Like It or Not, Big Platforms Have Changed Journalism

We all know how the news media business model has been disrupted, with Google and Facebook sweeping up vast shares of online advertising revenue, leaving everyone else to fight for the scraps, negotiate (often from weakness) for a piece of the pie, and focusing more on increasing revenues directly from readers.

What is less obvious, and easier to overlook, is the profound impact the big platforms have had on the journalism itself.

While Google, Facebook and other big platforms produce little content themselves, they do have enormous impact on the way the vast majority of people consume information today, and that sets the agenda for everyone else. Like it or not, they influence how news media produce—or should produce—the news and information our societies rely on.

For example, a company reviewing the viewership data of its videos noticed that videos of 3 minutes or less were getting decent audiences and completion rates, while videos of 10 minutes or so were unwatched, even if the subject matter of the longer videos was compelling and merited the additional length.

The evidence seems clear: the audiences for the longer videos wasn’t significant enough to justify producing them, and the shorter videos were far more popular. Therefore, the conclusion from this insight would be to stop producing longer videos to focus resources on short, sharp reports.

But journalists, who generally defend long stories if the subject merits longer treatment, sometimes find it difficult to accept new limitations based on non-journalistic criteria. Do we wish that viewers would spend 10 minutes with a video on an important subject? Of course, we do. But the reality is the video is useless if nobody watches it, and we are better off producing shorter videos that have greater viewership.

People have become habituated to opening their phones dozens of times a day, but for short durations each time. We can blame social media for shortening society’s attention span, and we can lament it, but we cannot ignore it. We have to adapt our practices to the new reality.

Likewise, audio and video have become ubiquitous, and many newsrooms should be commended for their creative use of these formats. No matter the platform or format, storytelling remains the core asset of journalism and newsrooms, and it is exciting to see these skills used in new ways. But far too often, remnants of print culture inhibit the effectiveness of video and audio. In many newsrooms, it is often still the case for a reporter to write a story, then turn to a separate video or audio unit that was not involved in the genesis of the story, to seek out the visual and audio elements afterwards. This forces a scramble to produce these materials, which are still often seen as “ornaments” or bells and whistles.

In fact, for some stories or topics, video and audio should be driving the discussion, with text taking a back seat. Studies consistently show that many consumers would rather watch a video than read online, and that video links increase the readership of email newsletters substantially. After all, YouTube (after Google) is the second biggest search engine.

Again, some audiences have become habituated to this, and are turned off if audio and video aren’t the default materials online. Getting journalists to think visually first, and written second, takes a culture change but reflects what certain audiences want and need.

Audience expectations are also evolving when it comes to personalization, community and engagement online. The big platforms are again setting the agenda, tailoring news feeds based on a vast pool of data that digital media provides. Some news media are also leveraging data and audience knowledge, and incorporating this information into the news they produce. But too often they continue to see their role as providing “something for everyone,” and therefore not adequately developing new products and services that respond directly to the needs of different segments of their audiences.

When it comes to community and engagement, the social presence of many news media companies also remains an afterthought. A large number of companies—not just media—have become adept at social media marketing, with vast teams animating their social presence. But most news media companies have been slow to develop their “off platform” teams, leaving it to a small array of digital youngsters to manage their social media and community strategies, and wondering why they have limited success.

One thing to remember, though, is that understanding and making changes based on audience expectations, which are driven by digital habits, is more a change of performance and not of mission. What remains the same is more important than what changes: to be the source of credible news, information and opinion that cannot be found elsewhere, which differentiates quality news media from others, with the skills and traditions that others cannot match. The ways of presenting this content have largely been changed by forces outside our command, but taking a lesson from the big platforms isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it helps us fulfil our essential role.