Thursday, May 27, 2010

It's News To Me

Quick, answer this question; What is news?

Don't think about it, just give a from-the-gut reaction.  Is it what's happening in your neighborhood?  Your state?  Your country?  Does it involve murders, or Senate bills or elections?  Is it about recalls or rollouts or layoffs?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, aaannnnddd...yes.  I've been asked by many, many people over the years to define news.  My response has always been akin to that famous quote by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when asked to define obscenity.  I feel the same way about news. I cannot attempt to define news, perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so, but I know it when I see it.

Perhaps it comes from a lifetime as a newsie.  Maybe I've just developed a sixth sense of what is news and what isn't.  On more than one occassion I've outlined the elements of a good news story in this space.  When journalists decide what stories to run, these are the primary factors they use in their decisions:

1.  Proximity
2.  Timeliness
3.  Impact
4.  Relevance
5.  Wow Factor

What I don't want to do, though, is give the image of a journalist going over a checklist on every story they cover or write about.  Particularly in broadcast journalism, there are just too many stories to do that with.  There are a lot of factors that go into making decisions when choosing which stories will go in their top of the hour radio newscast or A-block in the 6pm show. 

Audience, time availability, resource availability, access to information, etc.  All of those things matter to producers and anchors when making news decisions.  Often times, you look at a story and you just KNOW that it's a good one.  The above checklist generally only comes into play when you have to choose between two quality stories.  One stays, one has to go, grab the checklist and compare. 

Before we move forward, I want to post an article recently published as part of the Pew Research Center's study of news and media: (Article from the GaurdianWeekly website, click to read full post)
On blogs, 53% of the lead stories in a given week stay on the list no more than three days. On Twitter, that is true of 72% of lead stories, and more than half (52%) are on the list for just 24 hours.
More than 99% of the stories linked to in blogs came from legacy outlets such as newspapers and broadcast networks. And just four - the BBC, CNN, the New York TimesWashington Post - accounted for fully 80% of all links. and the
Each social media platform also seems to have its own personality and function... bloggers gravitated toward stories that elicited emotion, concerned individual or group rights or triggered ideological passion...
Social media tend to home in on stories that get much less attention in the mainstream press. And there is little evidence... of the traditional press then picking up on those stories in response.
What Does This Mean?

You might be asking, why did I post this, why does it matter and what does it mean?  First, I think it's a fascinating look at how social media (or what is being called, New Media) still depends on more traditional media outlets for up to the minute information.

At the same time, it's interesting to see how social media platforms such as Twitter tend to be making their own news, or at the very least talking about issues, ideas and events that mainstream (or Old Media) isn't paying much attention to.

I still think social media is growing and transforming and figuring out what it will look like and do when it grows up.  Remember, we're still dealing with a technology in its relative infancy.  Newspapers, radio and TV have had decades upon decades to figure out how to play the game.  Social media is just learning how to crawl in comparison. 

With that said, I think it's unfair to say that mainstream news ignores Twitter.  I have all my major local news outlets linked on my Twitter.  At least one of those, KCNC in Denver, asks viewers for feedback and input daily.  I know what is being discussed in the newsmeetings through their Tweets and can toss in my two cents if I choose.

What we CAN say about social media is that it's transforming news.  Not only is it making interaction between journalist and audience easier, it's changing the way news gathers information, finds sources and even how it chooses stories in some instances.

Still Looking:

But we still haven't defined "news" yet, have we?  No, and we won't.  That's because news is almost impossible to define.  You can't really take news and put it in a box and say, "There, THAT'S news!"  You can't do this because what you might consider news, I might consider frivolous.

I know friends who watch "E" News Nightly.  If you haven't seen this show, it's a hodge-podge of celebrity gossip, Hollywood rumors and papparazzi pictures.  I don't live in L.A.  I don't care who is sleeping with who.  To me, calling that show "news" is ridiculous.  However millions of people across America care deeply about the comings and goings of Justin Bieber, Ryan Seacrest and the cast of LOST.  To them, this information really is news.

Let's go one step further.  I'm a single, 40-year old bachelor who's never been married.  I have no children, I have a small extended family.  I see a story involving babies and toys or babies and carseats, babies and recalls, babies and, well, just about anything, I skip right over it.  It doesn't matter to me, I don't care.  And yet, for millions and millions of Americans, this information not only matters, it can sometimes be a matter of life and death.

One more example:  I love history, particularly ancient history.  I subscribe to Biblical Archaeology Review.  I get excited when I read about a new discovery or finding.  I get into the debates involving the authenticity of certain objects.  To me, that's news.  To most, it inspires little more than a huge yawn.  When I worked at KUSA, I worked with an executive producer who loved everything space and NASA.  We would joke that if NASA pitched it, we covered it.

And that's where social media has made its biggest impact.  Platforms like Facebook and Twitter and blogs and LinkedIn allows every single person to find the information they are interested in and post it, talk about it and follow it as much or as little as they choose to.  Your daughter just graduated from High School?  Great!  Post it on Facebook.  It's news to you. 

In essence, anything you're interested in, anything that is new that you find fascinating can be news.  Certainly the local paper isn't going to run a story on the death of your beloved dog Scruffy.  But you can post an article and tell the world what a great companion he was.

If graffiti taggers are hitting your neighborhood, you can post about that.  You are a reporter, today, everyone is.  Social media has given everybody the tools traditionally used by journalists.  You can shoot pics with your phone, you can even shoot video with your phone, and then post your pic or vids online with a short blurb and suddenly you're a reporter.

The biggest difference remains the resources media outlets have at their fingertips to cover stories such as press conferences, murders, shootings, governmental issues, educational issues, etc.  But social media has billions of users out there every day shooting pics, taking video and talking about what matters to them.  As an individual, you can only cover so much.  But as a base, the social media resource vastly outnumbers even the great resources amassed by more traditional media outlets. 

I'll leave you with this...

When I was teaching journalism to future PR students at The University of Colorado at Denver, I was asked about journalistic ethics.  What are they, where are the rules written down.  I told them that there was only one hard and fast written rule of journalistic ethics; "Don't Lie."

After that, it was up to them to decide what was ethical and what wasn't.  There isn't a written rule about being "off the record".  In fact, I tell my clients that if they don't want it to be reported, don't say it.  There is no written rule about the sanctity of a source.  You can choose to burn a source if you want, but there will be ramifications.

The same holds true for defining news.  Yes, the dictionary has a definition, but I find it pretty unsatisfactory as we move into the second decade of the 21st century.  There is only one hard and fast written rule about news; "It exists."  After that, YOU decide what is news and what isn't.  This has been true since man first started writing down on cave walls what their neighbor was doing or how the "big hunt" went.  The difference today is that social media technology gives every person the ability to either report on what they find interesting, or read about those issues they determine to be "news". 

This is the big challenge facing the future of both "Old Media" and "New Media" as we move forward.  The best part is that the winner in this epic struggle is you.  As a small business owner or non-profit manager, you have the ability to speak directly to those who find your "news" interesting without having to beg or plead with traditional media outlets.

At the same time, you can reach out to those who may not be aware of your organization and present them with your "news" in ways you couldn't just five years ago.  You are your own network, your own reporter, your own producer, your own media outlet.  Take advantage of this.  Go out and report on your industry, let the world know about what you do, how you do and why you do it better than anyone else. 

To me...THAT'S news!

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