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An antisocial media distraction


Facebook is effective at spreading thethe word, but how many people arereally listening, asks Gary Cullum

I I’VE just read that Guardian editor Katharine Viner has warned that social media giants such as Facebook have become “overwhelmingly powerful” and “a real concern for the news industry”.

Indeed, survey data from the Reuters Institute Digital News report, published last month, found that social media has overtaken print as a source of news in the UK and that Facebook is by far the most popular social network.

In comments reported by Digiday, Viner said: “Social media companies have become overwhelmingly powerful in determining what we read and whether publishers make any money.

“The idea of challenging the wide-open worldwide web has been replaced by platforms and publishers who maximise the amount of time you spend with them and find clever ways to stop you leaving. That may be great news for advertisers and the platforms themselves, but it’s a real concern for the news industry.”

Tweaks to the way Facebook presents content to its members can have huge implications for the traffic of news websites. Publishers are expecting to see a drop in online audiences after Facebook this month said it would prioritise posts from peoples’ friends over those created by publishers.

Viner said Google and Facebook have driven audience growth to news websites but that “innovative journalism needs a new business model”.

That’s very true, but not an easy conundrum to solve. Guardian News and Media is currently promoting a membership scheme, which invites readers to support its journalism by paying £5 a month. An appeal by Viner for readers to help fund journalism the day after the Referendum when the Guardian enjoyed a record 17 million web users was said to be “hugely successful”.

Targeted marketing

Not only is social media diverting a big percentage of news revenue, but it offers a smart way of targeting the individual smartphone. Or does it?

Take the event in my village last weekend; five wonderful gardens open to the public to raise funds for the village church.

Local newspapers were supportive with advance publicity although a near decade of cutbacks means they sell just a few hundred copies on my small village High Street despite growing web presences.

At the press of a few Facebook buttons after uploading some publicity images from last year’s event I spread word of the event by targeting the handsets of 74,000 people in our surrounding area.

Last year 300 people attended; last weekend 681 tickets were sold and in excess of £5k was raised for the church. The audience doubled, yet talking to many of those who attended they said they hadn’t seen it on Facebook; rather they had read about it in the two main local papers. 

Yes, social media IS overwhelmingly powerful and yes it IS a concern for newspapers desperate to seek new and enhanced revenue streams and create business models for the new media age we live and work in.

But let’s not forget the trusted engagement between reader and newspaper. While I use Facebook to promote village life, it is a combination of social media and engaging with the newspaper that pays dividends.

And in a society of misinformation and mistruths – just look at the lines (I said lines, not lies) that the politicians fed the news media and voters that completely confused the Referendum issue.

We must continue to invest in the high quality journalism that sets our news brands aside from the hubbub that is social media.

Indeed, just last month the World Editors Forum approved five principles (see those at pjnews.co.uk) to help rebuild trust in professional journalism, and take that journalism to a new level.

Knowledge empowers

Marcelo Rech, WEF president and editorial vice-president of Grupo RBS in Brazil, said: “Given the current reality where false and distorted information is easily shared, we need to distinguish professional journalism and secure greater public recognition of its relevance. At this next level, the search for truth, a concept that lies at the genesis of journalism, is now more necessary than ever.

“In a world of hyper information, credibility, independence, accuracy and professional ethics, transparency and pluralism are the values that will confirm a relationship of trust.” He said that “next level journalism” goes beyond basic facts and “enables and encourages analysis, contextual and investigative reporting, and informed expression of opinion, moving from the provision of news to knowledge that empowers”.

And therein is the rub – how to fund that level of journalism that engages with our audience in a way that no other news outlet can. Or I could look at my Facebook news feed to see who has lost their cat or is flogging an old wardrobe and not feel engaged at all.

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