The way stories and issues are being reported in the modern age has been unquestionably altered by the new media landscape – everything you see, every story you read or hear, the method in which it’s been constructed has been fundamentally altered. The most notable change to the way in which news content is determined and subsequently reported upon is the shift in focus from wider circulation and total sales of publications to the individual performance of every single post and issue, based upon online traffic. No longer do publishers need to wonder what the audience wants, what people are more likely to read – now they know. They have it listed and graphed out, fed through on constant stream of data from their websites and social media properties.
This shift, which has evolved slowly over time, has impacted upon the entire media landscape. In a report conducted by NewsWhip, Muckruck and Edelman Media looking at the state of media consumption in the modern age – which took in the perspectives of more than 250 working journalists – 76% of the respondents said they now feel more pressure to think about their story’s potential to get shared on social platforms. That figure’s both unsurprising and disturbing. Understandably, as marketing spend shifts online, more focus will be put on digital traffic numbers, which are boosted by links, shares and comments – the logic behind this makes sense. But it also changes the whole dynamic of the journalistic process.
Because here’s the thing: if clicks are the currency of success in journalism, then balance and accuracy will increasingly be the price.
Why is that, you ask? Because the modern journalist is being incentivized, more and more, to write content that will get shares, as opposed to content that will best represent the facts. And there’s often a big difference between the two.
The Science of Sharing
Social media sharing is generated by emotion. A study by The New York Times found that 68% of social media users share content to give others a better sense of who they are and what they care about. In this sense, it’s not about the news content itself, it’s about how that news content reflects their personal beliefs and views, what it says about them. It’s no surprise then that an analysis of the top 100,000 most shared articles from across the web found that triggering emotional response was key to maximising content reach.
Source: Huffington Post
Emotion is a key driver of social sharing and distribution, however in order to generate emotion, you need to be producing content that elicits emotional response. The easiest way to do this, in a news sense, is to write more sensationalised headlines or take a divisive stance.
In terms of sensationalism, BuzzFeed is the poster child for this (though there are many others). BuzzFeed became known for listicles and clickbait headlines – “you won’t believe what happens next…” This type of content is rife across Facebook, people can’t help but click on those posts with headlines like “Which Ninja Turtle Would You be?” Articles like this get a quick laugh and they get shared so others can be in on the joke, and thus, they generate significant traffic despite being criticised as something of a cheap tactic.
But while sensationalism is a concern, of more concern in the wider shift is the focus on divisive content. In the case of divisive material, the social shares and discussion generated around controversial topics and opinions actually incentivizes journalists to fan the flames of such arguments – because the longer debate rages on, the more content people want to read. In this sense, rather than social media bringing us closer together through understanding, it actually might be pulling us further apart, solidifying barriers and opposition between different sides of these arguments. Fuelling divisiveness is really a core requirement for the modern media outlet, and we’re starting to see this more and more in news coverage.
Divide and Conquer
In July this year, Cecil the Lion was shot and killed by an American dentist in an illegal hunting incident. No doubt you’ve heard about this one, more than 2,100 articles about Cecil’s death have been posted to Facebook, where they’ve been shared more than 3.6 million times. Mentions of Cecil on Twitter peaked at 900 tweets per minute – the virality factor of this story was huge. So what did publishers do? They wrote about it, resulting in an inundation of content about the story. The sheer volume of content written about this story highlights the new media process and the way in which news stories are defined. In this case, the story sparked a strong emotional response – anger – and that lead to more people wanting to share because it enabled them to show something of themselves, to demonstrate that they were against this kind of behaviour by sharing it online.
In this example, the story wasn’t particularly divisive – the vast majority of people were against the actions of the dentist at the centre of the case – but there were still groups and community segments who supported his right to hunt, and the way in which he’d gone about it.
The dentist, Walter Palmer, has maintained all along that he did nothing wrong on this hunt – that he went along with a group of guides and killed the animal in a legal and approved way. Whether that’s true or not is impossible for us to judge, but even if this individual hunt was illegally conducted, more than 665 lions are killed in Africa each year as part of these trophy expeditions. So while this individual case is terrible, there are a further 664 like it – the reality of the situation is that Palmer got unlucky, by his or his guides’ doing, and killed the wrong lion. And he’s being demonized as a result.
But what about the hundreds of other hunters? Most of them have got off scott-free in this case. Palmer’s home has been vandalized, his dental practice smashed up, a wide array of death threats have been levelled upon him from across the world. Palmer’s likely never going to recover from this, and whether you agree with his actions or not, he is only one part of a larger problem.
