How the news finds you...

Wednesday 28 September 2011, 11:09

Nic Newman Nic Newman is a digital media and product strategist and former head of products for BBC Journalism

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We can all think of occasions when we found out important news from a friend. It happened to me with the death of Princess Diana in 1997, on a lazy Sunday morning with a phone call from a relative - something of an embarrassment given I worked for a breaking news website at the time.

These days this turn of events is no longer the exception but the rule.

The rise of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, allied to the ubiquity of connected mobile phones, has combined to create powerful new networks in which information can be created and shared instantly without the involvement of traditional media gatekeepers like the BBC. 

From the 'Arab spring' to phone hacking, the super-injunctions and the London riots, we can feel this change happening every day - networks abuzz with energy and urgent information - the range and pace of information often leaving governments, lawyers and media organisations bemused.

Over the past six months I've set out to demonstrate the extent of the move to 'social discovery', working with the log files of four news companies (the BBC, Financial Times, Guardian and Economist), with a data mining company and a range of wider web industry data. The headlines are compelling:

- Sharing of news content within networks is becoming a mainstream activity (37% of all US citizens now contribute to or share news stories weekly. And it is a similar story here in the UK)

- Referrals from Facebook to an average news site have increased by 300% over the past year - partly driven by the introduction of a simple sharing button (Facebook Like)

- People in the UK have started to search less for information (down three points between 2009 and 2011) - for the first time.

But what happens to mainstream news organisations if readers - especially younger readers - start to think of their friends as trusted news sources? Is there still a role for editors or will they become irrelevant as Facebook and Twitter become default gateways to news?

My answer is a qualified yes - but only if news organisations embrace changing audience behaviours and work with these networks in new ways. Some of the most interesting examples relate to the way in which social networks and traditional media now work together to create, comment on and then distribute new information.

We saw this effect around the phone-hacking scandal, where traditional investigative reporting from the Guardian combined with online petitions and social media pressure on News International's advertisers to bring down the UK's best-selling newspaper.

Social media also helped earlier this year to expose the impracticality of injunctions and super-injunctions to protect the private life of celebrities - but only with the help of TV coverage which pushed Twitter to its highest ever levels of activity.

And when Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces the news emerged through Twitter, but was partly spread with the help of socially connected newspaper journalists like Brian Stelter of The New York Times.

As mainstream media loses its monopoly of both the creation of news and its distribution, we are entering a new age where professional and amateur versions of events vie for attention; where editors and reporters need to work harder than ever to gain and maintain trust.

News organisations will often no longer be the first to publish the news, but my research suggests that their agendas and discussions continue to shape conversations around major news stories. News correspondents and columnists are gaining new authority and influence through their expert use of social media. Some are becoming 'network nodes', attracting significant audiences of their own, independently of their parent brands.

But as newsrooms begin to get to grips with social media, it is only now that boardrooms are getting to grips with the potential disruption to business models. They are struggling to square the circle between using these new powerful open networks to drive traffic and engagement while maximising commercial revenues on their own websites.

In the last week or so, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has laid out his vision for the future - one that sees 'social discovery and curation' at the heart of everybody's experience. If the news industry fails to move fast enough - editorially and commercially - that could amount to a deeply challenging prospect for many traditional publishers.

Nic Newman is Visiting Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University and former Controller of Future Media for Journalism at BBC1.

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