate-site for current affairs.

New york times on facebook  311 (photo credit: Screenshot)
New york times on facebook 311
(photo credit: Screenshot)
In the past few years, social media sites have squeezed their way into almost every industry, further connecting people in a world that is already pretty well-connected. Much has been said and written about how sites like Facebook impact individuals and groups; sharing photos, connecting with old school friends and dating are all quite different these days, not to mention the series of global protests and revolutions that have been sparked on social media sites in recent years.
But what about the big players? News organizations across the spectrum are currently at different stages in the process of integrating social media, and simultaneously social media sites are coming up with ways to assist journalists and news outlets in disseminating reports. Manually posting big stories on Facebook and following CNN on Twitter doesn’t cut it anymore – news organizations that want to go the distance need a deep understanding of the world of social media, and this insight needs to permeate all echelons of the hierarchy – from copy editors to news editors to Internet editors, and from reporters to photographers to graphic designers. Those who fail to do so will just be left behind.
And what does this mean for the news industry? Just as social media has done far more than affect the speed and ease with which individuals are able to be in virtual contact with each other, it has changed the ways in which news organizations and individual journalists are able to be in virtual contact with the public. Social media has changed the very nature of classic communication, mimicking real life on a digital platform, and introducing entirely new ways to share and discuss information – be it personal or professional.
E-mail, for example, is basically just a better version of a mode of communication which we already had before the advent of the Internet – snail mail. A website where users have their own profiles and can share content and interact with other users is, however, new and different, and arguably can’t be found on any other medium – apart from real life. So while of course the Facebook photo album is a 21st-century version of a “real” photo album, the addition of interactive elements such as tagging and commenting changes it into an almost new invention altogether.
Similarly, when we’re looking at social media’s affect on online news media, it’s the interactive elements which are the most powerful.
In the past, a reader might have cut out an interesting newspaper article and stuck it on his or her fridge to show visitors. Now, posting a link to an interesting article on a Facebook wall, which friends can then click and read, comment and re-share has a significantly more far-reaching effect. On top of that, users express brand loyalty by sharing links. While many Twitter users have disclaimers like “RT does not equal endorsements” on their profiles, promotion or support is definitely implied. Someone who frequently posts stories from The Guardian will likely have a different online personality than someone who prefers Fox News links.
The advent of social media has meant that news organizations are more involved in the entire reader experience, and as is constantly evident, researching and writing good news stories just isn’t enough anymore.
The evolution of the news industry as a result, however, isn’t a one-way transaction – it’s not just a matter of news organizations looking at what’s out there in social media and deciding how to work with it. The “latest” social media sites and features are constantly changing, and each industry seems to be feeding off the other, constantly and simultaneously evolving as part of one virtual ecosystem.
In recent months, many social media sites have customized their platforms specifically for journalists and for journalism. For example, the latest Facebook face-lift includes new features which have benefits both for individual journalists and for large news organizations. The subscribe function allows users to choose what updates they see in their news feed, which helps to morph the social networking site into something of a customizable hybrid news aggregate site. Facebook’s intention was clear here – in its own description of the new function, journalists are the first type of profile to which users “may like to subscribe.”
Twitter, meanwhile, is already perfectly set-up for news organizations and journalists to use professionally. The micro-blogging format works well with online news headlines, which are already short, to the point and make use of important keywords. The setup of the site in a social sense – where users choose whom they want to “follow,” means individuals can control exactly what they see in their “Timeline,” again customizing the news to which they’re exposed.
CNN and Fox News were among a selection of companies recently included in the launch of Google+'s “brand pages,” as distinct from individual profile pages. This echoed a phase which Facebook went through almost two years ago, when it launched “Pages” in recognition of the need to treat companies and individuals differently on social media.
While for hard-core news junkies, nothing will replace going directly to a specific news site, for many readers this is where the majority of their news now comes from – the social-media-platform-of-choice-turned-news-aggregate-site.
Taking advantage of these features, however, requires time and effort, and reporters and editors are generally overworked and underpaid as it is. Many companies, including news organizations, have created new positions and entire departments to deal with Social Media Optimization (SMO), tasked with developing and instituting ways to accelerate the companies’ social media presence. But in the majority of news organizations, struggling to make ends meet in the current economic climate, it’s up to online editors and individual reporters to play the social media game, as it were.
So what does this mean on a practical level? A reporter who wants to improve his or her online standing would, at the very least, need to set up reporter profiles on Facebook and Twitter, and work on gaining followers and fans. News sites can help by including clear, well-designed links to reporters’ pages, share features and integrated social media boxes, fueling the cyclical nature of the online experience. But of course, just setting up these pages and getting everyone to be your friend isn’t enough – journalists then need to post their stories online, using the lingo appropriate to the medium – hashtags, RTs and mentions on Twitter, likes and links on Facebook, circles on Google+, etc.
So that’s the who, the what, the when, the where and the how of the social media-news media relationship, but what about the why? Why is all of this important for journalism? News organizations’ primary aim should be getting unbiased information to the people in a reasonable amount of time, not keeping up with the latest technology and trends, right? Readers can share and tweet and comment as they wish – the news industry need only concern itself with the news.
Maybe in an ideal world, but in the current online climate it doesn’t work that way, for better or for worse.
Considering the current reality of how many people keep Facebook open at work, for example, a news website looking to promote an exclusive article would do well to make sure that links to that story can be found on Facebook. It comes down to the usual consideration of editorial versus commercial interests – a reporter can do all the best research and interviews, write a story well, get it edited by the best editor who sticks a brilliant headline on it, but if no one’s clicking on the article – i.e. no one’s reading it – it doesn’t mean much.
Let’s call a spade a spade; the industry needs to make money, and sites need to get traffic up so they can charge for advertising. Social media referrals, as well as search engines, are having rising effects. On JPost.com, for example, approximately 10 percent of our traffic comes from links shared on Facebook alone.
The social media-online news media interaction and relationship today affects both editorial and commercial considerations. News organizations now need to be far more involved in the entire user experience – putting together a great paper and getting it out onto newsstands is no longer the end of that day’s news cycle, in fact the news cycle never ends. The process is dynamic, interlinked and ongoing. Journalists still need to do the hard yards, get the good stories, and write them well. From there it’s up to the news industry to find ways to get their stories out there and get them read – and when it comes to the Internet, social media is where it’s at.
The writer is The Jerusalem Post's Internet desk manager