But here’s the thing – would it be to publishers’ benefit to broadcast the full, unbiased details of the story and the wider issue, or would it generate more emotion, and subsequently, more social shares, if they fuelled the fire and sought to further demonize this one individual for the sake of clicks?
I’ll give you a hint – here’s the second most shared article on Walter Palmer, which has generated more than 242k social chares, according to BuzzSumo.
Do we really need to know five fast facts about Walter Palmer? Yes, he’s the individual in question in this case, and definitely, it’s a story in the public interest. But surely further exemplifying him can only inspire more anger focussed in his direction – surely it’s of more benefit to be discussing the wider implications of exotic animal hunts and how we can take action to stop them.
But it’s not in the publishers’ interests to do that. While I’m not criticising the individual outlets – and I’m not suggesting Palmer should be portrayed in a sympathetic light – the point here is that the modern media landscape incentivizes publications to fuel anger and hatred, to generate emotional response that, on a wider scale, is really only detrimental to society as a whole.
You could, of course, argue that that’s the way it’s always been, there’s always been more coverage of controversial content because it sells papers. And to a degree, you’d be right, but the problem with the new variation of this process is that in an environment where media outlets are desperate to hold online attention, it’s often the voices of most polarization, or divisive vocal minorities, that are being given a disproportionate share of the discussion. Because they’re opinion is controversial, and controversy drives clicks. Supporters will click in order to validate their viewpoint, while opponents will click just to shake their heads at the latest misrepresentation. But they’ll all click. The more divisive, the better, and in this sense, it’s in the interests of the media to publish more extreme, more argumentative views. Because they want the debate to continue. In doing this, publishers may also, inadvertently, skewing public opinion.
For example, in his post “The Toxoplasma of Rage”, Scott Alexander talked about the differences in coverage of two police killings in the US which highlighted, essentially, the same issue. The first was Eric Garner, a black man who was choked to death by police officers in NYC. The second was Michael Brown, a black man who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, sparking race riots and race-related angst across the entire nation. Both incidents happened within a month of each other.
In both cases police treatment of black people was brought into question, but the difference between the two was in opinion.
“A Pew poll found that of white people who expressed an opinion about the Ferguson case, 73% sided with the officer. Of white people who expressed an opinion about the Eric Garner case, 63% sided with the black victim.”
So while both highlighted the same issue, if you go with the theory of divisiveness fuelling increased social shares, the media coverage is likely to skew more towards the coverage of Ferguson over Eric Garner, even though they both highlight the same issue, right?
A Google News search for Eric Garner returns over 1.9m results:
The same search for Michael Brown? 71.5m – an increase in news coverage of more than 3,700%:
Even taking the other variables into account, like the resulting riots and the more common nature of the name ‘Michael Brown’, that’s a pretty big discrepancy. The Garner case simply didn’t inspire divisive emotion the way the Brown case did – it makes sense that the latter got more coverage as a result. But is that additional coverage driving debate into areas where it actually, in reality, doesn’t exist at the levels those numbers would suggest? And is that then fuelling further division as a result?
Don’t get me wrong, both the Michael Palmer and the Garner/Brown cases raise important issues that we should be discussing, societal concerns that need to be addressed. But could they also be fuelling negative connotations, or divisiveness, by highlighting elements of focus which distract from the wider topic?
In the case of Walter Palmer, everyone’s on the ‘I hate Walter Palmer’ train. But doesn’t that distract from the bigger issue of the need for action on the hunting of exotic animals? In the case of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the issue sparks accusations of racism and debate which forces people to take sides based, to some degree, on racial lines. But isn’t that, in itself, the definition of racism? Forcing each side to identify as white or black means we’re all focussed on race as a dividing factor, separating us from each other. But shouldn’t the focus be on police brutality of all kinds? That’s the unacceptable element here – the fact that race is involved is an undeniable, and critical element, but as in the case of Eric Garner, everyone agrees that police treating a person this way is unacceptable. In the case of Michael Brown, it was more divisive, forcing a wider debate which is then fuelled by extended coverage. But is that wider debate focussed on the key issue? Or is the resulting coverage inflaming a more adversarial debate in order to generate more attention?
I wouldn’t assume to be informed enough to know the full range of issues at stake, but the question needs to be asked whether the new media process is allocating more air time to divisive debates that may be detrimental to overall societal unity, but beneficial to readership and sales.
The question needs to be asked, are news outlets being incentivized to inform readers of the facts or to make readers click? I’d argue that the latter is far more prominent.
But then, what can you do about it?
