Social Media: No serious news-gathering operation can afford to ignore it

In the wake of the scandal currently afflicting Britain’s news industry, it is tempting to believe that anything might be better than putting our faith in the ethics and trustworthiness of professional journalists. So it is a good time to review what social media means for a news industry that is, to put it kindly, in a state of flux.

As Tom Standage’s special report makes clear, social media and bloggers can contribute far more to news than was once thought. In recent years mainstream news organisations have often relied on them to break stories that professionals either couldn’t get to or didn’t know about, or to expose weaknesses or failures of interpretation amongst those same professionals. So there is undoubtedly a role for social media. But how far is it fundamentally reshaping the news industry?

I see its role in three parts. First what it can do for news-gathering. Second, what it brings in terms of interaction and engagement between users and journalists (which can in turn often lead to new forms of input, co-creation and verification, or networked and mutualised journalism). Third, how it offers a new method for discovering and distributing news. In practice separating these three aspects is somewhat artificial, since many are mutually reinforcing.

As far as news-gathering is concerned, there is no doubt that social media offers more ways of finding out about more events than any news organisation could ever hope to do on its own. Whether it is the Haiti earthquake, the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the Iran uprising in 2009, or the videos posted on Facebook of the events of the Arab spring, social media are regularly beating the news industry at its core business of being first with the news. No serious news-gathering operation can afford to ignore social media anymore. The more global they are, the more they need social media to extend the reach of their own news-gathering networks.

Social media’s new form of interaction and engagement is a great improvement on the readers’ letters page, and online communities are important in overcoming the old void of mutual incomprehension between journalists and their users. It can also create commercial value by leading to greater stickiness for news sites. But it becomes transformational when it moves beyond that to change the nature of the journalistic enterprise. The classic example of this is the mutualised journalism seen when the Guardian asked their readers to analyse the details of their Members of Parliament’s expenses. This could become widespread, but for the moment its use is the exception rather than the rule. More routine cases involve journalists crowdsourcing expertise and specialist knowledge to tell better stories and to build networks. That is valuable—but is it transformational?

Discovery and distribution through social media is the subject of a forthcoming research report by Nic Newman for the Reuters Institute at Oxford. Social media is increasingly important for the ways in which people access news, know about news, find stories and spread those stories. Understanding these trends is of vital importance. They also create new networks around news organisations and journalists. Social media like Twitter can help journalists create new personal brands. That can often be good for the news organisation. It can also change the balance of power between the journalist and the news organisation, although sometimes the journalist can face an interesting dilemma over their identity if they move to a different organisation.

Social media is too important to neglect. It cannot replace many of the things we expect from professional journalists. But it is creating a host of new opportunities for doing better journalism, covering more places and stories and engaging more people at all kinds of different levels. Social media offers great commercial opportunities too. But news organisations need to be canny if they are not to see their own brands squeezed from public consciousness by the irresistible rise of social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter (at one end) and the growth of the star commentator (at the other). The Economist at least, with its tradition of unsigned articles (other than in special reports) has found an original solution to avoiding the second of these risks.

This article originally featured as a blog for The Economist, which can be read here, and was a response to the question: Will the rise of social media fundamentally reshape the news industry, or is its impact exaggerated?

David Levy is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

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