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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.

                                   
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  • http://www.circlabs.com Martin Langeveld

    The kid who uttered that famous quote should be collecting royalties.

  • http://editor.blogspot.com Howard Weaver

    I agree, Matthew. Seldom have we had a better distillation of a massive change.

    I likewise wrote about it the day it appeared, under the headline “Word of Mouth 2.0″

    http://editor.blogspot.com/2008_03_01_archive.html

  • http://reporter-g.blogspot.com Gary Scott

    The operative word in the student’s quote isn’t “news,” it’s “me.” We want social media to be something that enhances and empowers us as individuals. We want to believe this is a first-person narrative – even if we’re subject to the whims of the group (aren’t smart people on Twitter stand ins for smart editors at a newspaper?) Indeed, the post chooses to use a personal experience to argue a collective change of thinking. But it shouldn’t be overlooked that the student’s quote is passive – the news will find “me,” not “I” will find the news.

  • http://savethemedia.com Gina Chen

    Today people are pretty passive, I think, about news. That may be troubling, but it’s a fact.

    And, yes, I do think Twitter and other social media (or reader recommendations on news sites) replace in a sense the role of the editor. And well they should. I spent 14 years as a newspaper editor, but why should my judgment be more valued than anyone else’s?

    One difference, of course, between the editor-gatekeeper model and the reader-gatekeeper model that we are beginning to have now is we have the potential for greater diversity of information that gets through the gate.

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  • Malcolm Ritter

    I bet you didn’t really mean to describe those young readers as “illusive” in your third paragraph.

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  • Nan

    Gary makes a great point about the passive voice – will find me – rather than “will find” news.
    how will this passive “I’ll see it when I see it” approach ever get commercial support?

  • http://savethemedia.com Gina Chen

    Nan,

    I agree with you. It is hard to get financial support for a news organization when the readers expect news to find them, the passive approach, as you call it.

    But … news organizations, I think, need to face the reality that that is how many readers see the news. Sure, it’s easier to make money with an active, engaged audience seeking out your information. That’s not what we have today.

    Readers aren’t going out to find the news — they expect it to come to them in a specific, package tailored to meet their interests.

    News organizations can either figure out a way to deliver that and survive or keep wringing their hands and wishing the audience were more active in seeking out their news. Thing is: Wishing doesn’t usually work unless you’re a princess in a Disney film.

    – Gina

  • http://zippy1300.blogspot.com Danny Bloom

    Josh Young blogged on this meme the other day on his HuffPost blog. Gina, good post. But i disagree. Forget the me me me world we live in. We must find the news. Not the news will find us. That is wrong, Stelter is wrong, the study was wrong. Real readers will find the news. If we wait for the news to find ME ME ME, the news we get will be celebrity driven shite. gina, this is ALL wrong. please email me and i will set you straight, and see my blog “zippy1300″ for more of this. DANNY

  • http://commonsensej.blogspot.com Doug Fisher

    Gina wrote: “but why should my judgment be more valued than anyone else’s?”

    Gina: On an abstract level, no it shouldn’t. But the world works on a transactional level, and there, I might value your judgment more than someone else’s and be willing to pay, barter or otherwise reward you for it, especially if you are more curator than gatekeeper. It will likely be just one of many business models.

    Your statement answered one way — “just because I am ‘the press,’” — is a reason we still see large chunks of the industry struggling.

    Answered another way — “because I’ve proved my value to you time and time again, and I will continue to try to prove that value to you” — is the key to success in the new-media world. (It’s also dang hard work – lots harder in many ways than journalism has been.)

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  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/josh-young/if-news-is-that-important_b_307185.html Danny Bloom

    Josh Young who is
    Social News Editor at the Huffington Post
    Posted

    “If News is That Important, It Will Find Me.”

    There’s one really powerful idea shaping the future of news. It’s powerful, sure, and has wide-ranging implications for how citizens inform themselves about the world around them. Powerful and yet perfectly simple.

    “If news is that important, it will find me.”

