The future of social media in journalism will see the death of “social media.” That is, all media as we know it today will become social, and feature a social component to one extent or another. After all, much of the web experience, particularly in the way we consume content, is becoming social and personalized.
But more importantly, these social tools are inspiring readers to become citizen journalists by enabling them to easily publish and share information on a greater scale. The future journalist will be more embedded with the community than ever, and news outlets will build their newsrooms to focus on utilizing the community and enabling its members to be enrolled as correspondents. Bloggers will no longer be just bloggers, but be relied upon as more credible sources. Here are some trends we are noticing, and we would love to hear your thoughts and observations in the comments below.
Reporting has always in some ways been a collaborative process between journalists and their sources. But increasingly, there’s a merger between the source and the content producer. As a result, more journalism will happen through collaborative reporting, where the witness of the news becomes the reporter, says David Clinch, editorial director for Storyful and a consultant for Skype. Journalists, Clinch says, must be able to pivot quickly between the idea of using the community as a source of news and as the audience for news, because they are both.
This requires a shift in the mindset of journalists, who are used to deciding what news is and how it is covered, produced and distributed, said Alfred Hermida, professor of integrated journalism at the University of British Columbia. “Social media by its very definition is a participatory medium,” Hermida said. “There is a potential for greater engagement and connection with the community, but only if journalists are open to ceding a degree of editorial control to the community.”
For those who involve the community in the reporting process, the payoff can be great. A noteworthy example is the way the newly launched TBD.com, a news startup in Washington D.C., has integrated social media and enlisted a community of bloggers into the news gathering and production process, creating a collaborative reporting environment. This has allowed them to lay claim to several local scoops, said Liz Heron, social media producer at The New York Times. Heron also says TBD’s engaged community gave them an edge in reporting the Discovery Channel hostage situation.
The fact is, whether to the detriment of news gathering or to its benefit, there is no longer a “need” for journalists to provide 90% of the daily coverage in local communities, says Susan Mernit, Founder of Oakland Local, a community news startup. A lot of this can be done by enlisting a community of intelligent contributors who are already doing their own reporting using social media.
“Journalists need to give up their self-adoration as the authority on the topics they write about,” said Michele McLellan, a journalist and consultant who works primarily with the Knight Foundation and Knight Digital Center. “Members of any community are the experts in what they are experiencing and seeing on given topics.”
McLellan said journalists would be better suited by developing skills to fill the information gaps, offering broader perspective and context on the information, and fostering conversation around it.
Journalists as Community Managers
Journalism has often been done from the top of a mountain — journalists would tell the community what they need to know. Today, much of the news has become a conversation, and journalists are being required to do as much listening to the community as they broadcast to them. The voices in the community were always there, but were often lost at neighborhood meetings and forums. Now, many of these conversations are taking place online, and journalists will more than ever need to think from the start of their reporting about what conversations need to take place as well as what platforms will foster those conversations, McLellan said. Journalists will no longer focus exclusively on gathering information and producing a story. Now they’re managing and amplifying the conversations the community is having; conversations that will happen with or without them. Of course, a recent example of this is the community sharing information on the Boulder fires in Colorado.
“Journalists are going to have to get the conversation ethic down if they want their work to penetrate the noisy web,” McLellan said.
Though journalists are taking on new skill sets like programming and multimedia production, more journalists will need to have a grasp on community engagement and developing news “conversationally with readers,” said C.W. Anderson, assistant professor of media culture at City University in New York (CUNY). Sure, many news organizations are hiring full-time community or social media managers to focus on just that, but in the future, it may very well be at the core of the journalism process, integrated into traditional beat work.
The Social Beat
A journalist’s future beat of coverage and rolodex of contacts will, and in many cases already does, include the social web. It’s becoming the center of where readers are pointed to news and perhaps more notably where the community shares or creates their own news. Mernit from Oakland Local, said their community uses Facebook to send them information to redistribute. “People don’t send me e-mails, they tag me in a note,” she said.
Because for many people social sites have become their landing page for news, journalists have to find ways to integrate their editorial role into the streams, and not just be off to the side on another platform, said Clinch of Storyful. “Powerful journalism can take place on Twitter, Facebook and even YouTube,” he said.
The social story interaction — the way users engage content — is entering into the consciousness of news editors and producers as they think through the outline of a story. It could very well be that we’ll see more stories that have deep social integration, especially for in-depth and crowd-sourced pieces. Journalists have always created story packages for different platforms, says Hermida, but the difference with social platforms is that they are shared spaces and so the stories there are more open and collaborative, challenging journalist’s “prevailing dogma of ‘we write, you read.’”
For now, many of the examples include using social content as part of a story, such as CNN’s visualization of what World Cup fans were saying on Twitter. Taking social data and conversation and making sense of it will likely become more streamlined, and perhaps even more accessible to those besides major news organizations who have the resources to develop such packages.
One of the challenges with the social stream as a means for news consumption is that it often lacks context — a challenge on the web in general. It’s likely that taking a fresh approach to publishing this information may help provide that context, which is something newly-launched sites like Intersect are trying to accomplish. They are enabling the community to share stories that are attached to a time and a place and showcase that information on a timeline that intersects with people’s stories.
Other companies, like Context Optional, are jumping into the social market to help publishers create more compelling content on social platforms, specifically rich-media posts on Facebook. This includes wall posts that are more than just blurb text and a link with a thumbnail, but also interactive polls and interactive flash displays.
