Is social media changing journalism?

With the invention of social media, the landscape of news is drastically changing and some are worried about what the implications may be...
15 August 2016

Interview with 

Nic Newman, Oxford University


With the invention of social media, the landscape of news is drastically changing and some are worried about what the implications may be. First up, Nic Newman took Graihagh Jackson through what these changes are...

Nic - So my name is Nic Newman. I'm a digital strategist and I'm a research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

Graihagh - You have quite an impressive C.V. because I was being nosy and having a look on your website. It reads:-

Nic was a founding member of the BBC News website leading international coverage as World Editor; as Head of Product Development for BBC news you helped introduce innovations such as blogs and podcasting and on demand video. That's quite something!

Nic - Yes. Well the founding of BBC News online was very exciting but I did fifteen years before that working in radio and television and, yes, was part of the team that helped set up the online website. My main focus was international news, which I did for a number of years, and then changed to looking at technology and working with software engineers and designers and did that for about ten years. It's almost like two careers within the BBC.

Graihagh - Yes, quite - all the things. So you must be well placed to tell me what news was like ten years ago or so before we had the invention of mobile phones and, really, social media?

Nic - Well news has been right at the centre of the digital storm when things were very different ten or fifteen years ago. There were a relatively small number of gatekeepers and most people accessed news through those gatekeepers, so newspapers and television. And what's happened with digital is there's been this explosion in media but there's also been a convergence, so it's very hard to tell now what a newspaper is. So pretty much everything has changed and the driver behind that has been the internet.

Graihagh - I wonder if we can take some of these emerging trends one by one if you like. So, obviously mobile has been a big one - how has that changed how we are accessing news and also our behaviour, I suppose, of how we look at news?

Nic - What's happened with mobile is that it's changed the time at which people access news; they can access it anytime through the day, but it's also changed the formats of news. So, because of the size of the screens it's opened up different kinds of content so content that's much more snackable, content that much more visual works really well; it's harder to read long articles. And while people still consume on desktops we're moving to a stage where the mobile will be the predominant way in which people consume digital news.

Graihagh - And the other thing I found absolutely bonkers was that - is it 28% of young people were getting their news primarily from social media and this is the first time it's overtaken TV?

Nic - So, younger people have very different ways of accessing news and it's quite passive really. I mean, they're looking at those social media feeds because that's where they spend most of their time talking to their friends and they almost bump into news incidentally through that process, or if there's something really big happening and then, obviously, that comes to the centre of conversations that they're having.

Graihagh - I wonder though is that creating on a journalistic front more pressure to create these click big titles that evoke emotion and  feelings so that you still capture that online audience and therefore, I suppose, the advertising money?

Nic - It's complex. I think that the type of content that is successful, in Facebook in particular, but many social networks is driven much more by emotion. So Facebook algorithms respond very well to content that is emotionally engaging or forces some kind of reaction in you.

So I think that is changing the nature of content itself and as result of that, we're seeing more content being produced like that by traditional publishers. And some people are quite concerned about this because they fear that traditional fact-based information and during the Brexit campaign, of course, people said "well where are the facts you know we want to know the facts" rather than a lot of videos that tug at your emotions so big decisions are made by emotion rather than by facts.

So currently that's a really big argument -  is social media changing content in a way that's unhealthy for democracy?

Graihagh - I've got to ask you since we're a radio programme - where does radio fit into all of this?

Nic - I think audio is really interesting because it hasn't been as affected as print or even television. Audio is just amazing because you can do other things; you can do cooking or you can drive a car while you're listening, so it's quite a unique medium. Things like television require your full attention; our smart phone requires your full attention, so I think audio is going to carry on being quite successful. I think what changes it is the way technology is now coming into the car; so the ability to deliver on-demand content and live internet availability into cars, which is happening in The States, but hasn't really taken off yet in the UK

I think these things are going to help to reinvent audio, help to reinvent the formats of audio; we've seen that in the States with some of these new podcasts like "Serial" but, in the most part, what audio is in the UK is traditional linear programmes delivered on demand and I think that's going to change.

There's whole areas of audio which just haven't adapted in the same way as videos adapted; short form format, sharing of audio, finding audio, clipping audio. These things are pretty standard in video but we don't yet have the tools on the internet to enable that sort of thing to happen.

Graihagh - Yes, you're right - I very much agree! Someone needs to come up with a better podcasting platform.

Nic - Just take the radio you know. The radio is not as powerful as your smartphone. Internet radios, for example, are really complicated in terms of finding your way round to open up the possibilities of on-demand audio. A smartphone is much, much better because those interfaces have a screen and the radio just has not adapted. Even interactive televisions have adapted more than radios.

Graihagh - Gosh, I just can't wait for it to happen to be honest! The day when you can share a small thirty second clip on facebook or whatever.

Nic - I think it's amazing it hasn't happened already in a really effective way.

Graihagh - Watch this space -  I think we've got a business idea here!


Add a comment