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 Each site had gaps: Information that was missing, unconfirmed or already out of date.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.
- 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.
— Becky Gaylord (@BeckyGaylord) December 15, 2014
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:
— Denice Sharpe (@dssearcher2) December 15, 2014
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
- 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?