Digital pebbles

Clarke Mulder Purdie on PR, media and other random topics

Social media vs MSM (it’s 1-0 at half time)

Posted by Graham Hayday on September 12, 2007

FT.com has just covered a report that compares the news agendas of the so-called mainstream media (MSM) with the sorts of story that rise to the top of the rankings on social media sites such as Digg, Del.icio.us and Reddit.

The report (which was carried out in the US by the Project for Excellence in Journalism) makes for an interesting read, as it finds that there is little overlap between the content of the two.

To quote the FT’s piece:

“For example, in the week in question the biggest story for traditional news providers was a debate in Congress about reforms to immigration policies, accounting for 10 per cent of all news stories. It appeared just once as a top-10 story on Reddit, and not at all on Digg and Del.icio.us, the study found.

Mainstream media sites also tended to focus on a handful of big issues, while user sites rarely returned to stories.

In addition, the analysis showed that coverage on the user-generated news sites focused more on domestic US events and less on news from abroad.”

The next sentence is crucial. It reads: “Technology and science stories were the most common on the user sites.”

That’s no surprise – the early and most enthusiastic adopters of services such as Digg tend to be geeks (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Some of my best friends are geeks). The communities that these sites attract are therefore disproportionately interested in science and technology.

The most interesting thing to consider is what happens when or if these sites go mainstream (and it almost certainly is when). The penultimate paragraph of the FT.com story reads:

“The findings will fuel concerns about the situation of the mainstream media, especially as more people switch attention to the web and as advertising spending follows.”

I hope the writer of the article doesn’t mean that MSM should start covering more science and technology stories. It’s the geeks who really dig Digg at the moment, so as far as subject matter goes there’s no desperate need for MSM to change what they’re doing. They’re serving a different audience. The analysis also assumes that the users of Digg have reduced their consumption of other media. They probably have, but I’d like to see the numbers.

Regardless of that particular debate, the crucial point is whether MSM truly understand why these user-driven sites are so appealing. Power has been put in the hands of the people. We like being in control. The wisdom of the crowds should not be underestimated. And a lot of people don’t trust MSM.

Science and technology stories are attracting most of the attention on social media sites today, but next year it could be science and technology and the environment, then it’ll be science and technology and the environment and politics, then it’ll be science and technology and the environment and politics and sport, and so on, until MSM have no audiences left.

If they are to survive (and I think some of them will), the ‘old school’ crowd will have to let readers/viewers shape the news agenda. Channel 4 News has started along this route by becoming more transparent and blogging its news meetings, so at least we can find out why certain stories were covered and why certain angles were taken. That’s a bold and laudable move.

But the Project for Excellence in Journalism study suggests that even that may not be enough in the future. We need to be allowed to get even closer to, and shape, the decision-making process itself.

What does this mean for the PR community then? I’ve rambled on long enough for one post so won’t pontificate about that in depth right now, but it may be that we end up spending more time communicating directly with the ultimate consumer, and less time schmoozing journalists.

* UPDATE (13 Sept, 12:05pm): Roy Greenslade has just posted his thoughts on this report. Not entirely sure I agree with his analysis.  

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