Breaking news today = social media + curation + technology

Like many people all over the world, I was gripped by the scary hostage-taking siege that happened this week in the heart of Sydney, Australia, and ended tragically for two innocent hostages who lost their lives and others who suffered injuries.

As a former journalist based in Sydney several years, whose office was not far from the location of Lindt cafe, I kept scanning updates using the Twitter hashtag #SydneySiege and searching for the most complete, reliable coverage of the terrifying and dynamic drama.

News can’t compete


I tried to follow the fast-moving story by tracking news sites. That was frustrating. Each site had gaps: Information that was missing, unconfirmed or already out of date.

The process of gathering news, checking facts and converting data into a story is not quick or efficient.

See, one news organization has only so much staff capacity and news-gathering firepower. Yet, that finite resource has a direct bearing on the breadth and pace of the breaking news coverage each organization can generate on its own.

What’s more, reporters these days have far more to do than when publishing required type setters, rolls of paper and gallons of ink. It really was possible to “Stop the presses!” Publishing was a process. Today, of course, publishing happens instantly and with just one finger on one button.

That means that modern-day journalists are not only publishers, but also are reporters, editors, fact-checkers, rewriters and more. They’re handling what took an entire team of people in the newsroom to do before news went digital–and, ironically, journalists have an extra job that no one had to do previously: posting to social media platforms and sites.

Social = Scale

On the other hand, crowd-sourced information flows across the social web from countless sources, places and witnesses. That kind of coverage–which is one of the things the social web does best–can provide nearly limitless amounts of information and insights, instantaneously.

For example:

  • Tweets from eye-witnesses who start attaching hashtags, which form a community of sharers and enables search capability of the updates
  • Videos from mobile phone users, shared on YouTube or as shorter loops on, perhaps, Vine
  • Posts with links or photos on Facebook or on Instagram, which commonly also use already-trending hashtags or start new ones that quickly gain popularity, such as #I’llRideWithYou

Most people now get news on mobile devices, which creates additional challenges to traditional media companies. The trend is not new, but is speeding up, something that research organizations have documented and analyzed. ”News organizations must tackle a new and growing set of technical and financial challenges in the mobile space as well as the prospect of forever ceding a share of revenue to platform providers,” Pew Research concluded in the State of the News Media.

Curation is Key

Social media can feel like an avalanche when updates surge down our news feeds. But curation is the elixir that has turned social media into an unbeatable source of breaking news coverage. Curation sorts and sifts social posts into digestible packages that have context.

Curation creates coherence from what would’ve been chaotic cacophony

When social updates from countless people can be simultaneously searched, culled and then curated, incredibly powerful sources of breaking news can be combined quickly, with context and shared exponentially across social media.

Case study: Sydney Siege

Consider the masterful job Mashable did with this curated social media story it published on Storify just a couple of hours into the siege, and then updated regularly with new quotes, voices, information until it was over. Importantly, this also enabled fast and seamless corrections or clarifications to information that might have been off the mark when first reported or shared.

Mashable’s news collage pulled in a staggering number of sources, voices, visuals, screen grabs of documents, perspectives and information. This included journalists and official government sources, but also many others whose posts, pictures and comments added context and depth to the information and story taking shape and being updated in real time.

I tweeted this because it was the best source of information I’d found. Others who saw my Tweet thought so too: It got the most ReTweets and favorites of any Tweet I had sent for a month or more. And, it prompted this response:

Lessons to learn?

News sites–even gossipy ones that stoke emotion by spreading speculation–don’t present breaking news as completely, skillfully and swiftly as social media platforms. And that matters to consumers of news. But what matters to just about all of us is this: social-sourcing lacks any real competition.

Why does that matter?

Well, most of us are not in the business of covering breaking news. But many people do want or need to know about, and react to, developments happening across the social web in real time. We monitor and try to protect reputations. We manage crisis communications. We need to respond promptly. And we need to interact authentically with many different audiences.

Anybody associated with brand management or advancement must deftly confront these challenges, which ubiquitous digital communication makes thornier and more urgent. Some who this includes are:

  • Community managers
  • Public relations professionals
  • Executives
  • Marketing and branding people
  • Legal counsel whose clients face rumors that go viral

Information surges at the speed of the social web. So, too, do the size and technological sophistication of the audience expecting to track events that unfold in real time–completely, accurately and in context. Today, social sites and platforms meet these expectations. News sites don’t.

My time in the news business topped 15 years. I value what news organizations do and their major role in society. Digital communication doesn’t diminish their value or significance at all. But I think it will be a huge story to see how (or whether) news organizations adapt to the fierce competition being fueled by technology and social media.

That’s my take, anyway. What do you think?

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  1. Breaking news today = social media + curation + technology

    This post, while logically sound, seems a little too soon and a little insensitive. The funerals for the victims are only taking place today in Sydney. The emotions here are still a little too raw for a case study based on a human tragedy.

    As I understand it, the amount of news made available and publicly distributed during the situation was deliberately limited with the co-operation of local media to ensure the hostages were not exposed to unnecessary risk. A worthy objective even if it was a little inconvenient for those outside the tragedy voracious for news.

    • Breaking news today = social media + curation + technology

      Chris, I understand your point of view. And was certainly not intending to be insensitive through this post. I sincerely apologise.
      I believe, though, that I share your concern for judicious and thoughtful updates amidst tragic events. Through careful, vetted and widely sourced information, incendiary or inaccurate information can be quickly corrected or mitigated (such as the rumors and unconfirmed, scary reports about bombs by Sydney-based radio “shock jock” Ray Hadley that he later retracted.)
      In other words, social sourcing can encourage responsible coverage.
      A new platform called @Grasswire, which purports to be a Wikipedia for news, is going live next month. I hope this tool promotes the social web as a conveyor of sober, well-informed coverage of breaking news.

      • Breaking news today = social media + curation + technology

        I appreciate your comments. I was hoping my radar was overreacting.

        Even the less sensational news channels had a lot of trouble staying the course. All news channels were stretched dealing with a fortunately unfamiliar situation (at least in Australia). We all have to remember the safety of the victims in these events must take priority. After that for me the wellbeing of the community must rank high in a string of priorities. The need for news unless needed for safety is lower on the list.

        I’m not a fan of shock jock broadcasting. I successfully avoided Ray’s contribution.

        I will check out Grasswire. I hope it lives up to the outline you gave.

        Despite my concerns about the timing I did appreciate your article.


        • Breaking news today = social media + curation + technology

          Exchanges such as this, Chris, give me hope that civil social commentary is most definitely still alive. Thanks, again, for weighing in. And, for the record, I have no stake in Grasswire, I’m just interested in the idea. And I think it makes a ton of sense. Supposedly launching in January (No rush…you can catch up with it after the Silly Season is over ; )

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