How pure is the 'news' delivered by your social-media news feeds?

jkidd@beaufortgazette.comJanuary 28, 2013 

I know my readers, and none of you are gullible enough to believe everything you read in your Facebook news feed.

But I wonder, do you believe everything in those feeds qualifies as news?

The rise of social-media marketing and hyper-local news-gathering has been largely for the good, in my view. (And truth be told, my view doesn't matter much, anyway; millions of people and businesses find utility in reading or delivering content to social media and behave accordingly.) Nonetheless, they threaten a gradual blurring of the distinction between information and news - a blurring that could further devolve by obliterating distinctions between news and gossip, too.

This excerpt from Columbia Journalism Review article about the effort of Patch, a network of hyper-local news sites, provides an example of the small increments of such a devolution:

Patch hopes that all 903 of its hyper-local news sites will be profitable by the end of 2013, and that many of them will have migrated to a less-newsy, more community-based platform, company president Warren Webster said. (Emphasis added.)

Does Webster mean Patch is moving toward a Facebook model that is more about ginning up traffic and user responses - a click or a comment, for example - than it is with vetting the news? Perhaps that's taking his words a half step too far, but the story does note criticism that Patch understaffs its properties, works employees like rented mules and has slashed freelancer budgets.

Of course, there are plenty of folks in the legacy media who would say this new focus sounds a lot like their shops, too.

Indeed, it must be acknowledged that virtually every online news outlet is concerned these days with increasing traffic and attracting more unique visitors. Most are using social media to help reach those goals, and that includes The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. In deed, I look at web analytics every day and could arguably be described as negligent if, in today's environment, I didn't.

But the pursuit of audience (a lot of the industry doesn't even refer to them as "readers" anymore) isn't always the same thing as the pursuit of news value. When these pursuits diverge, it can shift where we place our resources.

To illustrate the point, consider these three local stories.

* Hit-and-run driver runs out of breath during police chase

* Armadillos making their way into SC

* Property tax bills could rise despite declining property values

Which of these stories do you think is the most important? Which do you think got the most traffic?

As a former sports writer and sports editor who loved the story-telling opportunities that subject matter provided, I'm the last person to scold anyone who craves the entertaining. I also understand the allure of the quirky and salacious stories, and that it is a mistake for news outlets predicated upon cultivating a general audience, such as newspapers, to expect all readers to wear starched briefs.

The drive-by information free-for-all that is social media is a great place to promote content that is sassy, provocative or even frivilous.

But no one intent upon an update of Middle East peace or an explanation of new tax policy would start their search on Facebook, and no outlet intent upon balancing entertainment with substanative news reporting should measure content strictly by the reaction it is likely to arouse on social media.

There, news vies for attention with memes, Instagram photos of lunch plates, and pleas from commercial interests to follow or friend. Also joining the deluge of information are producers of quasi-news - marketers who present unvetted, promotional information without identifying it as such. Those who grew up reading newspapers or news magazines likely still discern between content that is provided for pay or self interest, but Twitter and Facebook, where the rules are different, provide to the younger generations the introduction to information-gathering that once was the province of the comics and sports pages.

Do you suppose those people will ever develop an apettite -- and the attention span -- for news that requires deeper engagement than an off-the-cuff comment or clicking "like"?

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