“And despite evidence of news consumption by Facebook users—half of whom report getting news across at least six topic areas—recent Pew Research data finds these consumers to have rather low levels of engagement with news sites.”
That statement in the annual State of the News Media 2014 report by Pew should send chills up the spines of editors of news sites. It outlines a problem that has been evident for several years — social media is replacing news sites as information centers.
Here is a recent example: On Sunday, a man with knives wandered the UNC-Chapel Hill campus intimidating and threatening people. Alert Carolina sent out a text to students, staff and faculty, and posted a notice on its website, telling people to get to a safe place and lock the doors. And by most accounts, it was the first notice. But then social media took over.
Here is a collection of thoughts from some of my students about how they got the information. Here are just two:
John Murray wrote: “The news traveled more quickly, and more effectively through a massive social networking site, and not an official first-rate University of North Carolina-approved system of communicating. Simply put, Facebook did it better. They reached a widespread college audience more quickly, and could have potentially saved more lives in the wake of a crisis because of it.”
Nora Fritz appreciated the sense of community that the sharing of information created. “I just think it’s amazing that within maybe two minutes of receiving the campus wide email alerting us to seek shelter, I already knew just about as much as possible. My phone was literally blowing up with news and updates of the situation, from people in the union and Davis library to Franklin Street and beyond. I was actually ahead of the school in terms of information, if that’s possible. I knew the suspect had been arrested before the school informed its students.”
Alert Carolina is run by the public safety department at UNC-Chapel Hill. Like a news organization, it has the responsibility of getting accurate information to the public quickly. And that takes time as this sentence on the Alert Carolina website says: “Remember, though, that it may take time in an emergency for authorities to determine the facts and to provide the campus with instructions.”
Meanwhile, students are communicating with each other outside of “official” channels. While an outsider might think, “well, that’s an opportunity to spread misinformation,” students trust their friends, real and virtual. And by my following of the word spread on social media, the information was quick, accurate timely and helpful.
This is not an uncommon problem for news organizations. They need to get their facts straight before they send out information. Consequently, they usually lag behind the social networks. What can they do? Do what’s been recommended for several years:
* Go to where the people are. The Pew data shows clearly that they aren’t coming to you. That means you must be more active on social media, not just during crises, but all of the time. Spreading news, telling stories and engaging with people.
* Aggregate and curate information, both on your site, and on the social networks. How many news sites link to other sites? How many of the news sites on Facebook and Twitter link to other sites beyond their own?
* Become a “friend.” Too many sites are impersonal. If they were a person, you wouldn’t want them as a friend. They broadcast and don’t interact. They aren’t interesting. They send out bland messages without personality or opinion.
* Put a priority on getting information out quickly. Don’t save things for your website, print product or newscast. (Yes, I know that’s where the money is. Think long-term readership/viewership.) The possibility of making a mistake is greater — although less great than you may think — so be alert and correct it as quickly as you can.
Your present and future audience has learned to get information from not you. Oh, they’ll come to you directly if the story is big and they want more information. But that’s not all that often. It’s like you’re a dictionary. They’ll come when they need to know the correct spelling. That’s not what you want. Figure this out.
I am reminded of a conversation I had several years ago with one of my bosses who was baffled by a neighbor who quit taking the paper. “Where do you get your news,” he asked her.
“From Facebook,” she responded.
P.S. As I was writing this, Chrome crashed. I went to Twitter and wrote: “You’ve crashed enough on me, Google Chrome. I’m wise to you now. Hello, Firefox.” Within the hour, someone from Mozilla Firebox tweeted me this: “Thanx for joining Moz! You’re now part of our global community. We’re here if you need help http://mzl.la/Kubiog.”
Would your news site be that welcoming?