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I read The New York Times on Sunday. It was weird.
Although I was a devoted subscriber and reader of the paper for many years, the idea of sitting down to a physical newspaper and reading through the sections felt alien. As I sat there and read, I felt the constant pull of my smartphone on the table. I felt the urge to check on today’s news, because yesterday’s felt old.
Social sites enable us to leverage people we either trust for news or know personally to discover the news stories we might care about. They also let us follow the feeds of the news sites themselves, as well as skillful aggregators.
If we’re getting our news from social media, maybe social media companies should take over the news industry. Consider:
1. The business of newspapers is, essentially, selling advertising. In order to sell ads, you need eyeballs, preferably installed in the skulls of consumers who buy things they see in those ads. Most newspapers also charge subscriptions for delivery or use online paywalls to augment ad revenue. As with newspapers, social networks also exist by selling ads to people lured to a central place with content.
2. Social media is how people "consume" news these days, and the worlds of news and social media are completely interlinked now. Reporters used their social media profiles for self-promotion, crowdsourcing and source discovery and cultivation. Some 43% of American adults say social media is a major source of news. That metric hides the generation gap, where the younger an adult is, the more likely they are to get news from social media. The future is grim for newspaper publishing companies.
3. The traditional news business is dying financially, mainly because the Internet punishes inefficiency. News companies are still organized around the obsolete and now-erroneous assumption that their readers will get all or most of their news from that paper. As a result, a thousand newspapers might each devote staff resources to covering the exact same story, whereas the Internet is based on aggregation -- the best sources of news show only one or two versions of that story.
The Twitter Times
Twitter already rules the world of breaking news. Most major breaking news events spread on Twitter a half-hour before any news organization reports the story.
Fox News recently re-designed their entire newsroom with giant screens that appear to be used mostly for monitoring Twitter for news.
The trouble with breaking news on Twitter is that for every breaking news story, it seems, there are 10 false rumors. It's often impossible to tell the difference between fact and fiction except in hindsight. Only after a story has confirmed can everyone say "I saw it first on Twitter."
Its dual reputations as both breaking news source and rumor monger may be why Twitter intends to get into the news business. The company recently launched an experimental account called @EventParrot that direct-messages retweets of breaking news. Twitter hasn't commented publicly about the account, but it appears to be an attempt to re-tweet the first verified or credible tweet for major breaking news events, enabling people to get breaking news without following multiple accounts and having themselves to sift through false reports and rumors.
More intriguingly, Twitter is negotiating a deal to hire the current NBC News chief digital officer Vivian Schiller as the head of its news department. Schiller worked at NPR, CNN, Discovery and The New York Times. Her role at Twitter is reported to be more of a news-organization liaison than an editorial one. The company has made other major hires from major news organizations recently as well.
It seems to me that all this activity around news isn't necessary for Twitter -- they'll remain the earliest source for breaking news no matter what.
The Yahoo Post
Unlike Twitter, which just wants to link to news, Yahoo intends to actually become an online newspaper. That company hired former New York Times deputy news editor Megan Liberman as editor-in-chief of Yahoo. Her stated mission is to do actual original reporting, "social news gathering" and to cover live events.
Yahoo has yet to unveil their news reporting, but so far their intentions are unique in that they are boldly diving in with original reporting.
The AOL Patch
While other social sites may focus on competing with major newspapers, AOL is going after the little guy. The company acquired Patch.com by AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, who founded Patch before moving to AOL. The division publishes about 900 local newspapers, all local and all run on relatively small budgets. Budget constraints have resulted in layoffs, and a stated intention by AOL to reduce the number of publications to 600.
Actual paper local newspapers are being crushed by Patch, as well as the loss of classifies revenue from Craigslist and growing indifference to news delivered on paper.
The Google+ Gazette
Google+ may eventually usurp Twitter's role as the central resource for breaking news online. The reason is that after people hear about a story on Twitter, they go to Google News to find the actual, confirmed story.
Google has signaled its intentions to integrate all things Google into Google+. The company also launched the social site with a news feed called Sparks, which appeared to be a kind of "Google News Lite" designed in the early days to give people something to talk about and share. Hardly anybody used Sparks, however, so the company killed it.
Google itself uses an unusual method for announcing news. Rather than posting press releases on a "media" page, Google releases official company news on blog posts, often written by non-PR staff, including product managers and engineers. These blogs use Google's own Blogger service, of course, but many expect Blogger to be integrated into Google+ as well.
In short, Google+ is likely to become one of the biggest sources of both curated news via Google News, and also blog-posted news via Blogger.
The Facebook Free-Press
Facebook announced in June its intention to build a mobile product code-named "Reader," which would aggregate news from a variety of online sources, especially news stories shared by the user's own family and friends on Facebook.
Facebook's "Reader" is clearly designed to replace the newspaper. The idea is that instead of sitting down with the morning paper with your coffee in the morning, you instead pick up a tablet and read news stories delivered by Facebook.
The Linkedin Ledger
The career-centric social network Linkedin acquired the news aggregation app Pulse in April. The app enables users to follow a wide variety of news sources, then read them like a newspaper in a constantly updated feed.
It’s clear that social networks are responding to the tectonic shift in the location of where people get their news. So why don’t they just bankroll it?
The big question is: Can we trust social media companies to own newspaper journalism?
I think we can, and here's why.
The integrity of newspapers is governed by the ethical standards maintained by the editors and reporters who work there. Every news organization has a "Chinese wall" between the business side that sells ads and the editorial side that shields itself from the influence of ad sales. Financially successful news outfits are in the best position to maintain this integrity. The financially desperate ones -- a description that can apply to an increasing number of news organizations -- are the ones most likely to break down the boundary and start milking the editorial product for ad dollars.
One very good example of how this can work is the well-established success story of Slate Magazine, a publication launched by Microsoft in 1996. Slate was later acquired by The Washington Post and now is managed independently.
Microsoft did the right thing and behaved like any great publisher -- they hired a great editor (Michael Kinsley) and let him run it with editorial independence.
There's no reason why companies like Twitter, Google or even Facebook couldn't pay for well-funded newspaper organizations to do serious journalism, complete with investigative journalism, serious reporting and independent commentary.
While many people might cringe at the thought of entrusting these companies with journalism, the hard reality is that our antiquated system of leaving it up to publishing companies is killing off journalism. Major papers are laying off photographers, editors and reporters. Investigative reporting is being scaled back. Editorials are being dumbed down.
Brilliant, ethical journalists are leaving the business and entering other fields. It's a disaster for democracy.
Editors and reports have the ethics. What the newspaper lacks is nothing more than money.
Meanwhile, social networks have both the money and the eyeballs. What they need is the vision to establish truly independent news organizations.
And why not? We're getting our news from social media anyway. We might as well use the money being made by social media to restore high-quality journalism.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.