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Oct. 7, 2009, 10:27 a.m.

Readers expect news to find them

More than a year ago, Brian Stelter had a story in The New York Times about how the social-media generation takes it upon themselves to pass on the news they feel is worthwhile. The story contained a quote from an unidentified college student that has become iconic of the new journalism evolving before our eyes. The student said: “If the news is that important, it will find me.”

The line meant many things to many people. BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis and the Globe and Mail’s Mathew Ingram, a colleague here at Nieman, both wrote about it at the time.

That single line seemed to capture what is changing in journalism. The old model of sender (news organization) to receiver (audience) was eroding. With the interactive web, people could be senders and receivers. News organizations could too. The lines were blurry and crossed. And if you wanted to capture those elusive young readers, you needed to get that.

So why am I bringing all this up now, more than 18 months after the pivotal story — a lifetime in the web world?

Well, Monday, the news found me.

It was the type of day where I wasn’t at a computer much. I had read the local newspaper, in print, over breakfast, and I had done a quick check of The New York Times. But I spent most of the day offline. When I had a few spare minutes in the afternoon, I logged onto Twitter and found an alarming tweet from Ruth Reichl, the editor of Gourmet magazine.

Thank you all SO much for this outpouring of support. It means a lot. Sorry not to be posting now, but I’m packing. We’re all stunned, sad.

Obviously, something was wrong, very wrong. So I did what any self-respecting twit would do. I searched Twitter for the word “Gourmet.” I didn’t google it, mind you, because as much as I love Google, Google results often turn up the most optimized news — not the most recent. I wanted to know what was happening now, and I only had about five minutes to find out before I had to dash off somewhere.

Sure enough. I found a rash of tweets that had used the word “Gourmet.” I found out the sad news: Conde Nast had announced that morning that it was shuttering Gourmet and three other magazines. Then I did what any self-respecting twit would do: I tweeted a link to the news.

For me, this was big news indeed. I’m a longtime Gourmet subscriber. I love its vivid food photography, recipes, thoughtful articles. I’m a huge fan of Jane and Michael Stern, the itinerant RoadFood duo who travel the country in search of good ol’ fashioned food and tell about it in Gourmet. (During a road trip from Florida to New York a few years back, my husband and I plotted our course, in part, based on the Sterns’ recommendations of good, simple eats.) I loved that Gourmet has taught me both how to keep a souffle from falling and why I shouldn’t eat depleted types of fish. It is (was) the thinking cook’s magazine.

But my point isn’t that Gourmet’s closing is sad news for the news industry, although it is. My point is that the way we consume, find, disseminate the news is changing — and not just for the young that Stelter wrote about his piece. I’m far from young. I’m old enough to be the mom of the young. In today’s world, where information is so abundant and comes through so many different modes of delivery, many of us need some help sorting through it all. For me, Twitter helps me do that. Like the college student in the Times story, I’m confident if the news is big enough — it will find me.

As Jay Rosen explains in this Los Angeles Times story, if you follow smart people on Twitter, they can edit the web for you in real time. That’s what happened to me: I follow a large enough critical mass of people whose interests jibe well enough with mine that, even if I hadn’t spotted Reichl’s tweet, I suspect someone else I follow would have clued me into the news.

What does this mean for news organizations?

A great deal. What it doesn’t mean is that Twitter is some savior of the news media. It’s not. It’s a tool, one of many in today’s media-savvy toolbox. To me what this story illustrates is that news organizations need to reinvent their thinking about the group formerly known as the audience. Some of that is happening. More and more news organizations’ websites offers ways for readers to spread the word, recommend stories, connect, share.

But to fully capture the value of this merger of the sender/receiver model, news organizations need to more fully embrace social media, rather than dabble in it.

The point of using social media isn’t that Facebook is popular and lots of people, particularly young people, hang out there. The point is the way people find the news today is they expect it to find them. If news organizations want to be valuable to their readers’, they not only need great content and interactive features, they need to to use these features. To me, what that means for news organizations is their staffs need to understand social media better than the readers, so they can lead, rather than follow.

There’s a theory in computer science called the technology acceptance model, which basically holds that people use technologies that seem useful and easy to use. Like many theories that have wide support, it makes common sense. What does that mean for news organizations? If they want their readers to embrace interactive features on their sites, these features must not be hidden or confusing or clunky. These interactive features can’t be things that news organization let readers use, but that they don’t let their employees delve into and fully explore. And news organizations can’t whip their employees into such a frenzy of fear that they might violate some internal social-media rule that the employees don’t bother to try anything new.

Why? Because in the final analysis, the news organizations — whether they be traditional newspapers or online-only news sources — that thrive and survive will be the ones where their news finds the most people.

POSTED     Oct. 7, 2009, 10:27 a.m.
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