Fall 2009 | Online Exclusives

Why the News Media Became Irrelevant—And How Social Media Can Help

‘Only the savviest of journalists are using the networks for the real value they provide in today’s culture—as ways to establish relationships and listen to others.’

By Michael Skoler
Journalists are truth-tellers. But I think most of us have been lying to ourselves. Our profession is crumbling and we blame the Web for killing our business model. Yet it’s not the business model that changed on us. It’s the culture.

Mainstream media were doing fine when information was hard to get and even harder to distribute. The public expected journalists to report the important stories, pull together information from sports scores to stock market results, and then deliver it all to our doorsteps, radios and TVs. People trusted journalists and, on our side, we delivered news that was relevant—it helped people connect with neighbors, be active citizens, and lead richer lives.

Advertisers, of course, footed the bill for newsgathering. They wanted exposure and paid because people, lots of people, were reading our newspapers or listening to and watching our news programs.

But things started to change well before the Web became popular. Over the past few decades, news conglomerates took over local papers and stations. Then they cut on-the-ground reporters, included more syndicated content from news services, and focused local coverage on storms, fires, crashes and crime to pad profit margins. The news became less local and less relevant, and reporters became less connected to their communities. Surveys show a steep drop in public trust in journalism occurring during the past 25 years.

As discontent grew among the audience, the Internet arrived. Now people had choices. If the local paper and stations weren’t considered trustworthy and journalists seemed detached from what really mattered to them, people could find what they wanted elsewhere. What’s more, they could stop being passive recipients. They could dig deeply into topics, follow their interests, and share their knowledge and passions with others who cared about similar things.

Connecting Through Trust

The truth is the Internet didn’t steal the audience. We lost it. Today fewer people are systematically reading our papers and tuning into our news programs for a simple reason—many people don’t feel we serve them anymore. We are, literally, out of touch.

Today, people expect to share information, not be fed it. They expect to be listened to when they have knowledge and raise questions. They want news that connects with their lives and interests. They want control over their information. And they want connection—they give their trust to those they engage with—people who talk with them, listen and maintain a relationship.

Trust is key. Many younger people don’t look for news anymore because it comes to them. They simply assume their network of friends—those they trust—will tell them when something interesting or important happens and send them whatever their friends deem to be trustworthy sources, from articles, blogs, podcasts, Twitter feeds, or videos.

Mainstream media are low on the trust scale for many and have been slow to reach out in a genuine way to engage people. Many news organizations think interaction is giving people buttons to push on Web sites or creating a walled space where people can “comment” on the news or post their own “iReports.”

People aren’t fooled by false interaction if they see that news staff don’t read the comments or citizen reports, respond and pursue the best ideas and knowledge of the audience to improve their own reporting. Journalists can’t make reporting more relevant to the public until we stop assuming that we know what people want and start listening to the audience.

We can’t create relevance through limited readership studies and polls, or simply by adding neighborhood sections to our Web sites. We need to listen, ask questions, and be genuinely open to what our readers, listeners and watchers tell us is important everyday. We need to create a new journalism of partnership, rather than preaching.

And that’s where social media can guide us. If we pay attention and use these tools, we can better understand today’s culture and what creates value for people.

Relying on Collective Wisdom

Today’s new culture is about connection and relationship. Social networks are humming because they fit the spirit of the time, not because they created the spirit of sharing. They’re about listening to others and responding. They’re about pursuing our interests because we know they will converge with the interests of others. The new culture values sharing information and being surprised by the experiences, knowledge and voices of others.

The old journalism, with its overreliance on the same experts and analysts, is out of touch with a culture of information sharing, connection and the collective wisdom of diverse voices passing along direct experience.

Take Wikipedia as an example. For better or worse, most school kids treat it as the first place to go for information, and so do many adults. It’s not written by scholars, as is Encyclopædia Britannica, but by citizen experts. In today’s culture, collective expertise carries as much or more weight than scholarship or deference to titles. And while fewer than 45,000 people are actively contributing to the nearly three million English articles on the site, people know that anyone can contribute, and they have trust in the culture’s collective wisdom.

Digg and reddit are popular as sites because they are about collective wisdom and trust. These social bookmarking sites help people find relevant news based on who is recommending stories. Anyone can play, even if experienced and dedicated users have an advantage. Twitter is half diary and half stream of consciousness, and it is all about relationships and trust because it is easy to follow people, see if there is a connection, and drop those you don’t like.

