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Jan. 26, 2009, 7:49 a.m.

Building networks around news

Even though the public’s engagement with social networks is growing strongly, news enterprises have been slow to wade into the social networking waters.

Publishers, and especially editors, still tend to see themselves as curators of content: selecting, generating, massaging and presenting material for the audience they perceive, but not really networking with that audience except in rudimentary ways like comment forums that are not enormously evolved from the old channel of writing a letter to the editor.

A Bivings Group report published in December, “The Use of the Internet by America’s Largest Newspapers” (which I’ve discussed previously) found that while the adoption of individual social media tools (social bookmarking, blogs, RSS, etc.) was pretty strong at the papers in 2008, only 10 percent, or 10 newspapers, had incorporated some form of social networking on their sites.  (And I can’t find more than two or three of those — any hints appreciated.)

In any case, those ten newspapers, wherever they are,  are still in an experimental stage, and robust social networking built around news is still something to be invented, although various pieces of it are out there.  Is it feasible, or necessary?  Absolutely — the rest of the web is rapidly moving to, or beyond, the “2.0” point of socially-networked interactivity; news media are behind the curve. Among other things, by building a social network around, news media can stimulate conversations about news, certainly something that will help news media survive and grow.

One social network connecting many news sites, readers and advertisers would be better than a multiplicity of networks at individual news sites.  What should it look like?  That’s the problem — we’re still working on it, and not with all deliberate speed or urgency.    Here are some links that touch on some aspects of what’s coming.  I invite readers to contribute more:

Social networks built around news can’t happen without journalists who are adept at social networking, themselves.  Among bloggers, Gina Chen of Save The Media has done a particularly useful series to help journalists get started.  If you’re a journalist and haven’t read these, get over there:

Social networks built around news should enable sharing of news content.  Although there are various ways to do this, it has a ways to go:

  • The Times geeks, I bet, think about social networking whenever they’re awake, but so far they’ve not shown much of their thinking.  They rolled out TimesPeople, still in beta, last summer, but so far it has no features other than the ability to link up with “people” who recommend stuff you should read.  There are no profiles.  I’ve only found one other person I know to link to; I can’t see who else that person is linked to, as in Facebook or Twitter, and there are no profiles, so it’s hard to expand my TimesPeople network.  I added Aron Pilhofer, one of the Times geeks, but he hasn’t recommended anything since December  6.  It’s actually easier to network with other Times people on Facebook, where the paper has accumulated a rapidly growing 347,000 fans (a jump of more than 100,000 came from a simple promotion built around the Presidential inauguration last week).

As a step beyond sharing, social networks built around news should enable collaboration in news-related content creation:

  • The Washington Post is on its way to confirming one of my predictions for 2009 by launching the first phase of a news wiki, WhoRunsGov.  A wiki, done right, is a product of a social network — at the Post, in the initial phase the networkers are within the organization: “For our initial site launch, creating and editing profiles will be limited to our editorial staff.”  But then, “in its second phase, our site will evolve into a moderated wiki.  Later in 2009, we will allow registered users to revise existing profiles or create new ones.”
  • Charlie Beckett writes about this trend toward non-linear, open-sourced journalism:
  • “Networked journalism” means opening up the production process from start to finish – and beyond. It already has the tools: email, mobile-phones, digital cameras, online editing, web-cams, texting, and remote controls. This is channelled through new communication processes like crowd-sourcing, Twitter, YouTube, and wikis as well as blogs and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV).

    Networked journalism is a process not a product. The journalist still reports, edits, packages the news. But the process is continually shared. The networked journalist changes from being a gatekeeper who delivers to a facilitator who connects.

Social networks “will be like air,” says Charlene Li — and to enable that to be true, we’ll need universal sign-in and network portability.  With universal sign-in, I would be able to import some, or all, of my Facebook and Twitter contacts into my TimesPeople list, to contribute to the WhoRunsGov wiki, and to navigate LinkedIn, all with one sign-in.  More about this:

  • Li speaking at Google on universal identity, open social graph, portable social applications including shopping, and personal CPM.
  • Li on the future of social networks including “How do you make money?”  Answers: new ad formats, rich social profiles that identify “influencers,” and mining communications patterns to find “network neighbors” as part of ad targeting.  Clearly, online news enterprises need to be players in this game.
  • Ideally, universal sign-in incorporates strong verification and personal control of financial and demograpic information, something being developed by InformationCard.
  • Elsewhere, there’s plenty of thinking and experimenting going on to discover the future of advertising on social networks.

A fully operational social network built around news will need to connect news content creators (journalists), news consumers and advertisers in a meaningful and sustainable way.

  • One evolving vision for such a broad-based social network is being created by the Information Valet Project headed up by Bill Densmore.  (Full disclosure: I am peripherally involved in helping flesh out details of plans for the Information Valet.)

See also: Dan Kennedy’s slides, “Social Networking and the News.”

There’s much more to a full-fledged social network built around news, of course.  Among the possible features:

  • Groups formed around content interests
  • Content recommendations based on profile, demographics and past content visits
  • Smart RSS feeds, smart news search and filtering, ways to “clip and save” content with easy retrieval options
  • Controlled serendipity: content from outside one’s defined or inferred set of interests (just as you get in a printed newspaper, but maybe “smarter” in some way)
  • Pure commercial content authorized or invited by users to match their needs or interests

Keep me posted on what’s out there that seems to fit with the emergence of social networks built around news.

POSTED     Jan. 26, 2009, 7:49 a.m.
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