Social Media and Journalism’s New Directions

September 27, 2012  |  A speech by Jan Schaffer at Howard University for the Social Media Tech Conference 2012

Good afternoon and thank you for having me.  I want to drill deep today on the news ecosystem is evolving and some of the roles that social media are playing in that evolution.

Who would have thought just eight years ago when new journalism news sites started launching in earnest in the U.S. how things would evolve.

In those days – we’re talking late 2004 – the fledgling news sites were disdainful of legacy media. They thought the big media players were doing a lousy job of covering their communities – and in some cases totally blowing the facts. The newbies identified significant gaps in coverage and aimed to do a better job of filling them.

Those gaps usually involved a community or neighborhood – or a particular topic, such as education, health and the environment.

For the longest time, legacy media players didn’t pay much attention to these upstarts.

"We have come to a place where news organizations, large and small, are trying out some new things as they navigate the bumpy road of disruptive chaos."

I remember just a few years ago interviewing top editors at a major metro newspaper for a foundation study. We asked the editors about several new, and rather robust news sites, that were covering things like education and city planning – right under their noses.

The editors were pretty clueless about what was happening. One even went so far as to declare that these small initiatives didn’t matter.  “We’re the only game in town,” he said.

Well, a lot has changed since then. Many of the newcomers started breaking major stories, winning prizes and getting traction in their specific areas. Indeed, the highest honor in U.S. journalism, the Pulitzer Prizes, have gone to the likes of ProPublica and the HuffingtonPost. And their social media footprint is also significant. HuffPost, for instance has 2 million monthly users of its Facebook application and 2 million Twitter followers. ProPublica has over 150,000 Twitter followers, and more than twice as many, 382,000, in its Google+ circle.

Mainstream news outlets, on the other hand, kept getting smaller and smaller, forced to downsize their staffs and their news reports amid declining readers, revenues and a recession. As a result, their value proposition got slimmer and slimmer. Why should someone pay to subscribe when there’s not much there?

Before long, some epiphanies set in:

  • For one, MSM outlets have more than a business-model problem. They need to beef up their content and recruit some more feet on the street to continue to have a valuable product.
  • At the same time, the news startups also had some epiphanies: Scoops, alone, were not enough to make it in the digital-first news world. They needed a megaphone – some ways to amplify their good journalism. They also needed some validation so they were not just dismissed as overheated bloggers.
  • And everybody needed some ways to have more impact and more opportunities for support – be it from sponsors, funders, or advertisers.  

When I look at the emerging news ecosystem today, I see at least seven trends.  All, so some degree, rely on social media.

They are:

  1. The start up of smaller and smaller news organizations that are having bigger and bigger impact - from Talking Points memo to Politico to Pro Publica.
  2. The rise of independent news startups -- often nonprofit.
  3. The growth of mission-driven (or soft-advocacy) news sites.
  4. The creation of university news sites that are more than classroom exercises.
  5. And the increase in non-narrative news stories.
  6. The increase in collaboration among content creators.
  7. The expansion of tech sites into content -- such as Google's YouTube.

So watchdog sites are really rising on the statewide level with such sites as California Watch and Texas Tribune. The new Investigative News Network now reports some 64 members.

The oldest of the local indy startups have been around for 7-8 years and are managing to hang in there – sites like New Haven Independent in Connecticut, Twin Cities Daily Planet, West Seattle blog.

And some of these sites are on a strong enough footing that they are beginning to expand and launch satellite sites. DavidsonNews.net, for instance, last year launched CorneliusNews.net.  And the founder has visions for a bigger network.

Now advocacy has long been a scarlet-letter word in journalism, but we are increasingly seeing the creation of news sites that produce content from a point of view, but that content that has a lot of journalistic DNA. Human Rights Watch is one example, but on a local level we are seeing sites covering public schools, such as the Public School Notebook in Philadelphia or the Catalyst in Chicago. Their point of view? They better public schools.

Similarly Bike Portland advocates for cyclists, while also doing enough good journalism that the Oregonian newspaper was willing to partner with them.

One new trend I am seeing is the rise of news sites covering arts and culture.  Sites such as Oregon Arts Watch, theartblog.org in Philadelphia and NolaVie in New Orleans are providing coverage that has disappeared from local papers.

Niche news sites area also finding a following -- sites covering the environment, such as Great Lakes Echo, and health, such as ClearHealthCosts.com.

In June, J-Lab convened a summit of editors of university news sites -- some 44 attended.  There are very robust models emerging here:  from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University, to Mission Local at Berkeley and Neon Tommy at USC-Annenberg. These sites are now often supplying stories to mainstream news organizations.