I was watching a clip from Russell Brand’s latest show recently. In the clip, Brand was criticising the way he is portrayed in the media, saying they regularly use blatant untruths or information clearly taken out of context. Brand gave an example of an interview he did with MTV, where the presenter asked him a generic question to finish off – ‘What advice would you give the pop stars of today?’ Being a generic question, Brand gave a joke answer – ‘They should all take heroin’. The Daily Mail, Brand says, then ran a story on this under the headline: ‘Brand Tells Justin Bieber to Take Heroin’. This is clearly a sensationalised and mis-interpreted summary of what he’d said, an inaccuracy designed to push up hits.
The sad fact of it is journalists are being forced, to some degree, to report in this way. Tabloid sensationalism has always existed, but the new emphasis on page click metrics means journalists need to do whatever they can to make readers to press that mouse button on the headline. The more sensational it is, the more clicks it’s gonna’ get, plain and simple (I have no doubt Brand knows this too, but was making the point for evocative purposes). In fact, journalism seems to be becoming more and more of a dot-to-dot puzzle of keywords, with journos weaving the story as best they can between the search terms to ensure they maximum ‘click value’, and thus, better advertiser spend.
This got me thinking about the future of journalism, and more importantly, journalist jobs. With all the focus on clicks and sensationalism, that model, at some point, loses it’s effect, right? It’s like when you watch an ad for a TV show and it says: ‘You won’t believe what happens next…’ Then you watch the show and nothing happens. At some point, those promos lose their effect because you know they’re over-selling it to suck viewers in. Surely that’s true for journalists and publications too – the publications that continue to do it will at some point wear down your trust and you’ll look elsewhere for more balanced or more realistic reporting. But traditional media providers, in particular, are been forced into this style of blatant sensationalism. They’re scrambling, doing whatever they can to keep your eyeballs with them as they battle against the rising power of social media platforms. And looking at the data, this is a battle they ultimately cannot win. Here’s why:
Your Local Newspaper is Dead Meat
I read an article the other day, published by TheNewspaperWorks, which trumpeted the ongoing strength of press publications in the real estate sector. The writer backs these claims with data showing a large number of property buyers still rely on press publications, saying:
‘…newspaper real estate sections remain a critical influence in the buying cycle…’
This information was not surprising – the average age of a home buyer is 30+, on a good wage, etc. The major threat to all newspapers is social media, and the vast majority of social media users are under 30 years old. Those two numbers alone, with no other research, correlate to the above data. What’s missing from the NewspaperWorks article is the comparative numbers – the article says the numbers are still strong, but it doesn’t discuss the trends and changes over time. If it did, you’d see that graph descending, showing that over time social media and online use is eating into all readership and advertising numbers. That number will only continue downward as the next generation of consumers, increasingly familiar with social media, continue to move into older demographic markets like real estate. It’s one thing to say the numbers are okay now, it’s another to say where they’ll be in five years time.
Local papers are becoming less relevant as people become more aligned with Twitter and Facebook. Most people get the local paper, flick through, see if there’s anyone they know, then put it down. The local press used to serve more of a purpose in regards to local classifieds and news and events postings, but people these days rely on Facebook groups for information or web searches to find local services. That drop in relevance is obviously resonating with advertisers, as Australian regional newspapers reported a 17.7% decrease in advertising spend in the last financial year. Couple this with the fact that Facebook recently flagged their next advertising target would be small businesses, and the future is looking exceedingly grim for your local paper, which is obviously a major issue for young journalists, many of whom get their career start via cadetships with suburban and regional publications.
The other factor that signals the end of local newspapers – people can now follow local identities and influencers on Twitter and Facebook and stay up to date on local news. Where they once had to wait for the local paper to be published to get an update on a story, readers can now get news and updates as fast, or faster, than the local journalists can. The relevance of that local paper in the information cycle drops with every person who joins a Facebook community group or clicks ‘follow’ on a relevant local influencer, and it’ll be almost impossible for those publications to remain viable businesses as the next generational of digital natives become the target market. There’s nothing you’ll be able to report to them they don’t already know. Within five to ten years, suburban and regional publications won’t exist in hardcopy form.
Metro publications will survive longer, but not a heap longer. The divisive move to paywalls won’t be the solution either – why would a people to access news and information they can obtain for free from their Twitter account? Twitter and Facebook also provide the users with more customisable options for the news they get, so they can not only stay as up to date as any newspaper can, but they can do so on specialised topics and not have to pay for the additional content they won’t read. Of course, the argument is that people will pay for quality content, which is true (and many niche titles have had varyng levels of success with payalls based on this model), but the newspaper is mostly news. How much of it is editorial content – or, more specifically, how much of it is editorial content that readers will pay for when they could just follow the relevant influencers and track the conversations on Twitter and Facebook and remain just as informed? Seems like a tough value proposition, and one that’s no doubt got tougher as mainstream publishers try to produce more click worthy content, what with the keywords and headlines, etc.
