Important vs. compelling: the role of social networks in the disruption of journalism.

One of the most engaging SXSWi keynotes was a conversation between Eli Pariser, Co-founder of the news curation site Upworthy, and David Carr, Media and Pop Culture reporter for the New York Times. A extension of Carr’s coverage of Upworthy’s founding two years ago, the talk laid bare the causes of disruption of journalism today: The democratization of publishing has caused what has commonly been defined as “newsworthy” to be redefined as much by the news consumer as the news producer.

The tile of the talk references the algorithms (notably, Facebook’s news feed as well as Google’s ranking system) that increasingly determine the news we consume, and the fuel that feeds those algorithms are all the lightweight interactions news consumers have that determine whether something is “newsworthy.” 

This means that newsworthy stories like the changing Healthcare landscape or the ongoing war in Afghanistan now have to compete with cat videos and Kim Kardashian – stories that, while less important for our culture, are more easily engaged by the masses. Carr’s employer has a civic responsibility to report the news objectively, and most news organizations still define what is newsworthy by a commonly agreed upon set of values, but now that the consumer is in control, the industry as a whole seems to be asking the question: If no one reads the important stories, are news organizations actually accomplish their “civic mission?”

Upworthy confronts this by having a clear point of view, which affords it a well-defined audience with shared cultural values for them to tap into. By exploiting the “curiosity gap” by writing compelling headlines that invite people to click and read more is far removed from the way traditional journalists see the headline.

This 13 minute video from The Nation of an expose of racial profiling isn’t anyone’s idea of a viral video, but when Upworthy posted it, it received over 3 million views in a matter of days.

In this new world, the established and trusted news producers as well as the up-and-coming disruptors should think more like an algorithm does, namely:

  • Measure attention over visitors. Upworthy has moved on from unique visitors as a KPI to other metrics, such as time spent engaging with a story. These metrics, he states, are better indications that the story will perform well in the algorithms that will eventually deliver it to his audience.
  • Articles need more than one type of headline. Headlines that work in the Facebook news feed – the one that exploits the curiosity gap – tend to work horribly in search algorithms, where the important keywords that describe the article are needed.
  • Visual storytelling is paramount. The Times has invested heavily in research and development to look at the future of the news, including the art of visual storytelling, a muscle that came in handy for their reporting on the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Newspapers can remain objective but still create compelling stories from important content. The Washington Post’s Know More blog is a perfect example, and it’s become one of their most visited blogs in their network. At the same time, the disruption of journalism is causing far-reaching changes in the industry, including  compensating journalists for increased traffic.

Now that individual news stories have been decoupled from the newspaper or the news homepage, and are increasingly being deemed newsworthy by a set of constantly shifting algorithms, the more that data will help define the future of an industry so important to our society that it is protected under the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution.