Saturday 29 August 2015

The rise of content over news: Who is to blame?

Published 15/07/2014 | 16:17

The logo of news website BuzzFeed is seen on a computer screen in Washington on March 25, 2014.   AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
The logo of news website BuzzFeed is seen on a computer screen in Washington on March 25, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Working in social media for four years, Clare Cullen has fielded more than her fair share of comments but it's the analytics reports that betray the true situation.

In the last few years, there has definitely been a change in how we report news as the media, and how we consume news as readers.

The question I'm often faced with is whose fault is this change? The readers, who consume the news, or the media who report it?

As a proud, card-carrying member of both the readers and the media, I can confidently argue that the answer is both. 

Basic journalistic principles - that you learn on day one of college - state that any news report should be devoid of interpretation or opinion. News pieces (whether they be traditional print, online, or sourced from Instagram) should consist of what's called 'straight copy' - the writer should report the facts as they know them without placing personal bias on the piece. (Opinion pieces obviously aside.)

However, no such principle exists for readers. Readers approach a piece with bias and react to a piece with bias - bias against or for the organisation that published it, for or against those contained within it. Sometimes readers only read the headline before forming an opinion or leaving a comment - but don't get me started on that.

Readers have a very clear idea of what they want to read, and what they should read. And I hate to break the news (no pun intended) but those two things are polar opposites.

I know, that as a journalist I should be reading about Gaza, about Syria. That instead of clicking on articles about 'house prices up 6,000%' or 'This video will BLOW YOUR MIND' I should be doing some background research into market economics, to better understand the impact of a unevenly growing property market on a recovering economy still experiencing austerity. But, instead, I click a picture of my favourite actress to see the pictures of her pastel-pink wedding - because it's fun.

This is the reader part of me, and something everyone experiences but not many admit to. I've monitored many of my friends news habits, and silently noted what they were reading, and what they claimed to be reading - there's always a difference.

'Banter' sites that share pictures of boobs for the guys and kittens for the girls are so popular for a reason. They get the readers. It's actually, in my opinion, harder to be an established news organisation as there is an expectation that 'what goes' when working on a paper can carry over to online.

With papers, readers are forced to read what the journalists deem the most newsworthy. Online, the readers make the choice - they choose to read, they choose to share, they choose to engage. This in turn changes the brand - what is shared is seen, and what is not shared doesn't exist as far as readers are concerned.

If a reader doesn't see a story about Gaza on their newsfeed, the organisation is immediately at fault. Never mind that Facebook is merely a sharing tool for external content, or that the reason they see a celebrity post is because their best friend shared it - the organisation has 'lost a reader'.

To illustrate my point above, I refer you to an experiment carried out by NewsWhip to "to see what happens when the readers choose the front page story."

In this experiment, NewsWhip asked the simple question "What if front pages were selected by newspapers’ readers instead of their editors?"

On a chosen day, they gathered the front pages from several prominent newspapers with online counterparts. Taking 'sharing' as the ultimate expression of approval, they calculated what the front pages would actually look like based on what stories from within the paper were most shared from the online counterpart that day.

Every front page changed.

A 'People powered' Wall Street Journal' replaced the front page story on Putin with one on veteran funding whereas the 'Washington Post' replaced the main story on wounded veterans with one on marriage equality - and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Read more on the experiment here.

It's not even just news organisations - I run a comedy YouTube channel where I post sketches, rants and videos and I got so frustrated by people leaving comments like 'What About Syria' on videos like 'How You Know You're Irish' that it inspired a sketch.

The entire debate is poignant for me as I am avid consumer of content. I say content because I've accepted the fact that I, personally, enjoy content - not news. I consume news but I thrive on 'content' - stories about selfies, listicles, viral videos. Thanks to this constant intake of lighter, "more shareable" content I could tweak any article in the world to be more "readable" - this piece itself probably would have done better if I'd laid it out in bulletpoints like  '10 Reasons You Click Stories', the first of which would be 'because you see it.'

That's fundamentally the problem with digital news - you click what you see. You only see what is shared. People only share what they actively enjoy (and sometimes what sets them into a murderous rage). Using social media to share news is the most effective way to grow your readership - something used to measure the importance of media since the invention of the printing press. News organisations cannot get around this fact, nor should they attempt to act like they're above it. Placing comments like "*sigh*" or "I wish we didn't have to report this." is not only placing bias but it's a disingenuous way of playing the digital game with the best of them but thinking your readers are stupid enough not to notice.

You can't - you shouldn't - do this with news, or you're breaking the rules they taught you the very first day. (Right after they told you getting a degree was a complete waste of your time*.)



*Actually happened


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