Pretty soon, you’re going to be telling your kids how you used to read the news on paper that you bought from the shops, the same way my Dad tells me about how they used to gather round the wireless in the days before TV.
The Generational Shift
Of course, this is nothing new, I’m not blowing anyone’s mind with some revelatory powers of predictive genius, anyone in the media sector is accutely aware of these issues. The issue people may be less aware of is how fast it’s happening. Obviously, the smartphone penetration rate is currently the biggest factor in the shift, and Australia has one of the highest smartphone penetration rates in the world. According to data from Google, Australia’s penetration rate went from 37% in 2011 to 65% in 2013. That is a massive shift in an incredibly short space of time. While the major media corporations are definitely aware of this change, this data would suggest the death of the print newspaper is closer than many would think.
The biggest issue now facing traditional media producers is the generational shift. For the next generation of consumers, social media is already engrained in their day to day lives. It’s part of who they are. They live on Facebook and Twitter. They have no connection to a newspaper in physical form. As that generation comes through, it’ll be impossible to maintain the viability of print editions. But the change is also deeper than that. It’s not only affecting how they consume, but what they consume.
The next generation can choose the news they want see. They can follow whomever they want on Twitter for updates, get the news relevant to their interests, disseminate that with their friends on Facebook. It’s this that poses the biggest challenge for traditional media to capture. It used to be that they would tell us what the news of the day was, what was happening in the world, readers went to them for the info. But now readers can stay ahead of the curve, they can access all the information journalists can, just as fast. Now the media has to tailor their info to the readers in order to win readers with great content. It’s a significant shift in process and one many publications are struggling to combat – how do you stay relevant when you no longer control the information flow?
That’s not to say there’s no place for great journalism, there is and there always will be, but it’s getting harder for journalists to find a niche, an area they can own and make a career out of. The opportunities for journalists, in a traditional sense, are drying up and getting paid work will continue to be a challenge for all those in the field.
‘Branded Journalism’: The Future?
So what do you do? You’re a young journalist keen to get into the field, knowing you’re effectively chasing a dinosaur to ride. Will we lose great writers and insights because they need to get paid doing something else? Sure, there’s more opportunities to present your voice online, and it’s possible you could secure independent advertiser spend to fund that, but with so many voices and fewer central arbitrators, securing that sort of independence is going to remain a challenging proposal. One area that is interesting, that will undoubtedly grow as businesses push to best utilise social media platforms, is branded journalism.
It’s an element that remains key in the new media landscape – the power of storytelling. For a brand, being aware of the power of social media alone is not enough to ensure success. You can’t just fire up a Twitter account and whack on an Instagram profile and be down with the kids. Businesses need to produce shareable content. You want Facebook likes? You have to give people a reason to forward it on. You want re-tweets? People need to see the content and think ‘my followers would be keen to know this’. There has to be some substance to get ‘virality’ – it is one element that cannot be faked (or not entirely, though people continue to try). If businesses want to win in the social media landscape, they need to be active on social platforms, they need to produce engaging content that gets noticed, and they need to understand their online presence, what their target audience want to share. This was supported by a recent article by ShopSocially CEO Jai Rawat (here) in which used data from Searchmetrics to show the influence social media engagement now has on SEO. In the article, Rawat’s number one point to ensure content is more shareable and reaching it’s full engagement potential:
Great content. You know whose best placed to help businesses produce great content? Great writers.
The stories that get shared around the digital landscape are, above all, solid stories. Think about what was the last non-fiction story you re-tweeted (BuzzFeed lists don’t count). Why did you share it? What did it have that made you think your followers needed to see this? As noted on the graph above, people want to share interesting, funny and important things. Or they want to share what they’re doing, what they believe in. This is an area where businesses need engagement, they need real stories, real content that real people will read and share. Definitely, I can imagine some would instinctively recoil at the thought of their journalistic integrity being dictated by a brand affiliation, but there amazing opportunities for journalists and writers to help brands find authentic stories, real stories of people who benefit from their affiliation with the brand. Red Bull do great branded content, Under Armour does some great work – there are great brand stories to be told.
Brands that can provide engaging, interesting content to promote their products without pushing them in your face are the ones that will win the battle for social media dominance. Branded journalism will be one of the key factors in solidifying and strengthening brand image in the new media landscape, and ensuring ongoing success. The key to this will be the stories, making those links organic, making the brand a part of community discussion.
And maybe that need for stories, for intelligent, researched content, will help keep many fellow writers and journalists doing the work they love in the ever evolving media landscape.