Is social media destroying the news?

Social media has given us access to more information sources than ever, but it’s changing our perceptions of each other and crushing the business model for quality journalism


I owe my career in journalism to social media.

I didn’t necessarily plan for it to be that way. Prior to arriving at The Denver Post, I worked as a reporter-photographer intern at some small papers and worked for The Associated Press. I thought I’d end up a reporter. A few months after the Rocky Mountain News’ closure in 2009, I arrived here as a digital intern, armed with a Facebook account that I had used since college (when it was for college students only) and a newly minted Twitter account. That summer, with help from our small digital team, I posted news stories to Twitter and resurrected our then-dormant Facebook page.



By the end of that summer, when the news industry was still recovering from the aftershocks of the Great Recession, my supervisors at The Post made efforts necessary to keep me on a few more months, before hiring me full time. They knew social media would be important, but they — and I — had no idea how these new tools would evolve to becoming one of the most dominant ways Americans get their news.

I want to continue working in this industry for several more decades, but the news industry — particularly local news — is being squeezed by tectonic shifts in news consumption habits and the resulting mass migration of revenue from publishers like ours to large technology companies, making my prospects — and those of the news industry — uncertain at best and potentially disastrous.
Today, 62 percent of U.S. adults get news on social media, and 18 percent do so often, according to a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center.

Eyewitnesses to breaking news can tweet pictures from scenes, when professional journalists aren’t always present. People who are victims of oppressive regimes can publish text, videos and photos from the world’s conflict zones instantaneously, bearing witness as citizen journalists and allowing the masses to see and consume history, unfiltered.

For years, we expected that the migration of audiences to digital would mean even greater revenue. While our digital revenues have grown considerably, digital ad revenue has not made up for the sharp declines in print advertising. Increasingly, a digital ad-supported model for quality journalism is looking like pure fantasy, unless you can achieve scale. The reality is illustrated if you follow the money. In 2015, Facebook and Google accounted for 75 percent of all new digital advertising dollars. In the first quarter of 2016, an analyst quoted in The New York Times said 85 cents of every new digital ad dollar was going to those two companies. The trend is accelerating, not moderating, leaving all publishers — not just news organizations — to fight over that last 15 cents.

Despite these problems, we in the news business can’t afford to ignore a platform like Facebook, where 44 percent of Americans get news, according to the Pew study. All told, The Post’s Facebook pages have amassed more than 720,000 fans, a number far greater than our largest print subscription base ever was. Content published by our main Facebook page alone frequently reaches 2 million people weekly. Social media accounts for roughly 20 percent of our referral traffic each month, 80 percent of which comes from Facebook.

When people tell me that newspapers — and really, I prefer the term “news organizations” — are irrelevant, I have a simple response: We’re reaching more people than we ever have in our organization’s 125-year history. We don’t have an audience problem; we have a revenue problem.

Our hyper-connectedness also means information spreads faster than ever. It works well when people spread the word about an AMBER alert, but less so when these channels spread unverified claims and hoaxes.
Against this reality, the algorithms that power these social networks incentivize journalists to tilt more toward conflict, emotion and sensationalism over even-handed reporting, risking the reputation of our brand. This dynamic can especially wreak havoc on our politics.

One study from the digital news site Axios recently noted an explosion in partisan news sites in the last quarter century, because “digital technology has made it easier to exploit the political divisions that have always existed.” And: “News sites are financially incentivized to tilt one way or another.”
Instead of exposing us to differing points of view, these human-created algorithms show us more of what we want, playing to our basest instincts. Facebook’s goal is to...

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