Digital journalism trends in 2016: From social newsgathering to social journalism

This is the first in a series of posts between now and the end of the year looking at key themes I think will emerge during the course of 2016.

It takes a foolhardy journalist not to be familiar with Twitter or Facebook these days. There are probably very few journalists who haven’t written a story which contains at least some material gathered and gleaned from a social network.

As in other companies, the newsrooms I work with have invested a lot of time in training reporters on the tips to make sure they don’t miss a big, breaking story tip on social media. And there are few better introductions to Tweetdeck that Joanna Geary’s brilliant presentation. For journalists who take the time and trouble to pay attention to such presentations, they find themselves having a significant advantage when it comes to spotting stories on social.

But I suspect 2016 will be the year when being brilliant at social newsgathering – while still incredibly important – will no longer be enough to be a successful journalist on social media. And for journalists who value the ‘traditional’ skills – such as contact-building and being known within certain communities, there will be an element of ‘back to the future’ in what follows here.

Finding the new rare skill

Social newsgathering is no longer a rare skill. It’s an essential skill, but it’s no longer an exceptional skill in a newsroom. Where does the new edge come from? From already being known in that community.

As with most things in social, relating it to the real-world pub helps here. If a reporter covers a story about a fire near a pub, and runs into that pub and starts asking for pictures, is he more or less likely to be successful if he’s actually already known to some of the regulars in that pub? I would argue more successful, and truth be told if he’s really well known the odds are he may well have been tipped off already without needing to leave his desk.

Social media success is often defined by the number of followers you have on Twitter, or the number of likes you have. Such numbers are indicative of something, of course,  but it’s the quality of those connections which matters far more. I know building up a following on a Facebook fan page for a journalist can be hard – far harder than accumulating fans on a newspaper’s fan page, for example. But 150 connections on a fan page suggests 150 people who value what you do and want to see what you’re up to and probably talk to you. Proving to people you’re worth following, and worth talking to, is the challenge here. If you crack that, you’re more likely to be hearing about the things which are happening, first.

New social networks

If nothing else, there’s evidence to suggest as would-be readers continue to migrate to mobile, so to they may well increasingly use closed social networks too. Journalists got a bit of a taste of this during the 2011 riots when many of the rioters chose to use Blackberry Messenger to communicate, rather than open social networks.

What’s App and Snapchat, you could argue, have taken that 2011 principle and reached out to anyone with any smartphone. At the Online News Association conference in Los Angeles in September, Mandy Jenkins, news director at Storyful, and Andy Carvin, the editor-in-chief at reported.ly, talked about how social media was redefining breaking news coverage with so much being played out in real time.

Both touched on the need to know how to approach someone when trying to get that picture of bomb blast without looking thoroughly intrusive and insensitive, and also the importance of being able to verify that picture too. Reference was also made during this session to the fact that we should expect more and more such material to be shared increasingly on more closed social networks.

Two of those three challenges – the being seen to be behaving correctly and being able to verify what you see – become much easier when your engagement with a community on social media goes beyond automatic alerts but is based on the social media version of real journalist/reader relationships.

The third – the more closed social networks – simply takes journalists back to the real world: Building up enough trust within a group of people you need for your work for them to see value in letting you in.

A social two-way street

That can work both ways. I know a reporter who covers a relatively large area but has several thousand connections through Facebook in that area. Little happens in that area without her knowing because those connections – who have connected over time after seeing her on Facebook and her stories on their too – tell her. When she shares links which her connections then see, she has the ability to make the Chartbeat line move on the newsroom big screen.

I also know several reporters who have worked hard to become parts of existing social media communities and have been handsomely rewarded in terms of their ability to get stories and audience to their work. One, who covers family matters, regularly gets a sense of what parents are talking about but, unlike the journalists who suddenly turn up on mumsnet and get flamed by regular users for gatecrashing, she can convince people to work with her on those stories.

Another example is a former football writer who spent time, under his own name, on fans forums related to his club. As a result, he saw a lot more traffic to his work from forums, and more engagement with things like web chats, than other writers because he was a known quantity to those forums. In other words, he treated readers with respect.

Providing people with stuff which is of interest to them on a regular basis is the first part. Presenting it to them and spending time with them in their spaces has always been crucial, but now more so than ever. In some respects, Twitter has made life too easy for journalists. Other social networks are less forgiving in that regard.

Getting started

I’m sure there are some people reading this (well done for getting this far) who are feeling like this is less of a trend, more of something that should have happened a decade ago. And they’d be right to an extent.

But I believe technological changes, combined m56with the reader moving to mobile, will force the issue in 2016.

It isn’t that hard – it just takes time. It’s as simple as behaving like a human online, and investing time in building contacts – just as you would in the real world.

Two examples in the last week demonstrate this. The first, from the Chester Chronicle, where colleague Ed Walker responded to a glib comment about the Chron only being interested in the M56 (see left).

The easier thing would have been for Ed to ignore the critique from the reader, but by replying to it, he got a response which a) did the brand no harm at all and b) which showed just how important anything that happens on the M56 is to readers.

Another example, from WalesOnline, last week backs up the point about doing more than just gathering news. It shared a beautiful picture and asked if anyone else had similar.

More than 100 were sent to the WalesOnline inbox. That’s social journalism – joining in and getting stories out of it. In other words, and to take the old Yellow Pages slogan and wreck it to make a point, it’s about not just being there for the nasty things in life.

Way back in 2006, my predecessor in my old job as head of multimedia, Mike Hill, pushed very hard for newsrooms to embrace crowdsourcing as a way of connecting with readers. For a while we did on the Liverpool Daily Post, and it helped the paper break some big stories around the ownership of Liverpool Football Club, safety concerns over transatlantic flights from Liverpool, NHS treatments being denied to patients and the impact city-wide roadworks were having in the city. As with so many things, what worked really well online really enhanced the newspaper too

When offered the chance to engage with making the news, people did. But it didn’t happen overnight. It took work, but the rewards were there. The difference between 2006 and 2016 is that back then, the social media revolution was only just getting going. Twitter has since opened up the world to journalists, but other social networks look likely to force us to work harder for information.

Is that a bad thing? At the very worst, it just takes us back to the way things used to be. Success beckons for the journalist who puts time in building a network of contacts who trust him or her. Same as it ever was.

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