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Social Media Is Affecting the News Media

News agencies are changing their operations based on evolving consumer uses of digital technology.

News agencies around the world are constantly challenged with finding and keeping consumers of their published content. Content is certainly king, but the business model has been stressed for many organizations over the past decade based on the advancement of technology and changing consumer habits.

It’s still about getting the attention of readers, listeners, and watchers. But now, your news source wants you to consume their content through digital media and share it within your friends, family, and professional circles.

Consider that the traditional subscription model is based a one-to-one relationship. A consumer subscribes to a publication, and the agency pushes their content to the subscriber at a specified interval. If you want a newspaper delivered to your driveway each day, then you can have that with your paid subscription. You might share that printed paper with a single friend. But it’s not likely that you would share it with more than that one friend. In many ways, you are limited by the physical copy that you have.

Paul Grabowicz, of the Knight Digital Media Center, writes about the transition to digital journalism, stating there has been “a steady decline in print circulation and a  precipitous drop in advertising revenue” in recent years. News agencies that have not adapted to technology that consumers use have filed for bankruptcy, closed their doors, or merged with competitors.

Consider that the print subscription base for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Monday through Friday circulation was 183,415 in May 2011 down from 318,350 in November 2007.  That’s a 43 percent drop in a 3 1/2 year span. 

All those print subscriptions of yesteryear have been replaced with different types of digital access such as mobile applications, Internet browsers, tablet applications, podcasts, and YouTube videos. 

Traditional news sources relied on an intentional decision by the consumer to receive the content of the publisher. It was an individual decision between the consumer and the news source.  With digital media this can still be true. But evolution of technology and tools is leading to a new change in consumer behavior.

In recent years, social media sharing and linking has become mainstream, and the average consumer has access to share their favorite content with many people just by clicking a button. In contrast to the subscription model, that’s a one-to-many relationship and it’s beginning to have a changing effect on the mass media industry.

The consumer has become a free marketing engine for the news agency by sharing, liking, and commenting on publications. This very act replicates the content of the publication in a way that was once impossible.

Andrew Phelps, of the Nieman Journalism Lab, describes the sharing habits of consumers in his post news shows up in the least expected places. Phelps states that “A lot of readers get their news just like this — incidentally — according to a growing body of research. That is, they don’t turn to the web seeking news. The news finds them. And that has implications for how that news gets produced and distributed.”

So, just as with any industry, news and media companies will have to adjust to consumer behavior.  AOL, parent company to Patch.com, understands this. A note in the management discussion section of the 10-Q report filed with the SEC on 11/2/11 states “As the behavior of internet consumers continues to change, a migration on the internet towards social networking could adversely affect usage of AOL products and services. This trend may have an adverse effect on our ability to rely on traditional sources of traffic and revenues. We seek to mitigate these potential competitive pressures by leveraging social networks to deliver our content.”

But social-sharing timelines such as those found on Facebook, Google+, or Twitter have a challenge as well. They contain an enormous amount of information that is updated constantly.  In fact, there is so much information hitting those timelines that we can’t possibly process it all.

It’s what link shortening service Bit.ly calls the half life of a shared link. They define half life as “the amount of time at which this link will receive half of the clicks it will ever receive.” According the Bit.ly study, “The mean half life of a link on Twitter is 2.8 hours, on Facebook it’s 3.2 hours and via ‘direct’ sources (like email or IM clients) it’s 3.4 hours. So you can expect, on average, an extra 24 minutes of attention if you post on Facebook than if you post on Twitter.”

For discussion sake, let’s call the half life of a shared link three hours. After that, your link is considered old news. The findings of Bit.ly study have prompted some news organizations to develop a policy of re-posting their content after certain time intervals. There is no additional cost to repost the link, and it will very likely pick-up new consumers.

Enter Google to this discussion. Google shook up the digital media and search world when it posted on its blog a post entitled Search, plus Your World.

Google states “We’re transforming Google into a search engine that understands not only content, but also people and relationships.” The latest search algorithm now includes results that are personal to your Google+ and photo sharing information. Controversies aside, about the what social data is included in the search results, what this means is that sharing news links socially could give that link a second life in future search results.

For news agencies, that’s good news. It means when a link from their content is shared with others, it could create additional impressions in Google’s search engine index. That can increase the probability of additional visits to their media properties in the future.

So the race for your attention continues. But the game has changed. It’s not played with college students selling you the covenience of home delivery through a subscription, but with digital publications and the quality of the content.

You the consumer are both the audience and the marketer. Your influence, and it’s a good one, drives more people to the published content when you share or recommend it to a friend. Social is as social does.

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