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Dec. 19, 2011, 2 p.m.

Carrie Brown Smith: The social media bubble may burst, and more predictions for 2012

From local TV to journalism co-ops, 2012 may be a banner year for the local news ecosystem.
Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is journalism professor Carrie Brown-Smith, an up-and-coming young academic based at the University of Memphis.

In 2012 we will see a growing gap between newsrooms that are innovating and those that are…not.

2011 saw a number of promising examples news organizations going beyond “digital first” platitudes to actually trying things and making it work, and I’m optimistic we will see this trend continue. For example, The Journal Register Co.’s open newsrooms and other efforts garnered a fivefold rise in digital revenue in just two years; the Chicago Tribune continues to hire news developers to work with reporters to build new tools for making sense of and accessing information; the Wall Street Journal has had surprising success with its investments in online video, earning $200,000 in revenue per month.

However, other newsrooms seem to be going in the opposite direction, continuing to lay off staff and limit their ability not only to innovate but even to maintain bare-bones levels of basic reporting, including 165 recently let go in Tampa and ongoing attrition at various Scripps properties, which included the kind of digital staffers, like an online video producer and a programmer, that one might expect to be especially crucial to moving forward in the digital space. I expect we’ll see this gap between digital news haves and have-nots widen, perhaps hastening the demise of print in some markets.

2012 will be a good year for local television.

As some metropolitan daily newspapers continue to slash their already drastically-reduced staffs, they no longer have quite as commanding of an edge in reporting muscle over their broadcast counterparts. In addition to the election-year advertising boon, local television, with its recognizable personalities, also has a clear opportunity in the digital space. For example, in Memphis, where I live, the Commercial Appeal recently launched a more aggressive paywall than the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, which can’t be bypassed via Google or social media; shortly after doing so it laid off its social media editor. Broadcast reporters in our market have already generally been more proactive in their use of social media to share stories and interact with the audience, and the door is now open for them to increase the public’s reliance on them for [free!] news and information.  Of course, given the documented propensity of local television news to focus on crime over matters of local substance; this is not necessarily a good thing from the perspective of quality journalism, but it may be inevitable nevertheless. Even serious news junkies like journalism professors (ahem) find themselves turning more often to the sources that appear in their social streams and don’t require a credit card to access.

2012 *might* see a bursting of the social media bubble, or at least convince us that it is harder game to play than we thought.

This might seem odd coming from an avid social media user who developed two new courses on it for our journalism department and who even has been christened with that dreaded “social media guru” title on more than one occasion (ack). And assuredly, I do think social media is an incredibly important tool for news organizations to use to promote their content, improve their reporting, and engage their audiences; I’m especially hopeful that it can help journalists diversify their sources and audiences, given that African Americans use Twitter at twice the rate of whites and other similar stats. But despite all of our excitement over its potential, I’m beginning to wonder about how big of a community can be meaningfully maintained online and how this affects news organizations.  For example, many early Twitter adopters such as myself report that their rate of responses, retweets and click-thrus have declined over time. I suspect this may have less to do with any change in behavior on our parts or that of our followers and more to do with the fact that the Twitter universe is now so large. Already overflowing streams are flooding. The likelihood that even your most interested followers will even see a tweet is ever lower. In order to develop engaged and loyal communities on social media, news organizations are going to have to work harder and smarter and try to find solutions to Shirky’s “filter failure” problem.

Journalism schools will increasingly step up to the plate to play a leadership role in journalism innovation in 2012.

While I and others have long lamented how out of touch the Ivory Tower can be, I think we are seeing more and more examples of journalism schools finally stepping up to the plate, as Geneva Overholser of the University of Southern California and others have long called for. Even at smaller, less wealthy programs like mine, we are starting to teach entrepreneurship and helping to fill holes in the local news ecosystem with hyperlocal reporting. Faculty members of all ages are getting excited in ways I haven’t seen before about the potential of tablets, and I predict this will raise their game as teachers that will emphasize the importance of mobile and publishing in new platforms.

The co-op model is one to watch in 2012.

I read about it here on Nieman Lab, and this is one of the most interesting ideas I’ve read about in the future-of-news space in quite some time. I’m interested to see how it plays out.


POSTED     Dec. 19, 2011, 2 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Predictions for Journalism 2012
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