9 Oct 2016

Are social media networks taking over the news?

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 9 October 2016

Social media networks are now a big source of news for today's media and also crucial platforms for distributing it. What people share online now often trumps traditional notions of what's news. The new news boss at MediaWorks tells Mediawatch this is something to be embraced, not resisted.

Mediaworks chief news officer Hal Crawford

Mediaworks chief news officer Hal Crawford Photo: supplied

Last Wednesday morning, this headline led The New Zealand Herald’s daily email update of news stories:

"Mother dies from bike crash moments after taking this smiling selfie"

Carmen Greenway had taken the picture of herself shortly before she sustained a fatal head injury during a short night-time bike ride near her home in London.

How stuff.co.nz headlined the selfie of Carmen Greenway.

How stuff.co.nz headlined the selfie of Carmen Greenway. Photo: screenshot

Her devastated husband was quoted as saying his wife would still be alive today if she had been wearing a helmet. He called on the UK government to make it a legal requirement there.

The so-called "smiling selfie" was also on the stuff.co.nz homepage for most of the morning with the heading 'LAST MOMENT'.

But Carmen Greenway actually died six days after the accident in hospital - almost six weeks ago.

The headlines last Wednesday could have been: “Husband of Kiwi killed in cycle tragedy urges compulsory helmet law change for UK”

But that would not have gone to top of the "Most Viewed" and "Most Shared" lists of stuff.co.nz and nzherald.co.nz. 

News websites in Peru, Poland, Italy and elsewhere also seized on the clickable and shareable potential of that selfie.

New rules of news

What people are sharing - or will share - online these days often overrides traditional news values.

Even at the most established news outlets need to get used to that, says Hal Crawford, the chief news officer at MediaWorks and the editor of its multi-media Newshub.

"Social networks provide laboratories for stories. Radio and television offer a certain amount of data about how the audience is reacting to what you're doing, but it's not detailed. But on social media, you're getting signals about what people value and use. That can inform what you do on other platforms," he told Mediawatch

In July, he succeeded Mark Jennings  - the country’s longest-serving senior news boss who had been with TV3 since the channel was founded in 1989. Hal Crawford’s career is quite different - and altogether more multi-media.

He cut his teeth at the West Australian newspaper, before moving abroad to join Radio Netherlands, and back to Australia with NineMSN, the online platform of commercial TV channel Nine.

He found the NineMSN audience was getting more and more of content not from NineMSN or its news partners, but directly from friends sharing it on social media networks. With Nine MSN’s backing in 2013 he set up Share Wars to identify the stories subjects and issues most likely to be read, viewed and shared online.

Last year, the Share Wars team wrote up their conclusions in a provocative book All Your Friends Like This: How Social Networks Took Over News.

In a nutshell, this says the audience likes stories that are simple, emotional, new and which trigger a response prompting people to share them with others.

The woman who took a selfie shortly before her tragic preventable death was such a story, even though Carmen Greenway's death was 'old news'. A grieving husband’s call for a law change on helmets - not so much.

But where does that leave the boring but significant stories that often lead bulletins and lead newspaper front pages  - but may not be as "likeable" on Facebook?

"When you have important stories like the fate of our fisheries or homelessness, you don't decide to run the story or not based on whether it might go well on Facebook," says Hal Crawford. 

"However, you might be faced with a decision about covering one story and not another. It may be that what you learn from Facebook will help you pitch it," he said.

But when people share or react to a story online on their own personal social media accounts, they are acting purely as individuals. By contrast, a live nationwide Newshub at 6 TV bulletin is collectively watched by hundreds of thousands of people. The broadcast of a significant story can even be a national event.

Collective intelligence applies also to material on social media, Hal Crawford argues.

"People in aggregate don't act like an individual. Sometimes a collective intelligence tells you a lot about a story. Every online news editor gets to feel that".

"Part of the reason people wring their hands and say journalism has gone to the dogs is that they misunderstand people clicking on shark attack stories before more important stories. It doesn't mean people are stupid. There are stories of broad human appeal, but the same people looking at those may also seek out substantial stories about, say, technology". 

Hal Crawford said he was "gobsmacked" by the interest this week in the opening of a new branch of a fashion store Zara. It followed a news frenzy over the launch of H&M stores last week. Is that a real news story? 

"It's not for me to say: 'i'm not going to cover the launch of a shop' just because I think it might affect my credibility if it interests people so much," says Hal Crawford.

If MediaWorks' Newshub embraces what the greatest number of the audience selects online, isn't that like having news ordered by clap-o-moter? The most popular topics - which may be trivial - will be top priority? 

"You shouldn't only be led by what people click on. You end up with a feedback loop. There's no creative impetus there. But social networks see what you share and what you value. That's why they can make news better".