The Great Disrupter of the News Industry

Social media skills are no longer considered niche in journalism -- instead they impact how an entire news organization is run.
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In the past seven years the news industry has been turned on its head by social media, in terms of how stories are discovered, visual content is sourced and stories are distributed. Social media skills are no longer considered niche in journalism -- instead they impact how an entire news organization is run.


The Mumbai terror attack in November 2008 was the first breaking news event where updates were posted in real time on Facebook and Twitter. Only a small number of journalists knew how to find these updates, contact the uploaders and use them with appropriate credits. That event, and the iconic image of passengers standing on the wings of the plane tweeted immediately after the Hudson River plane crash two months later, prompted a number of news directors to roll out training for staff in social media news gathering, and to experiment with different ways of reporting breaking news events.

In just seven years, newsrooms have been completely disrupted by social media. Social media skills are no longer considered niche, and solely the responsibility of a small team in the newsroom. Instead social media affects the way the whole organization runs: from the strategic direction taken by senior managers; to the daily decisions editorial staff make; from the social brands individual journalists must cultivate to stay relevant; to the changing revenue models offered by social and mobile platforms; and finally the partnerships technology teams have to develop in order to facilitate the consumption of their content off the platform they own.


Newsgathering has changed fundamentally, with breaking news producers sitting at desks that resemble those of traders, monitoring multiple social feeds on three or four screens. During breaking news events, these techniques allow them to keep on top of events as they develop, assess the seriousness of a story to decide whether to send reporters, identify eyewitnesses at the scene, and source and acquire rights to images and videos uploaded from eyewitnesses. Monitoring conversations on social media also allows newsrooms to discover other trends that are worth covering, source experts on different topics and identify stories bubbling up before competitors consider them newsworthy.

Soon after its rise, social media quickly began to "beat the wires," the flashes put out by news agencies that had always been the primary method for finding out about breaking news. By monitoring Twitter, the most savvy journalists could get a head start on stories, sometimes alerted several minutes earlier by the social media site than by the updates put out by news agencies. In the past couple of years, tools such as Dataminr (originally built for financial traders), Banjo (which claims to be building a crystal ball for global breaking news) and Geofeedia have professionalized monitoring of social media feeds for newsrooms. The technology supercharges social discovery techniques by alerting journalists to breaking news events and then facilitates, via geo-location technology, the identification of eyewitnesses and the discovery of social content filmed at the scene and uploaded to the social web.

Verification of eyewitness media remains one of the most significant challenges for newsrooms, because of the time and resources required to do so effectively. In response to this challenge, services like Storyful, the world's first social media agency, and traditional news agencies like AP, Reuters and AFP, discover, verify and seek permission from eyewitnesses for use, in order to take some of the pressure off newsrooms during breaking news events.


Social media has been disruptive on newsgathering processes, and the same is true for distribution mechanisms. A decade ago, newsrooms -- whether they were television or print -- were designed around structured deadlines, regardless if it was the morning edition or the nightly news bulletin. The newsgathering process was a closed one, keeping everything secret before publication or broadcast. Around 2009, the most innovative newsrooms realized that their individual journalists were amassing large audiences on Twitter, and that the public preferred following people rather than news brands. Audiences wanted to see what happened "behind the curtain," and the most forward-thinking journalists realized that social networks gave them the opportunity to have a real-time conversation with their audience. They experimented by asking their followers for suggestions on questions for interviews with government ministers, sharing images from their edit suites, or asking people to recommend relevant sources or experts. By sharing the news-making process with their audience, it was actually driving interest and audiences to the finished product. This process of "showing your work" has become the norm, allowing audiences to interact through the news cycle, and even after the publication of the finished product.

It took longer for news brands themselves to figure out how they should use social media. Individual journalists sounded natural within the medium, but for traditional news brands, interacting with audiences within the confines of 140 characters was much harder. As metrics showed traffic from social media rising rapidly, and actually overtaking traffic from search for some brands, producers placed major investment in developing social media teams and subsequently audience growth teams.

Now many of the major newsrooms, particularly those most successful at using social media for distribution -- for example, Buzzfeed and Mashable -- have specific teams converting content that gets published on their websites for each platform, understanding that what works on Facebook is different from Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. As a result they have seen incredible success, leveraging social capital to build and maintain audiences for their journalism.

Since January 2015, each major platform has moved aggressively into the news space. Snapchat launched its Discover feature, partnering with 12 publishers to create original content for their millennial-heavy audience, Facebook launched Instant Articles, promising much-improved load speeds for articles consumed on mobile, and Google along with Twitter announced a similar project called the Accelerated Mobile Pages Program (AMPP). Apple announced its news aggregator, which is curated partly by algorithms and partly by humans, and Twitter launched Moments, daily curating tweets about hot topics. These developments have significantly complicated the relationship between social networks and the news industry.


The incredible growth of smartphones and the ability of social networks to keep users engaged means the amount of time users spend on social sites dwarfs the time spent on news sites or even dedicated news apps. As a result, news organizations from the most senior levels down have had to recognize that social media is the primary means by which the majority of people receive their news today. With social networks moving so aggressively into the news space while simultaneously relying very heavily on the quality of the content produced by news organizations to keep users engaged, the next couple of years will be fascinating to watch as the necessary partnerships between the two industries emerge, develop and mature.

Social media is no longer considered a lightweight addition to the serious business of the newsroom. It is recognized as a central pillar that the newsroom depends upon to operate.

Three Challenges

1. The number of eyewitness media accounts that appear during a breaking news event keeps skyrocketing, and as countries such as India come online with smarter phones and cheaper data plans, that number will continue to grow. Since the competition to be first with the story continues to increase, newsrooms are under constant pressure to put out information before it has been fully verified. How can newsrooms ensure that the content they want to use shows what it purports to show?

2. As social platforms proliferate, how can newsrooms use available resources to create different versions of the same story to meet the specific standards of each, whether that's an engaging video for Facebook, mobile-first content for Snapchat, a 15-second video for Instagram, or an image for Twitter that will encourage users to click on the link?

3. As chatapps and messaging apps such as WhatsApp and WeChat continue to grow in popularity, newsrooms will have to consider how to harness both the eyewitness media accounts circulating in these semi-private spaces, and also take advantage of them as channels for distribution, even though many are not designed for this use.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum sharing insights gained from surveying 5,000 digital media users from Brazil, China, Germany, South Africa and the U.S on the impact of digital media on society. The series is developed in conjunction with the Forum's Shaping the Future Implications of Digital Media for Society project and the Forum's Impact of Digital Content: Opportunities and Risks of Creating and Sharing Information Online white paper. The series is running during the Forum's Annual Meeting 2016 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 20-23). Read all the posts in the series here.