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Why Social Media Are Reshaping the World of News

Mal Fletcher
Posted 12 June 2014
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An international report from the Reuters Institute, released today, shows that social media are changing the way people access and process daily news

The study looked at the news consumption habits of 18,000 people in 10 countries, including the UK, US, Germany and France.

Among other things, it shows that few people are willing to pay for news these days and the number of consumers accessing news via smartphones or tablets is growing rapidly.

The UK rates lowest in terms of the number of people willing to pay for their news. Just seven percent or Brits are willing to do so - although one wonders whether the 47 percent who cite the BBC as their top online service have factored in the cost of their licence fee.

The study showed that more than half of those polled take their online news from an established brand. Only 16 percent use digital-only news sites, such as Buzzfeed and Huffington Post – with the exception being people in the US and Japan, where this type of service is more popular.

The poll also reveals that 39 percent of online news consumers across all countries use two or more digital devices each week to access news and one fifth say that their mobile phone is their primary news access point.

Facebook is the leading social media news source across most countries. This is hardly surprising given that it was among the first social media outlets and is now positioning itself to be a truly cross-media platform incorporating chat, blogs, photos, videos and even business sites.

There are obvious attractions when it comes to social media as news sources. The first is the immediacy they offer. Fifty percent of those surveyed by Reuters claimed that while online they ready only headlines as opposed to full reports.

Platforms like Twitter, which is apparently a favourite in the US and UK, are tailor-made for this. They offer a live stream of mainly raw information which hasn’t yet been fully processed in the way it will be before it appears in most newspapers or TV newscasts.

On social media, stories are often still unfolding and developing. For an audience now increasingly raised on immersive gaming and instant gratification media, this is a major draw – it offers the chance to feel that one is almost a part of the story.

Social media also offer the convenience of distillation. New stories are broken into bite-sized (or byte-sized) chunks, making them easy to digest via a mobile phone, in the midst of a busy schedule.

The 140 character limit on Twitter, for example - most messages are shorter than that, to allow for forwarding – means that readers don’t have to work through a paragraph or two before they reach the nub of the story. WhatsApp, which is also growing as a news-sharing source, offers the same benefit with an even more targeted reach.

If readers want to investigate further, they can follow links conveniently provided, or watch attached video streams. The media stream becomes a menu of news and the prioritising of stories is controlled by the consumer, not the news producer or broadcaster.

Social media platforms also offer a unique breadth of information. At a quick glance, users get a sense of what all of the major news sources are saying about a particular issue. That’s not possible with any other currently available medium – not in such a quickly processable format.

A revealing though perhaps predictable finding of the Reuters report is the rise in popularity of sites offering quirky or comedic takes on the daily news.

This owes a lot to news overload and the information explosion. In most developed nations, 24/7 news channels dominate satellite and free-view TV schedules.

Even if you choose not to watch much news on TV, it’s easy to feel surrounded by serious news, most of which, predictably, is bad news.

As an audience, we reach a saturation point, after which we start looking for light relief. We still want something to pique our curiosity and to get us thinking; but we’d rather not add to the sense of impending doom that sometimes seeps through wall-to-wall TV news.

Besides, serious TV news channels often present only cookie-cutter newsreaders and reporters. They allow little room for individuality or flair, both of which are a core part of the culture of social media.

Flick from one news channel to another at any given time of day and you’ll likely find reporters talking about the same things in much the same way – even if in different languages. Often, they’re even standing in front of the same buildings.

Stylistically, some reporters make you wish they’d never attended journalism school, where their speech inflections were ingeniously re-engineered and they learned to fill time by saying very little – or repeating the blindingly obvious. Social media provide a space for the more off-beat news hounds or commentators.

Quirky news, or news lite, also represents a response to the age of the so-called Exaflood – the exponential growth in data generated worldwide. Every day, an estimated 2.5 quintillian (1018) bytes of digital information are added to the global information database, mostly via the internet. This is an unimaginably large amount of data.

To bring that down to the personal level, one US study has suggested that the average American will consume 34 GB of information, in one form or another, every day. That’s enough to give an aspirin a headache.

The Reuters study also reveals that social media are turning certain journalists into brands, or news celebrities.

This was bound to happen. While we may enjoy getting our news gratis via WhatsApp, Facebook and the like, we know that professional journalists are the folks actually gathering, collating and sharing the news.

Among them are reporters who, because of innate talent or long experience – or both – are capable of providing a premium service. They possess the insight and the communication skills to connect all the data points and add value to the news. They show us what a story might actually mean for people like us, where we live.

This is a hugely valuable skill in the age of information overload. When we find it, we celebrate it and ‘a star is born’.

The premium service is, by the way, why traditional newspapers need not necessarily fear the growth of mobile internet news.  Many local or regional papers are either merging or folding altogether because of declining readerships, yet well-run and resourced publications offer something instant social media can’t.

They provide editorial content which makes sense of the news. Wise news proprietors are taking a leaf from the playbook of the online game designers. These whizz kids may let you play the basic online game for free, but if you want the extras – the passwords and tips that improve your score or rating – you need to pay.

In the UK, the Times and the Daily Telegraph are among the top online subscription news services according to Reuters. Whether paywalls will work forever remains to be seen, especially if so few people appear to be willing to pay for news.

In the long run, though, I suspect even the most avid social media users will be reluctant to lose the skills of paid journalists. In the end, professionals need to be paid and we will foot the bill, whether it’s through subscriptions (including TV licenses),   intrusive advertising or the purchase prices for news apps.

There is a common thread running right through the history of broadcast media. The introduction of any new medium is followed by a period of either disdain or wariness. The established media try to ignore  the interloper, or look down the nose at them.

This is followed by a period of convergence where the old-timers, feeling threatened, try to invade the new media’s natural terrain. This explains the surge in interest in comedy news among newspaper websites, for example.

Eventually, the old media are fundamentally changed in the process of engaging a shifting audience. In this way, radio altered newspapers when it first appeared; movies reshaped radio; TV changed the way movies were made.

Today, social media and our response to them are changing TV, radio and print media all at once. Our ability to access and understand news can only benefit as a result. 

To listen to Mal Fletcher's BBC interview on this story, click here


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