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No, newsrooms don't need to cede control to social media.

A senior man reading a newspaper

In the Washington Post, Taylor Lorenz writes about how influencers creating news content directly on modern social networks are outstripping traditional news sites in popularity:

News consumption hit a tipping point around the globe during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, with more people turning to social media platforms such as TikTok, YouTube and Instagram than to websites maintained by traditional news outlets.

[…] “There are no reasonable grounds for expecting that those born in the 2000s will suddenly come to prefer old-fashioned websites, let alone broadcast and print, simply because they grow older,” Reuters Institute Director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen said in the report, which is based on an online survey of roughly 94,000 adults in 46 national markets, including the United States.

The trouble is, of course, that creators and publications who publish directly on social media platforms are putting themselves at the mercy of the business decisions and policy whims of those companies. The history of the internet is packed with stories of publications that fell afoul of algorithmic or business changes at tech companies which earned their trust. The phrase “pivot to video” — an artifact of when Facebook enticed publishers to create more video on its platforms using falsified metrics — will still elicit a wince from newsroom product teams. Even more recently, Twitter’s journey over the last year serves as a potent warning about how platforms can devolve, potentially bringing dependent publications down with them.

But that’s doesn’t mean Taylor or the Reuters Institute report she cites are wrong. There are two key factors at play here: a loss of trust in journalistic institutions in favor of individuals, and a change in expectations around where to find content on the internet.

The loss of trust in institutions has been ongoing for decades, and in some cases is well-earned. It’s also part of a shift in trust from brands to individuals overall. That’s been accelerated by social media in part, but really comes down to human dynamics. Influencers tend to be more representative of audience demographics than news institutions, which still skew older, richer, whiter, and male. They’re more likely to more closely represent the views of younger people. It’s fundamentally easier to trust a real person who is representative of your communities than some faceless organization that represents the more traditional values of the older audience members who are more likely to pay for subscriptions or make a donation.

Fixing the trust gap is not about technology. It means hiring (far) more diverse journalists and managers, surfacing the faces of journalists, and more closely representing the concerns of younger and more diverse communities.

Currently, the website represents the faceless institution while social media represents the human individual. Consider the logo on the masthead, the walls of text, the lack of human presence. That’s not to say that’s what a website has to look like — the web is a blank canvas with infinite possibilities — but that’s what most news websites have chosen to look like today, as holdovers from the newspaper front page as designed in the 1600s. It’s due an overhaul that takes our trust in the individuals behind news into account and puts journalists front and center. News websites have not evolved much, while social media has transformed itself completely over the last decade. There’s a lot of ground to be gained by actually innovating on the website itself.

But then you still have to reach people.

Bloggers, who were widely maligned by journalistic institutions when they surged to brief popularity a few decades ago, spearheaded the flip from institutions to influencers. There has been a minor but influential blogging resurgence, enabled by WordPress, Substack, and Medium; regardless, the form of the blog itself has hardly remained a mainstream force. It’s great for niche news and commentary (consider Stratechery’s hold on the tech industry, for example, or Molly White’s excellent reporting work on crypto) but not necessarily for news designed for a mainstream audience.

Publications tend to try and own their relationships with their audiences by setting up email newsletters: a way to measure engagement and understand who their readers are without having to enter a payment relationship. The trouble is, Gen Z sees email as some archaic technology that they don’t really want to use, preferring social media and instant messaging.

There’s no getting away from the fact that, today, a majority of internet users discover their news through social platforms. They’re hearing about it on TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram, where they’re consuming it natively, and a minority is clicking through to publisher websites from the other social networks.

This isn’t a given or a force of nature. It depends on the kind of news (and therefore the characteristics of its target community), and where publishers overall are choosing to post content. I’m aware of one major newsroom that has actually increased social media clickthroughs to its own website over the last year, bucking the trend by at least experimenting with every network from TikTok to Mastodon. Call this strategy “meeting people where they’re at” — and where they’re at is a more fractious social media landscape than it was a year ago. If newsrooms are sticking to the same networks they were publishing to a few years ago, no wonder their clickthroughs are down. The changes in the social media landscape do not, in themselves, need to be a reason to post directly to social media instead of an environment controlled by the publisher: there is no need to cede full control of a publisher’s online presence to another company. A website will outlive every social media platform.

Which isn’t to say that changes to digital strategy don’t need to be made. The article is still the basic unit of journalism, which is a holdover from newspapers: there’s no platform reason why it can’t be more interactive experiences instead (although this clearly would require staffing newsrooms with different skillsets). Those experiences need to be easily shareable on social media, because news sites tend not to be destinations in themselves. SEO, still a big cost center for many newsrooms, is not anywhere near as important as having a thriving social media team that posts, shares, and replies wherever community members can be found. (We’re a quarter century out from The Cluetrain Manifesto and the core message of markets are conversations doesn’t seem to have quite landed yet.)

In other words:

  • Technology changes are not as important as ensuring the newsroom reflects your community editorially and demographically.
  • People are always more trustworthy than brands.
  • Nothing absolves publishers from building community (not “audience”, which implies a one-way relationship), across the social media landscape and beyond.
  • Publishers (through their individual journalists and personalities) should be everywhere their community is.
  • Social media platforms are therefore unavoidable but also not to be trusted.
  • The central importance of the website doesn’t mean that the form and content of the website doesn’t need to evolve.
  • Newsrooms should build their product (their website, apps, direct messaging, social media presences) to directly meet their community’s needs, based on (1) being representative of that community and (2) making active listening and learning a core part of how they work.

Should publishers build community on platforms owned by third parties or publish to a space fully under their control? The answer is an emphatic “yes”: you have to do both. Social media platforms are ephemeral — they are hugely popular but will appear and disappear — while your website is forever. Your digital strategy has to encompass both the near term and the long term.

The internet in 2024 will not work like the internet did in 2019 (and certainly not like the web in 2009 or news publishing in 1969). You can’t keep doing the same stuff and expect it to keep working — particularly if you’re not interrogating why those tactics used to work in the first place. Every publisher needs to think for themselves and find a set of core principles to adhere to instead of a set of core tactics.

“When you are finished changing, you are finished.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

So let’s change.

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