    The reporter responsible for surfacing this gem is Brian Stelter, whom we’ve written about before at the Huffington Post. While in college, he wrote the hit blog TVNewser before the New York Times hired him as a media reporter.

    Stelter deserves credit for picking up in March 2008 on the unassuming thought — shared by a researcher conducting a focus group that included one surprisingly wise college student.

    But how could it be that news will find us? Isn’t that just lazy — the stuff an MTV-obsessed college student might say? Doesn’t it take a supremely self-important culture of distraction and abbreviation to wish away civic responsibilities in favor of solipsistic consumption? I mean, how presumptuous?!

    It takes work to read the newspaper, doesn’t it? Logging on and visiting websites works basically the same way. You have to seek out information around you. The newspaper or its website has the information. So you have to go to the information, asking to be informed. That is the news.

    But one important fact about the news media landscape is different. It’s a game-changer, as they say. One account (PDF) of professor W. Russell Neuman shows just how much media there is in the world. Not all of it’s news, of course. We don’t know how much exactly, but we do know that there’s more.

    And there’s way more media in general. On top of that, it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish between news media or pure entertainment (hello Jon Stewart!).

    From 1960 to 2005, the amount of media at our disposal skyrocketed. Even if we take into consideration the fact–maybe good, maybe bad, but certainly true–that Americans consumed almost twice as much media in 2005 as they did in 1960, the amount of media is astonishing.

    In 1960, if someone had a minute of attention to give to consuming media, there were 98 one-minute alternatives available. In other words, as Neuman and his co-authors Yong Jin Park and Elliot Panek write, “the ratio of supply to demand in 1960…is 98.” And “that represents the fundamental metric of choice.” Thus, “It is a human scale choice.”

    But the present-day environment is different — like night and day. Now, “there are over 20,000 minutes of mediated content available for every minute to be consumed.” In fact, “the ratio is 20,943.” Of course, “that is not a human-scale cognitive challenge.”

    And so, the authors write, “humans will inevitably turn to the increasingly intelligent digital technologies that created the abundance in the first place for help in sorting it out.” That is the challenge for a new generation of media consumers.

    We cannot sift through mountains of media options the same way we remembered which radio station played our favorite tunes or which television station broadcast on which channel. In fact, we are going to have to rely on one another to discover, filter, and share — with ingenious technologies helping us out.

    But the news doesn’t have to come to us only through our friends and family — or anyone in particular. It will take all kinds of routes to us — through one social network, onto to another, and into a blog we read for reasons totally unrelated to the news.

    Children of recent decades know this deep down. Most of them do, anyhow. It’s natural, now, that news and information follows a roundabout path, circling and swooping around us, in constant motion. Everywhere’s a watercooler. We feel this. Not only us youngsters, of course, but we have our own set of experiences, unique to us because this is all we’ve ever known.

    That’s why it took a college student in a focus group and a young reporter to bring it to a newspaper. And that’s why it’s a shame that the Newseum isn’t opening itself up to these simple insights from digital natives.

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  • dan bloom

    Hi Gina,
    I understand your point better now, thanks for the clarification, and ….you’re right. I see now. I guess because I am a lifelong reporter, newspaper reader, since my teen days in Springfield Mass to my days now in Taiwan, I search out the news I want to find and want to read, because I am an intellectual who does things for himself, but you are right, most kids today want and LIKE the news coming to them, it’s okay, that’s the new value system. It sucks, but it’s reality….SIGH

    danny, 60 going on 100

    BY the way, Gina, my idea that we might need a new word for reading on screens compared to reading on paper surface, can you interview me one day about this? I am the only person in the world right now going in this direction, calling for a new word for “reading” when we read on a screen,,,it is NOT reading, it is something new, i don’t know the word yet, but a new word will come soon……see my blog here

    http://zippy1300.blogspot.com

    As one newsperson to another, THIS IS IMPORTANT… Gina, can you get back to me on this pro or con.?

    DANNY
    Tufts 1971

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