Nic Newman summed up the impact that social media is having on journalism when he said that based on volume and time spent on site, “Facebook was six times bigger than CNN.” People today spend more time on social networking sites than on news sites, with industry commentators citing this to highlight the reason for the supposed death of news and quality journalism. For others though social media represents an opportunity – a resource that adds value to journalism, which is why the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Greater London Group (CIPR GLG) wanted to host an event to discuss how social media is re-shaping journalism and the news industry.
Nic had just returned to the BBC after three months at the Reuters Institute for The Study of Journalism at Oxford University where he wrote a paper on ‘The rise of social media and its impact on mainstream journalism.’ A document that gave insight into how social media was being adopted and used within the BBC, CNN, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph.
As has been well publicised, the reach of news organisations has been in decline for many years, ever since publishers implemented a business model that gave away its content for free online so that they could get a slice of the at the time new revenue from online advertising. Of course as we now know this strategy ended up ‘cannibalising’ revenues from print, broadcast and other news focused incomes as consumers stopped buying newspapers and magazines and moved online where news is free.
The double-whammy came with the rise of social media, as people moved to Facebook, Twitter and the like and stopped visiting news websites. And it was through these ‘herds’ - their friends and followers - that people started to get the breaking news stories that for so long had been the preserve of news outlets.
While some industry commentators saw social media as the final nail in the coffin for quality journalism and the news industry, others viewed it as an opportunity, as it confirmed the belief that through social media journalists could ‘better reach out to people who know more about a given subject.’
Newman stated that what we are currently seeing in journalism is a, “quiet revolution.” Between 2007-2009 there's been an explosion in participation, ‘driven by user-friendly internet tools, better connectivity and new mobile devices. Social Networking and UGC have become mainstream activities, accounting for almost 20 per cent of internet time in the UK and involving half of all internet users. This dramatic change has forced traditional news organisations to take note.’ And news outlets have reacted by abandoning attempts ‘to be first for breaking news, focusing instead on being the best at verifying and curating it.’
Social media expert Clay Shirky says in Newman’s report that ‘you trade speed for accuracy’ by getting updates from Twitter. And this is what the news industry is now focusing on, accurate and in-depth reporting.
The BBC’s user generated content (UGC) hub on an average week processes over 10,000 email comments, 1,000 still images and 100 video clips. Staffed by 23 people the hub can access breaking news images and stories, supporting news producers for programmes such as the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News. They also act as a contact point for people with stories to tell – a case of this was when it was contacted in February 2009 by an HBOS whistleblower. Social media is a platform that links people with quality news.
We were told by Newman and Oliver that social networks allows journalists to find and tell better stories and engage with new audiences. I asked if this meant a reduced role for PRs as journalists could go ‘straight to source’ through social networking channels. “No,” we were told. Just as journalists could use social networks to gain facts, insight and case studies, PRs could and were bypassing the media and taking their messages direct to their audiences. Oliver added that, “PRs would always be involved in the conversation.” The right to reply we should remember is to a certain extent enshrined in journalism and the editorial guidelines of many news outlets.
Newman pointed out that “as if to add insult to injury, these new networks and individuals are also acting as a check on traditional media, questioning our accuracy and standards, and forcing transparency.”
Oliver confirmed that outlets are having to be more transparent. I asked if social media is opening journalists’ notebooks. “Yes,” was her answer. In Oliver’s case, and from what she knows from journalists in nationals and business-to-business titles, there is a lot of sharing of links through social bookmarking sites and the like. Links that allow people to build a better picture of a journalist and their ‘beat.’ It also allows readers and PRs to build better relationships with them, which can only be a good thing.
But how is social media being used in journalism? Laura Oliver confirmed that journalists now use sites to gain opinion and case studies on stories that they might be working on. People can be found on networking sites discussing most subjects and this is invaluable to journalists. These people are consumers, potential customers and stakeholders. They share thoughts and knowledge with other people. If they complain about a bad experience with a brand, they’ll share it, and journalists will hear it and if it’s newsworthy enough report it
Journalists and media outlets know that people carry mobile devices with which they can stay in contact with their networks. They know that people can now compliment a story that they are working on as these devices can capture images and audio.
The new tools of the trade for journalists include Tweetdeck, Facebook, Audioboo – an application that allows users to post and share audio files. Newsrooms I am sure also have the ability to monitor conversations through Viralheat, a social measurement platform that covers hundreds of viral video destination sites, Twitter, and millions blogs & websites.
News outlets like the BBC for example use Twitter to get case studies for news packages about any story. Newman gave the example of how the BBC Ten O’Clock News wanted case study that related to an engineering story that they were putting together. News producers asked Technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones if he could help. Rory obliged by putting a call for help on his Twitter feed. Within minutes his request was met by numerous offers of help, one that was local to London was used. It was that easy and by the look of it not a PR in sight!
As PRs we have to remember that thanks to social media journalists have better access to the opinions and comments from consumers and stakeholders. Social media is not just a platform for technology story, but a platform through which people can have conversations about any given subject.
The one thing that is certain is that social media is here to stay. It is even influencing journalism training and editorial control as the industry evaluates how to meet the changing dynamics of how and from where people get their news. Griffith University in Australia has even made Twitter part of the mandatory course load for journalism students.
And it is affecting how we PRs do our job. It isn’t just an add-on for monologue campaigns that we have been so used to developing. It is a platform through which our clients can better engage with current and potential consumers.
Social media is open, it is transparent. The conversations that our customers have can be seen not just by us, but by journalists that judge and hold us to account, and that does not have to be an issue.