Online Curation for a “Time-Poor Audience”
Journalists will also have social content creation more integrated into their workflow, whether that means creating content for specific platforms, or using the content from that platform for the purposes of curation. “One of the challenges is giving writers and producers tools that they can use to pull disparate elements into stories from Twitter, YouTube and other sources beyond just text from wires,” Clinch said. That’s why Clinch is working on Storyful, which uses professional curators to gather social and web content and produce a story out of it. Here is an example of a curated stream from Storyful that uses a combination of reports and social information available:
“Journalists must be able to professionally and responsibly curate events in real time,” Clinch said. “This is not just about curating real-time content from Twitter and other sources but also the ability to pull in context and even commentary in a way that helps the audience understand what is happening.”
Anderson from CUNY said the big difference between curation as it once was and what it is now, is that that it is done online, in public. And despite there being less original reporting, he thinks, or maybe just hopes, that the decrease in original “fact gathering” can be made up through smart curation. This enables journalists to play the role of a “trusted guide,” says Hermida, which means applying journalistic skill to help the audience negotiate the wealth of information now available.
“In a world of news and information, there is a role of a professional who can curate this for a time-poor audience,” Hermida said.
The Social Network as the New Editor
Though journalists clearly have a role in curating web content and making sense of the noise, slowly a new player is emerging to fulfill the role as a partial news editor. That player is the social network of the reader and consumer. Whether it is the people that a reader follows on Twitter or a new iPad application that helps visualize news being shared in the social space, each of these personalized social news streams are helping readers decide what they need to read.
“Platforms like Twitter can turn our social network into our editor,” Hermida said. “Once this role was the preserve of a newspaper editor, who decided what the public should read that morning. Now people can turn to their social networks to find out, ‘what do my friends or people I respect think I should read about this morning.’”
Clinch says news agencies must find a way to incorporate and reference the social news wire into their products, or they will continue to lose customers.
Beyond Twitter & Facebook
News organizations that have embraced social media have largely done so as a distribution channel, focusing on Facebook and Twitter because of the referral traffic that the platforms provide to their sites. But as news outlets realize the value is not only measured in clicks, but in an engaged and participating audience, they will look to take advantage of other platforms, and perhaps more importantly, other online communities. The buzz, of course, is out there: Will it be Tumblr? Foursquare? What’s next? And should we be everywhere? At what cost?
Heron, from The New York Times, said she thinks more media companies will start developing “special” content for Tumblr. “It’s a very visual platform that allows more in-depth engagement than Facebook or Twitter, and journalists will have to do something special to distinguish their tumblogs from their existing websites or blogs. Of course, many news organizations, most infamously Newsweek, have jumped on the platform to stake their claim and build an audience there. Many of the tumblogs focus on specific subjects, such as ProPublica’s “Officials Say the Darndest Things.”
Though many news organizations would like to engage readers across many social platforms, the missing link is often justifying such resources that aren’t always easy to monetize, says Mathilde Piard, social media manager at Cox Media Group. “It’s all fine and nice to deliver the news in a way that’s targeted to social platforms, but we’ve got to find a way to monetize that if we’re using these social platforms for more than just driving traffic back to our sites,” Piard said.
For many outlets, however, the justification is an increase in traffic, which they can then sell ads for on their site. But what about taking advantage of the platforms specifically?
There certainly have been experiments, such as Minnpost.com’s “Real Time Ads,” which sells a local businesses widget space to display their Twitter feed. This way, the business directly controls what is displayed on the site and the advertising has the potential to be more effective because of it’s social nature and users can engage it. Plus, the local business gets its social accounts exposed to a larger audience and is able to build a lasting relationship with readers.
Another option that has potential is “in-stream advertising” from companies like Ad.ly, which is mostly known for celebrity-endorsed tweets, but also includes an API that enables publishers to monetize their mobile apps through targeted in-stream ads. Notable users of the service include Newsweek. Though its cost-per-share model isn’t likely to solve any news organization’s revenue issues, the amount advertisers are spending on social media is projected to grow. Experimenting with platforms and user-reactions to social advertising is becoming increasingly important.
A Social Newsroom and the Personal Brand
More newsrooms are hiring community engagers and social media producers. It’s not unlikely that the future newsroom will be filled with socially savvy personnel whose full-time job is to keep track of the pulse in the community.
We’re already seeing that with the Guardian’s network of science blogs, but more newsrooms will put resources into figuring out how to work with the community, not against it. This will also likely be made easier with sites like Ebyline coming into the mix, which simplify the relationship between publishers and a network of freelancers. This isn’t just about news organizations struggling to cover the community, but also that the brand, expertise and in some cases credibility is shifting toward the individual and away from the institution. “Social platforms present journalists with an opportunity to create and develop their brand[s] based on the value they bring to the network,” Hermida said.
A Mobile Social Experience
With more users getting their news via mobile, journalists are able to take the social experience with them. News organizations are able to provide more than just another news distribution channel, but a platform where users can engage on multiple levels.
At the Oakland Local, modifying content to accommodate content interaction and consumption via mobile is becoming integrated into the production process, says Mernit, the site’s founder. Mernit says they are increasingly looking at not only content production and how it will be consumed on mobile, but also to support two-way interaction and contributions from the community.
Mobile is certainly helping journalists quickly produce content on-the-go. Though the app of choice on mobile could change quickly, right now it is of course Twitter, says McLellan, that is enabling journalists to easily update readers with news in real-time.
Other mobile tools are enabling journalists to carry a multimedia production studio in their pocket,” Hermida said. For example, he said, the 1st Video iPhone app from Vericoder enables journalists to shoot and edit video and audio, and create an audio slideshow, which can be uploaded directly into a newsroom’s production system. As news organizations develop mobile applications, they’ll include features that enable the community to contribute on the go, just as easily as the journalists.
The way readers experience news and information is changing with mobile as well. Heron from The New York Times said news organizations could use augmented reality apps to help people at Fashion Week, for example, to discover hot spots for user tweets and location-based checkins and information about designers there.
What are your thoughts on the future of social media and journalism? Add them in the comments below.