Changing Journalism’s Culture

Social media sites are not doing journalism, though sometimes breaking news shows up there (like when a plane crash-lands in the Hudson River). For the most part, they rely on news coverage from mainstream media organizations to produce their value. And these sites are not yet profitable. They are not models for the new journalism. But they do serve the new culture and point to how news organizations must change to be considered relevant and value-creating.

Of course, news organizations are rushing onto social networks, adding social bookmark buttons, and creating Twitter feeds at a torrid pace. But for the wrong reasons. You can hear the cries in newsrooms of “we need to be on Facebook, we need to Twitter” as a fervent attempt to win followers and increase traffic on their sites.

Mainstream media see social media as tools to help them distribute and market their content. Only the savviest of journalists are using the networks for the real value they provide in today’s culture—as ways to establish relationships and listen to others. The bright news organizations and journalists spend as much time listening on Twitter as they do tweeting.

Most of the discussion about the “future of journalism” these days centers on finding the new business model that will support journalism in the Internet age. Yet that is premature. There is no magic model that will save us, if only we could find it. We have no business model unless people need our work to enrich their daily lives and value it highly enough to depend on it.

Unquestionably, we must be creative about designing new models and smart about marketing our work. But a fact of business is that people only pay for what has obvious value to them. Every good business plan starts by explaining how it creates value for the customer.

The problem with mainstream media isn’t that we’ve lost our business model. We’ve lost our value. We are not as important to the lives of our audience as we once were. Social media are the route back to a connection with the audience. And if we use them to listen, we’ll learn how we can add value in the new culture.

The new journalism must be a journalism of partnership. Only with trust and connection will a new business model emerge.

Michael Skoler, a 1993 Nieman Fellow, is a Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He founded the Public Insight Journalism model used by a dozen public broadcasting newsrooms to partner with their audiences. He wrote “Fear, Loathing and the Promise of Public Insight Journalism” in the Winter 2005 Nieman Reports.

16 Comments on Why the News Media Became Irrelevant—And How Social Media Can Help
bd says:
June 24, 2010 at 2:54pm
i could care less what "the news media" does. I hope they die sooner than later. As for reporters, perhaps they can focus less on reporting "hot news" and place more of an emphasis on analysis, commentary, and investigation. With video and internet technologies we don't need a reporter on the ground to tell us what's happening in the Iranian election protests. We have more than enough normal citizens uploading video, photos, and tweets to know what's going on on the ground.
penny stock says:
May 14, 2010 at 2:48am
Nice blog post, I just got out of the college of finance here and still keep track of our college blog posts and found yours. Great post, I agree with most of the pros of the article, great research, well keep in touch. John
Shyam Kapur says:
October 13, 2009 at 9:00pm
This is an excellent article which makes the right point. Technology and social changes now bring forward possibilities that are completely new. Old models cannot simply be adapted to them. They must be rethought completely.

The nature of data on sites like Twitter is incredibly rich. I see the Twitter platform and micro-blogging as the next logical evolution in quickly publishing and distributing timely information (personal doings, headline news, corporate press releases, product deals, consumer feedback, upcoming events, etc.) The revolution is being facilitated by tools like the semantic search engine TipTop (http://www.feeltiptop.com) that can harness this flood of data and extract meaningful results to address what is on the top or your mind. You can now see in real time the sentiment associated with anything in the world that people are talking about. This is just the beginning of a revolution that will change how people obtain and process information and make decisions both in their personal and professional lives.
Sharon McNary says:
October 1, 2009 at 12:47pm
I like Michael's point about listening to Twitter and using it with Public Insight Journalism strategies to connect our newsroom with people who are living the news. During a recent fire here in Southern California, I used Twitter to reach and establish source relationships with people within miles of the fire who were having to evacuate their homes. I use it to find people who are dissatisfied with local schools, and raising other topics that matter to our newsroom. Facebook has also been invaluable for letting a segment of the public know what questions our news reporters are asking, and for pulling in user-generated content for our website. Our call for fire photos pulled in more than 200 images that were viewed by more than 5000 people over the course of a recent fire.
Jeff Horwich says:
October 1, 2009 at 12:26pm
Wonderful to hear from you, Michael! Your old colleagues have enjoyed sharing this today.

