Social’s evolving impact on journalism

Wesley Lowery isn’t your ordinary reporter. The young Washington Post correspondent has covered several boundary-breaking stories in his career, including covering the Boston Bombings when he worked for the Boston Globe, and the racial protests in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown, but there’s one platform where he has successfully engaged his readers: Twitter.
Armed with his smartphone, his instincts, and over 400,000 followers, Lowery has managed to cover these stories live from his Twitter account.

While Lowery’s style of coverage is the current norm, his reach shows how important social media is in the field today. While many social platforms like Snapchat and Facebook continue add new interactive features for all users, they have also been beneficial for reporters covering breaking news.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 60 percent of Americans get their share of news through social media, with Facebook (66 percent), Reddit (70 percent), and Twitter (59 percent) being the top three platforms. These figures show no signs of slowing as companies continue to prioritize social sites to distribute stories to larger audiences and engage with digital communities.

At the Online News Association 2016 conference, social media stood its ground as a topic of extreme interest.

“Social media is everything to the newsroom” said Meena Thiruvengadam, Head of Audience Development at Business Insider. “I think that social [media] is key for reporting, for establishing yourself as an expert in your area of coverage, for engaging with your sources and your audience, and for creating that type of unique community where brand loyalty comes from.”

Thiruvengadam’s hunch is correct. Studies show whether users intend to read news or not, they still get updated on the news via social media. According to Pew Research Center, more than 60 percent of users get their news through Instagram and Facebook when they are doing other things on the internet, but over 50 percent of those who use Reddit, Linkedin, and Twitter actually looks for news online.

This could explain such high engagement numbers for live coverage by Lowery and other reporters that in turn, create a conversation among users. This goes far beyond the days of simply posting a status update.

“It shortens that amount of legwork that you do, and it’s brought us a whole new sense of who’s reading and what’s important,” says Kim Bui, Deputy Managing Editor at Reportedly. For Bui, before producing a story, social media is the first move she makes thanks to the ease of access it provides to new sources along with potential for community engagement. “I understand it freaks people out to talk and get feedback about their stories immediately as you’re going, but that’s what make stories better.”
While some experts at ONA explained the importance of social media in the newsroom, others spoke on the importance of targeting the right audience. Not every user uses the same platform to push their stories.

Kat Friedrich, News Editor at Yale’s Center for Business and the Environment, explained that Twitter and LinkedIn are the two main social media that her organization uses based on its target audience. “Our readers tend to be people who are not necessarily using social media a huge amount, so we try to use it to leverage their time.”

Other publications like the Daily Beast have used platforms like Instagram and Snapchat in a bid to capture younger viewers. However, according to the publication’s Assistant Managing Editor, Emma Carew Grovum, the main goal is to provide content with the same journalistic values that are expected when writing stories.

While social media is changing the way journalists cover stories, experts also recognized the need to monetize. “It’s hard, not a lot of people are doing it well,” said Bui “With social, it’s a lot harder because we don’t control the distribution, so you kind of have to work with someone else’s technology. It benefit both companies, but you have to play by Twitter’s rules or Facebook’s rules.”

Thiruvengadam also spoke about how important monetization is as well as the difficulties. ”If a media organization wants to pay somebody, they’ve got to make money.” said the Audience Development Head. “A lot of news sites heavily rely on the clicks back to the site, and if you can’t show that you’re able to monetize your social only content, it becomes harder to justify splitting your efforts between social and site traffic.”

Media companies have managed to monetize their social media platforms by creating sponsored content, and publications like Buzzfeed and Complex have managed to do this through a plethora of listicles, op-eds, and video content.

With newer digital features breaking boundaries on different platforms — like Snapchat Discover, Facebook Live, and Instagram 360 — the relationship between social media and journalism continues to blend. And though formats and platforms are evolving, journalists are still required to maintain the same values when creating content for their newsrooms. “There’s no replacement for journalism ethics” said Grovum. “There is a right way, [and] there’s always a wrong way. We don’t deceive people, lie to people or misrepresent ourselves. The integrity just has to be there, no matter what the platform is, so that mean’s whether you’re Facebook Live-ing, writing tweets, or doing a video or anything, the presentation has to be true to the story.”

Journalism values are not the only priority for successful use of social media platforms. Bui mentioned how humanity may become a required factor when covering news on social media. “I think people are going to want that more.” said Bui. “Humanity, empathy, ethics, that’s where I want journalism to go … that’s something you could do through social [media] very well, but you have to do that without losing your journalistic [values].”

Whether journalists like Wesley Lowery are live-tweeting police and protest standoffs, or outlets like AJ+ are pushing social video on Facebook, newsrooms are evolving in order to fit into the digital age.