Newsworthy stories, my professor explained, had at least two or three of these characteristics. For instance, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris fell into at least five or six of the seven categories, making the event a given front-page headline for media outlets around the world.
But my Journalism 101 course and all its materials were created before social media took over. Now that Facebook and Twitter are go-to sources for news content, have these age-old journalistic principles become irrelevant? And if they have, what does that mean for society?
According to a study by Pew Research, the number of people who get their news from Facebook and Twitter has increased significantly over the past few years. As of 2015, 63 percent of Facebook users turn to the social platform for their daily news, and the same percent of Twitter users browse news stories via the site.
It’s an understandable trend—after all, you’re probably logging in to social media anyway, so why not kill two birds with one stone? You can catch up with your friends while figuring out what’s going on in the world. Sounds like a win-win, right?
It seems pretty logical, until you browse the “trending news” sidebar on Facebook or the “Moments” tab on Twitter. Frankly, a lot of the so-called news that appears on social media is pretty irrelevant. For example, from the Facebook screenshot to the right, I’d be willing to bet that only two or three of these “top stories” would actually make it into a newspaper. Is the release of a new American Girl doll relevant to society? Does it have an impact on the world? Is it a novel event? I’m sure it’s interesting to some, but I’m not convinced that it’s worthy of a top news spot, whether on Facebook or anywhere else. After all, if it only meets one of the newsworthiness characteristics, can it really be considered news?
In the era of social media, newsworthiness is no longer a matter of timeliness, proximity, impact, and the like. Instead, it’s a matter of shareability. When it comes to social media, the masses are in charge of what makes the top news, and often, less-than-newsworthy stories make headlines simply because they’re shareable.
For example, I can almost guarantee that you have an opinion on “The Dress”—for the record, I’m on team blue and black—but did you know that in early November, a plastic bag factory collapsed in Pakistan, killing 20 people? The New York Times covered the story, but it never made it into the ranks of Facebook’s trending news.
If you break it down, trending news on social media is generally composed of two types of stories:
Based on this theory, it’s safe to assume there’s a lot of important-but-not-huge news that flies under most people’s radar. Is this a good thing? In a way, it allows people to read only the stories they care about. But there’s something to be said for putting traditionally newsworthy stories in front of audiences—even if they don’t necessarily want to read the article, people benefit more from knowing there are pressing safety issues in overseas manufacturing facilities than knowing the Kardashians are on vacation in the Caribbean, right?
The shift in the way people consume news and, subsequently, the topics they consider to be newsworthy has big implications for brands and media companies alike. All of a sudden, reporting on international relations and local legislation isn’t as rewarding—in terms of traffic, anyway—as posting the latest updates in the Taylor Swift/Nicki Minaj feud. So what’s the next step for content producers?
Initially, it’s probably a good idea to revisit your news content goals. Are you trying to provide value to your readers and build strong, trusting relationships? In this case, you may want to stick with more serious, traditional news stories. This type of content will attract a more intellectual, socially conscious audience, but your article probably won’t go viral. Alternatively, you might want to get your brand name in front of as many people as possible, and to that end, shareable topics that entertain or shock audiences may be the way to go.
Of course, there are some content creators that manage to have their cake and eat it, too. One noteworthy example is “Humans of New York,” which often uses human interest stories to raise awareness about serious world events. For instance, the blog recently wrapped up a series on Syrian refugees who are fleeing the country because of the civil war, and several of its posts made it to Facebook’s top trending news spot after racking up hundreds of thousands of likes and tens of thousands of shares.
This approach—using touching, shareable stories that are directly connected to a newsworthy event—is one way that brands can make the most out of the strange situation that social media news has created. Another option is to put a fresh spin on traditional reporting to make important news more shareable. Instead of producing cut-and-dry articles in true journalistic style, theSkimm puts a punny, quirky spin on the news each day. The goal of the newsletter is to make you chuckle while you read about Korea’s supposed H-bomb test and other traditionally newsworthy stories, and if its 1.5 million subscribers are any indication, the modern media company is hitting its mark.
In the modern age of social media, brands are often intently focused on giving readers what they want in hopes of creating the next viral news story. However, there’s something to be said for swimming against the current and maintaining more traditional journalistic principles—who knows, it could be exactly what your audience is looking for in a world of trending news.
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