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Jan. 10, 2019, 10:28 a.m.

Breaking news that isn’t breaking, readers who aren’t reading: Some 2019 predictions about social media

“What’s the return on investment here? For each hour spent using social media for work, what, precisely, is gained? And what is lost?”

Our end-of-year “Predictions for Journalism” package has grown and grown and grown since its first iteration back in 2011. For the 2019 iteration, we published more than 200, and it’s possible I am literally the only person alive to have read all of them.

So over the next few days, we’ll be running what I’m calling Prediction Playlists — collections of predictions centered around a particular theme. Hopefully they’ll give you a point of entry into what can be an intimidating pile of #content. Today’s theme: the platforms — social media, aggregators, and all the other tech intermediaries that connect (and stand between!) journalists and their audiences.

The big question, as it has been for years, is how much effort publishers should invest in Facebook, Twitter, Apple News, SEO, and every other tech-company-controlled platform that offers a huge potential audience but also a loss of control? After a terrible year for Facebook, some think it’s time for a significant reevaluation.

Logan Molyneux, assistant professor of journalism at Temple:

“What’s the return on investment here? For each hour spent using social media for work, what, precisely, is gained? And what is lost?”

Publishers’ big bet on social platforms has left them too attuned to virality, too interested in watching the clicks come in on their Chartbeat dashboards, rather than focused on building products for their core customers.

Jeff Chin, senior director of analytics at Vox Media:

“With every media company feeling the pressure to iterate, diversify, and experiment with the next business model, now is not the time to be distracted.”

In the process, “breaking news!” has become a phrase of frequent abuse; a news app’s buzz on our phones could mean just about anything at this point.

Dheerja Kaur, head of product at theSkimm:

“Most users have lost trust in the breaking news products out there, and breaking news alerts have become an annoyingly sneaky way for companies to hit short-term wins.”

But others argue that user behaviors have shifted for good, and that legit publishers stepping back will only leave a void bad actors will be happy to fill.

Mandy Jenkins, a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford:

“The bad guys — the fake-news makers, bots, trolls, and scammers — will gladly take over the community organizer roles we leave vacant. They’re pretty good at this sort of thing.”

Francesco Zaffarano, former engagement editor at La Repubblica:

“The people who own, manage, and shape them might go — but social media are not going away anytime soon.”

So what’s the strategy? Perhaps it’s to realize our core offerings need strengthening, in user experience, in content, and in presentation:

Zainab Khan, audience strategy editor at The New York Times:

“As users look to rebuild their news habits, they’ll be looking for products that seamlessly integrate into their lives.”

Josh Schwartz, chief of product, engineering, and data science at Chartbeat:

“For news products to compete with the platforms they must engage readers to the same extent, recognizing the bar of UX is set in the minds of the reader across everything they experience on the internet, not just other publications.”

Nisha Chittal, engagement editor at Vox:

“Publishers can’t control what Facebook or Twitter or Google or Apple will do in 2019. But they can control the homepage.”

Sarah Marshall, head of audience growth at Vogue International:

“How a reader chooses to spend her time on her phone is our only true competitor.”

Publishers can also stand to get smarter about how to treat news-seekers on different platforms and in different contexts:

Julia Rubin, editor of The Goods by Vox:

“You can’t make someone who doesn’t want to watch videos watch videos, or someone who doesn’t want to read longform read longform, and this is the year we’ll finally be okay with that.”

Mandy Velez, social media editor at The Daily Beast:

“Social and audience teams share similar goals, but in 2019, I see the two merging in order to accomplish them. And quite frankly, I think it’s long overdue: Social will not just be about running accounts, but reaching audiences.”

The platforms aren’t standing still, of course, and neither are the people using them, who are building new behaviors that can change the public discourse. Like a certain democratic socialist with strong Instagram Stories game.

Annie Rudd, assistant professor at the University of Calgary:

“[Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez’s uses of Instagram seem to be less about humanizing an individual politician than about politicizing humans; that is, bringing more humans, particularly young humans, into the fold and representing electoral politics as something they have a genuine stake in.”

Or perhaps the first signs of a post-smartphone interface are already visible, on our wrists.

Frank Chimero, designer, author, and illustrator:

“If the watch can become people’s primary device, it may provide the opportunity to switch the media paradigm from an endless stream to a concentrated dispatch.”

Tech companies have made a variety of investments in helping out the news industry, and it’s getting to the time when those need to be evaluated — both by publishers and by the tech giants themselves.

Steve Grove, director of the Google News Lab:

“Major global efforts by tech companies to collaborate with the news industry will have matured to a point at which their effectiveness should be broadly judged.”

After all, “free stuff from a tech company” sounds great — but that can be another way the ultimate power is taken out of journalists’ hands.

Glyn Mottershead and Martin Chorley, senior lecturers at Cardiff University:

“Every time a free tool goes freemium or a platform closes because it can’t make money, we’ve got an issue. What’s going to happen to the stories that tool feeds?”

Ben Werdmuller of the Unlock Protocol:

“Instead of becoming more like technology companies or remaining beholden to platforms, publishers could help to build the internet they need.”

Illustration of “The Seer” by Adamastor Studio used under a Creative Commons license.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Jan. 10, 2019, 10:28 a.m.
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