We are also seeing all kinds of non-narrative forms of journalism.  Comics journalism (Symbolia), database journalism (PolitiFact), games as  journalism (see the Cool Stuff on Great Lakes Echo), events as journalism, and  social media curated into story forms through such tools as Storify.

So now we have come to a place where news organizations, large and small, are trying out some new things as they navigate the bumpy road of disruptive chaos.

One of those things involve some degree of working together.

I see at least Four models of collaboration shaping the relationships between old and new media.

They are:

  • Distributive partnerships. Involving the republishing of  content that one news organization creates by others who want to run the story.
    • California Watch now has agreements with 11 newspapers and five radio stations in the state. They pay a membership fee based on their size that allows them to use California Watch content. Some of the partners might localize the stories; and some work with California Watch to help report.
  • Co-reporting partnerships. Involving working together on newsgathering. This could involve localizing a national story divvying up reporting tasks, or assigning a corps of correspondents to help gather the information to build a story.  Think ProPublica's "Dialing for Docs" story.
  • Content-creation partnerships. This usually involves a news startup sharing content, or creating content, especially for a legacy media partner, such as the Texas Tribune producing content for the NY Times.
  • Networked journalism partnerships. These usually entail formal agreements to belong to a metro network of blogs or news sites, often anchored by a legacy news outlet.  J-Lab is about to come out with a report on nine pilot projects we funded and I will tell you there are some clear winners and losers.

Now, on a local level, the Public School Notebook, a site that covers public education in Philadelphia, has a very interesting relationship with WHYY, one of the city’s public radio stations.

WHYY actually pays for part of the salary of a school reporter who does stories that appear on both thenotebook.org and on WHYY’s website NewsWorks.org. The Notebook is the assigning editor in this relationship. WHYY gets excellent school coverage that is a product of the Notebook’s extensive knowledge and network of sources. And they have beaten the city’s major newspapers on a number of stories.

So, now let's go to the nut graf of this conference.  Where does social media fit into this picture?

There are several ways.

  • As communication tools for partners -- Facebook groups are a key tool for collaboration.
  • As a story tool itself -- Storify's curation of  Twitter and Facebook posts.
  • As a distribution tool -- calling out stories and content to be consumed.
  • As a way to measure (or count) engagement - fans, likes, followers.
  • And, perhaps somewhat ominously, as a data mining tool for tech companies to build out new content enterprises, be they Google, Facebook, Twitter or Amazon.

I want to go a littler deeper on the use of social media as an engagement tool because J-Lab recently released a report  based on online survey responses from 278 mostly small digital-first news sites.  Copies area available for you.

"The editors were pretty clueless about what was happening. One even went so far as to declare that these small initiatives didn’t matter. “We’re the only game in town,” he said."

One of the most frustrating difficulties is using social media as a measure of engagement.

There’s been a lot attention on building new business models in the evolving news ecosystem, there's not much attention to what constitutes meaning engagement. Audience engagement itself is another nut to be cracked.

It is becoming clearer that there is a difference between superficial interaction with users (and social media is a factor here) and engagement that drives users to support news operations and drives citizens to be citizens.

The nut graph of our report:  While these news sites are adept at using social media tools to distribute and market their stories they are not able to corral the kinds of data that would tell them wither they are converting their users into to become donors, advertisers, content contributors, even volunteers. These roles are critical to the future survival of these news startups. We make some recommendations in the report and it is available online at www.j-lab.org.

Indeed 8 out of 10 respondents said they could not tell whether they were converting users/readers into advertisers, donors, contributors or volunteers.

News outlets were using social media as a top engagement avenue. along with content contribution and e-newsletters.

But, curiously, they were using website metrics -- unique visitors and page views -- to measure engagement.

And they identified web metrics as their most important engagement tool.

Moreover, they were frustrated.  They didn't just want to measure a superficial breadth of engagement, they wanted to measure the depth of engagement as well.

So, social media is falling short here.

We identified four strata of engagement, but social media really only played a key role in two.:

  • In driving people to consume content
  • Inviting reaction, comments, shares, likes or chats.
  • Only a little was used in eliciting story tips or stories.

More innovation in capturing genuine engagement is needed and more research is needed into impact.

So, with that, I'll let you steep on the rich opportunities there are in this arena.

And I thank you again for having me.

Seven trends in the emerging news ecosystem

  1. The start up of smaller and smaller news organizations with bigger and bigger impact - from Talking Points memo to Politico to ProPublica.
  2. The rise of independent news startups -- often nonprofit.
  3. The growth of mission-driven (or soft-advocacy) news sites.
  4. The creation of university news sites that are more than classroom exercises.
  5. And the increase in non-narrative news stories.
  6. The increase in collaboration among content creators.
  7. The expansion of tech sites into content -- such as Google's YouTube.

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