Psst, Twitter: You might want to help save big media
Earlier this month I spoke at a social media conference in Melbourne. When you wear a badge that says you work for Rupert Murdoch at these events, it’s like sitting in the middle of the Collingwood cheer squad in a Carlton jumper. With some people the best you can hope for is that their initial horror will eventually subside to a mild hostility.
I was there to speak about strategy for social media, including Twitter, which The Punch has engaged to a fair degree of success. It is second only to the mighty Google in terms of the number of readers it helps the site reach. My presentation was on using social networks to connect with people.
The Social Media Summit 2009 came just days after the announcement that News Corporation planned to charge for access to its websites. It was the hottest topic of conversation in the wings and with the exception of one or two people, the view among the delegates was that it wasn’t going to work.
With most of them being accustomed to the news delivery powers of social networks – say, learning Ted Kennedy has died on Twitter – this is a natural response. Why the hell would you want to pay for news when you get it all for free from your friends?
The trouble is that when someone like Ted Kennedy dies, the first people to know and tell other people are journalists working in newsrooms that cost millions of dollars to run. Many are struggling, though, and some are going broke.
As Twitter has repeatedly demonstrated by being at its best in the heat of a big story, social networks are powerful news platforms. But this is just a technologically turbo-charged reality. Newspapers and, more recently, radio and television have always produced information that people have gone on to talk about.
A sports writer I used to work with would tell how his father, a farmer and one of the few people who could read in his village, would read the newspaper aloud in the pub to other locals. “Tell us what it says in the leading article,” they’d say.
This physical gathering of people seeking news and analysis was the Facebook or Twitter of the town. The difference is that the farmer would have paid for his newspaper.
Yes, real money was exchanged for news. These days that almost never happens – and it’s this trend, combined with the flow of advertising dollars away from news organisations, which has led to the current upheaval.
Distributing links to news stories across the web is something that journalists are learning is an easy and effective way of reaching more people. Networks like Facebook and Twitter, as well as sharing sites like digg and mixx are giant digital playgrounds - at their extremes, a popular link can result in hundreds of thousands of new visitors to a website.
But these huge networks are just the beginning. Once people find links they like on there, they might share them on other networks or post them on their blogs. The piece of content can then go viral, leading to millions of visits. I’ve seen it happen on content I’ve worked on, and it’s breathtaking.
American journalism professor and new media writer Jeff Jarvis calls it the “link economy” – links from other sites are valuable because they get more people visiting you. Then it’s up to you to make money out of that audience.
It’s this last part of the equation – how to make serious money from having a big audience – that remains unsolved. Jarvis’s theory is appealing to digital evangelists who say the dollars will eventually flow, but in the meantime, news organisations have got bills to pay.
Nobody says the answer is easy. Jay Rosen, another leading new media thinker who collaborates with Jarvis, had a minor outburst on his Twitter stream last week when he said: “I have no ****king clue what the next business model for news is. Never said I did. Were there room I would put that on my Twitter profile.” He obviously gets asked about it a lot.
To return the earlier example, I was in a meeting last Wednesday afternoon when two text messages and four emails arrived at the same time, all saying the same thing. Ted Kennedy was dead.
I told the people in the room and thumbed in a tweet. The six messages had all come from multi-million-dollar news operations which pay people - at considerable cost - to report, check, and publish this kind of information every minute of every day.
Now while the emails were free, the two text messages were from paid subscription services. Maybe those two got back a few cents for their efforts in distributing the news. But for the four companies that sent the emails, they were giving it away - in fact, it was costing them to do so. But hey, weren’t they performing one of the fundamental duties of news organisations? As it was put in The Times, 157 years ago:
The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation.
That might be the “duty” of the media, but publishers have started to realise they can’t continue to fulfil it by giving away their product.
The Kennedy death is an extreme example - it’s the kind of story that zips around the world in a matter of seconds. The family issued a statement and within minutes the world knew, thanks to CNN. Now a trusted independent citizen reporter could, possibly, have broken this story, but the only way the world has found yet to cover all the stories, all the time, is to have an organised group of people make it their life’s work to bring the news to people. You know, journalists.
Social networks are useful, entertaining, engaging things thanks in a large part to the efforts of journalists who gather and publish information. They’re also useful for stacks of other things, including collaborating on new ideas. Perhaps they could be used to look for answers on how journalists can continue to deliver the news everyone so loves to discuss.
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