Facebook is the best and biggest example of what you're saying. How many news orgs, how many shows, and try to really use it, and all its native strengths, as a genuine tool for more than just piping out updates and bites of their conventional content? Almost none.

From where we're sitting, Facebook is an amazing tool for collaboration and community-building. (Google Wave? Maybe. I'll believe it when Google Wave has it's own 300 million users.) We've been trying to work it as a real place for moving conversation to content, and back again. It's not something Facebook users are entirely used to -- but we're finding people eager to treat our show as a "friend." ( That's all at http://LoopFacebook.net , btw ;-)

What we've been up to, though, has only reinforced that news orgs are way behind on this stuff. And social network users have finely tuned B.S. alerts. At this point, the big trick becomes: How do you ease yourself in, genuinely, without seeming overeager and needy?
Don Lee says:
October 1, 2009 at 12:21pm
Michael says: “The problem with mainstream media isn’t that we’ve lost our business model. We’ve lost our value. We are not as important to the lives of our audience as we once were.”

I would put it this way: What we have lost is a business model that disguised the dollar value of solid journalism. I fear that we are not as important to the lives of our audience as we once appeared to be. In other words, consumers of in-depth reporting have always been relatively few in number, but newspapers were free to gloss over that fact until the advertisers who subsidized less-read, more expensive coverage fled to the internet.

In the new media arena, we face a similar problem. I want to be as sanguine as Michael is about the promise of social media, but to find it we’re going to have to learn how to filter through the noise of a multi-million-member chorus, most of them chanting little more than, “Look at me; I matter.”
Nick Peters says:
September 30, 2009 at 12:07pm
If I want interaction, give-and-take, listening, collaboration, and all the other wonderful capabilities that social media offers, I'll go to social media. And I do, a lot.

But when I want news...especially news I know little or nothing about from an expertise standpoint...I want news people who are experts to TELL me what I need to know in a compelling manner. Oh, yes, comments and blogs are fine as extensons of the news into discussions. But the root has to be the news story. The problem with the model Michael describes is that it's NOT journalism...it's communication. And the two are NOT the same. Mainstream news is dying because mainstream news sucks. It's trying to be what it's not, riffing anybody who cares about digging for important news, and dumbing itself down to levels of mediocrity I never would have imagined when I was a news man. It's assuming that if it isn't 24/7 and hip and relevant and interactive in twittery way, it's worthless.

Not true. What's increasingly worthless is the product they put out which has driven news consumers like me away. Network evening news? Please. CNN? You've got to be kidding; gag me with a spoon. Lehrer News Hour? Intelligent, but predicable and hence soporific. Most domestic daily newspapers with the notable exception the NY Times, WSJ, a handful of regional enterprising surviving dailies, some of NPRs news programming and BBC America? Fuggedaboud it.
Cleve Callison says:
September 30, 2009 at 11:56am
A good and challenging analysis, but I'm not persuaded we've yet figured out just what has changed, and how. Michael say that:

"people, lots of people, were reading our newspapers or listening to and watching our news programs. . . [but] news conglomerates . . . cut on-the-ground reporters, included more syndicated content from news services, and focused local coverage on storms, fires, crashes and crime to pad profit margins. The news became less local and less relevant."

This doesn't really address just how would the conglomerates have padded their profit margins if they deliberately set out to make themselves less relevant (relevant to whom? is the question). And why would they do so? Alas, it could be said that they realized that in truth providing "local and relevant" was not as profitable a path as fires, floods and fatal; at least in terms of the relevance that probably most readers of this site (and I) value.

Carrying this logic over to new media, the accumulated wisdom of which Michael speaks may in fact place a high value on the transient material than the in-depth coverage valued by traditional newspaper readers, NPR listeners and the like. Look at how swiftly entertainment news has metastasized on the Huffington Post. The kind of engagement Michael is calling for, and which he describes as once widespread, may in the future exist more or less only in the niches provided by the Internet, not its mainstream.

But at least those niches are there. Now what we need are savvy people and visions to make them work.
Matt Stiles says:
September 25, 2009 at 11:24pm
I agree, in theory. Interacting with a community on social media and blogs has made my media job more rewarding and, I hope, given my work more value.

But I worry about news site comments. Take this one tonight to a chron.com story, which noted that a county jail inmate who died in custody tested positive for swine flu.

