When a story does well on Facebook or Twitter, it’s become natural in a newsroom to fist-pump: Yeah! Thousands of shares, hundreds of comments!
It feels like a victory to us, because journalists are the most social-media savvy profession out there (other than whatever you call the cottage industry that works for Kim Kardashian). We use Twitter as a news feed, Facebook to judge virality.
But while these platforms are indispensable to us as newsgatherers and as distributors, they also have their limits. Facebook, Twitter, and several other social media platforms form an echo chamber for the media savvy: the ones who are news addicted, tuned in, apped up. The trouble with those readers is telling them something they don’t know, what they haven’t seen on their plethora of news feeds and breaking news alerts and text messages.
But there’s another kind of reader who doesn’t make a peep — who doesn’t friend us or follow us or read bylines. This reader may own a smartphone and use email, but doesn’t care much for apps. He hasn’t enabled alerts. She watches cable news but finds Facebook tiresome and Twitter exhausting, and only goes to Google when there’s an enormous news event like the Malaysian plane or the Boston bombings.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google are three major sources of traffic that are opt-in for readers. But what about the readers who haven’t opted in to the constant news cycle? How do we serve them? How do we even reach them? They’re on the web, but not where we can see them. That’s why whenever we see a story that has 100,000 or 300,000 views or more, we should wonder: Where are the readers we’re not seeing? That kind of traffic — a hit by any means — is actually only a fraction of the people who could be reading a story, especially in this age of widespread, easy distribution.
In Internet terminology, they talk about the “deep web” of content that search engines never show. We face a similar “dark web” of readers we never see: Who are they? How do they consume news? How do we reach them if they’re interested in news but not interested in Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram? There’s a vast segment of America that wants to consume news, but isn’t as savvy and app-happy as journalists. These are the readers that, years ago, would have had newspaper subscriptions. They don’t spend their day clicking all over the Internet: They’ll read news online (or maybe they won’t), but they fall back on a few established brands and don’t know about the variety of choices out there for news consumption.
These are the readers we don’t see in our referrer pages, as a whole. Savvy digital journalists have, with good reason, chased those Facebook and Twitter trending boxes and Pinterest and Google traffic for years. But that traffic is becoming more unreliable to journalists in particular. Facebook is changing its algorithm in ways that hurt many news organizations, Twitter has come under criticism for its often hostile tone, and Google can kick off entire newspapers if it feels it has reason.
We have become supplicants to other platforms in order to get our readers. That’s already a problem, and it’s going to be a bigger problem. How do we increase both the broadness of reach and the depth of loyalty with our own names as news organizations and not as a brand page at the indulgence of fickle Silicon Valley trend-chasing? Do we collaborate with other news organizations to create our own social platforms? Will the answer be partnerships and memberships that draw readers into news brands by combining reporting with live events and entertainment and context? (That’s the approach taken by my newspaper as well as others like The Atlantic, and I think it’s a good start.) Do we compete harder against rivals, or find some way to join forces?
There’s no obvious answer at the moment — and given the diversity of views in journalism and about journalism, there may never be. But 2015 is the year — or should be the year — that we think about these issues in earnest. For those who need to survive, this is the key. For those who need to thrive, the next step to growth is reaching beyond the readers who are sitting ducks on social platforms. They want the news too.
Heidi Moore is U.S. finance and economics editor at The Guardian.