Instead of talking about why newspapers aren’t working let’s talk about why social media is working. We’ve come to the point in this decade-long conversation that I think we can stop wringing our hands about traditional journalism outlets and start celebrating the success of social networks.
Should we care about the death of newspapers? Except for the New York Times and maybe the Washington Post, nearly every daily is shrinking. But people are still getting the news. They know about the coronavirus and the presidential election. Some of them are getting that information from TV, but most of them, and nearly all of those under age 40, are getting it from social media.
For starters, free web news is the backbone of online journalism today. Online aggregators like the Huffington Post, Politico, BuzzFeed, and others repurpose news from other sources and readers pay for it with their personal information. Readers share articles through their social profiles, fulfilling widespread demand for free news without subscribing to a publication.
Social platforms stack rank news stories of the day based on posts like these and those from the publications themselves. Click on trending in Twitter and get an infinite scroll of today’s top stories. Why subscribe when you get that for free?
The quality of the experience isn’t great but if you’re living inside your favorite social media platform, it’s far better than visiting another application.
What’s needed is real news designed for sharing on social media. This would encourage people to share fact-checked news. It would provide accurate content for a well informed electorate. It would help reduce false alarms and overreactions. It would help reestablish the baseline for social discourse.
This is where we can make a difference now. Let’s reorient news content around the 280 character and photo dimension limits of Twitter, for example. Or the format of Reddit. Or the photo-hungry needs of Instagram. Let’s also change the news cycle. Traditional articles still appear in the morning, following the centuries-old model of newspapers and newsmakers. But life and social media are constant. At some point the critical mass of reporters must break from dailies and push articles all hours.
Then there’s the matter of paying journalists. How will these new models make money? There are three income schemes to consider. There’s the advertising model. Well understood but a major nuisance for consumers (but hey, free). There’s the paywall model. This is working out supremely well for the NYT, and used with modest success by others. And there’s the third party approach, where a company like Starbucks gives you free access to NYT and dozens of other paid outlets whenever you’re in their stores. Imagine that model extended to other loyalty programs like Prime, Hilton Hhonors, Capital One credit cards, etc.
“Sentimentality is probably the biggest enemy for the magazine business,” David Carey, the president of Hearst Magazines, said in an interview. “You have to embrace the future.”
It may be that journalism is in deep trouble because it no longer serves the needs of a changing society. Everyone lives on their favorite social media platforms. It’s time we built the news around that.