"RebelCowboi wrote:
Hmm one less to take care of with our tax paying money"

This too often represents the tone and level of thought we get from readers who leave comments.

Why should we feel like interaction with this type of nonsense is necessary to journalism's future?

Just a thought...
Thomas Wailgum says:
September 25, 2009 at 9:46am
Well done, Michael. One of the biggest changes journalists need to make is to realize that we're no longer writing an article or blog to end the discussion on a particular topic; we're writing to an audience to continue the discussion, to try to nudge it in a different direction, and elicit even more feedback and insight from a community of people who care about that issue. That's our value.
All of that interaction and back-and-forth will, ultimately, inform the next article or blog post or tweet and make the journalist's reporting and writing even better. The most valuable and interesting topics invariably snowball, just building and building on themselves as more collective wisdom accumulates in other articles, posts and links (Jeff Jarvis: "Do what you do best and link to the rest" is such a liberating writing and reporting tool). In that sense, the job of the journalist (a shepherd of information, if you will) actually becomes easier: You can see where you're adding value and where you're not (since the topics that aren't that interesting to the community will receive less attention -- it's pretty easy to gauge that with social networks).
A commenter above writes that: "I hate to see the media get too carried away with blogging, Twitting and trying to communicate with and satisfy an uneducated public." That's just backward. You have to engage "the public" and allow THEM to educate YOU.
Chuck Harvey says:
September 24, 2009 at 5:34pm
Good information, but as a long-time reporter I hate to see the media get too carried away with blogging, Twitting and trying to communicate with and satisfy an uneducated public. One of our most important jobs is educating the public and bloggers are not experienced enough to do that. Also, bloggers bring the journalism pay scale down. I do agree that conglomerates have done much damaged to newspapers by laying off good reporters and cutting back on local coverage. The product has deterorated primarily because of greed.
Kevin Berrey says:
September 24, 2009 at 1:24pm
What's great about this article is Michael Skoler has laid out a fundamental disconnect between being a truth-teller and being dishonest to one's self about how the world is changing. Having produced television news for CBS affiliates, I know there is a drive to source real, relevant information in an engaging way. I also know that the incentives for going deep are not always there. Nicholas D. Kristof is a savvy reporter who comes to mind. And the recent documentary "Reporter" reveals just what a journalist does: ask the hardball questions.

This crossroads of news in the digital age sheds light on some necessary questions. What's the ideal for the mission and standards of news content going forward? Is it realistic? How much should it serve the public interest?

What I love about traditional media is when they follow standards and make bold and brave inquiries. Who doesn't wish there was more digging and discovering done with respect to the financial crisis before it reached meltdown? My hunch is that the public would back media who publicly espouse the added responsibility that comes with being an authority.
Chris Meadows says:
September 24, 2009 at 7:22am
Something I found interesting is just how much what you're saying echoes points made in the Cluetrain Manifesto, which first hit the 'net all of ten years ago. Cluetrain talked about how the Internet was allowing more conversation between consumers and consumers, or consumers and businesses—and businesses that do not fully engage in those conversations are doomed to failure.

I've written a blog post making this comparison more fully:

Jeff says:
September 24, 2009 at 7:19am
Great article, you're absolutely spot on!

Recently I witnessed two staggering examples of 'old' media (Dutch television) trying to feed the viewer 'new and cool' content. And failing miserably.
The first was a program 'best of youtube'. Now, why on earth would I want to watch youtube clips on tv and sit through the clips that I don't like and can't fast forward the commercial breaks? Where is the added value?
Second one: a report on TED talks. What do I care what some newsreader thinks of TED talks? And why would I prefer to watch this program instead of actually surfing to the TED website and watching a video of a topic that is of interest to me??

Television (in my country at least) tries to hop on the internet/youtube/etc. hype bandwagon and clumsily tries some cargo cult science where they imitate all of the formal aspects of what they think 'the internet' is about, but miss their target by miles...
Katherine Warman Kern says:
September 21, 2009 at 9:03am
Agreed! I'm trying to make it easier to listen to "Who Cares About the Future of Media" with a WebTrend Map. Learn about it here: http://bit.ly/PPtwS

Why don't you join twitter and I'll add you too?

Katherine Warman Kern
Charlie Beckett says:
September 21, 2009 at 3:17am
Great article but what do we do next in terms of creating that value? You may find this book relevant to your version of the new journalism:
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