Why Social Signals are Critical to the Modern Newsroom

July 23, 2015

Written by NewsWhip

NewsWhip CEO Paul Quigley explains why use of social signals in the newsroom has become an essential part of newsrooms’ toolsets. 
Normally, any journalist would jump at the chance to be interviewed for the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). As the pre-eminent publication for journalism professionals, a journalist turning down a CJR interview is like a musician turning down a Rolling Stone feature.
Yet when CJR Senior Editor Alexis Fitts was researching an article on the use of social listening tools in the newsroom, she was surprised to find staffers at most high profile publishers would ‘decline to comment’ on how they were using social signals to inform their editorial agendas.
Why so shy?
Social signal technologies are dashboards and web-based apps that are used by journalists to identify the stories, events, pictures, tweets and videos are popular, trending, or likely to become hits. They allow journalists to spot the events getting traction anywhere, find obscure videos or social posts that might turn into big stories. NewsWhip provides these very signals.

I suspect the reason editors were be shy about discussing using social signal technologies is that they can seem vaguely like cheating. They make story discovery and qualification too easy. They’re performance-enhancing drugs — enabling young bucks to write hit stories without wearing out a shred of shoe leather.

Additionally some editors fear the tools make news too dependent on trending events, and on the social media preferences of the people formerly known as the audience.

This unease means that many publications are keeping their use of these technologies behind closed doors. That will change, because these technologies are necessary and for today’s journalists due to recent technology changes. To see why, we need to examine how the information landscape has changed, and with it, the role of the journalist.

The Role of the Journalist Before Digital

In this long era of information scarcity – let’s call it B.D. (Before Digital) – plenty happened, but events were rarely instantly recorded and distributed. Politicians made statements at rallies, cats did adorable things, wars took place, crazy events happened in small towns. But without instant tweets from rallies, video uploads from pet owners, pictures from warzones, and digital distribution for small town papers, nothing made it very far. A tree fell in the forest, and no-one heard.
Unless of course a journalist was physically present. Perhaps making shorthand notes at the rally. Or watching the cat with a TV crew. Or at a front line. Then an item of news could be created, a “story” to be distributed by print, TV or radio.
This is how it has been for all of the B.D. era, or 99% of the history of news media, 1600 – 2000. Newsgathering and the journalistic role involved creating documentation of events in the world, and telegraphing them back to the guys at the printing press or broadcast tower.
Consumers had no role in documenting events. And they certainly had no say in what got distributed. Back in B.D., consumers had no way to instantly share a story with 1,000 people other than screaming it from a rooftop at a busy intersection. Cameras were expensive, slow to produce pictures, and (comparatively) rarely used.
Hence for most of the history of journalism, the primary role has been to investigate and document the world – and that still provides us our most romantic images of the journalist in action.

The Role of the Journalist After Digital

Today, that image is less fitting. Millions of events will be documented today – some by journalists, but far more by people, using their smartphones. Hundreds of eyewitnesses can live-tweet a political rally. Every phone is a media outlet, documenting events and distributing them on social networks. According to an analysis by Domo in 2014, every minute:

  • Facebook users share 2.5 million pieces of content,
  • 72 hours of YouTube content is uploaded, and
  • 277k Tweets are posted.

Today, events don’t need quite so much documenting. Instead a journalist needs to curate this cacophony, with a new duty to discover and filter what’s worthwhile in the digitally recorded world. They must be selective, and shield their readers from the onslaught of digital records.
So: what’s newsworthy for your audience today? What events are they likely to care about? With the whole world being recorded and reported on, even a superhuman journalist cannot answer that question alone. There are thousands of possible stories. NewsWhip’s technology alone monitors 3,000,000 new stories and pieces of UGC each day, and gathers hundreds of millions of signals of interest – likes, shares, comments and tweets.
So a hack needs help: they can drown in the noise , or they can start using technology to help them master it.
Technology employing social signals enables this. Having defined topics, networks and areas of interest, a journalist can watch which events are happening, getting traction and driving engagement. Without having to lift a finger.
Of course, they must still validate facts, interview witnesses, and wear out at least some shoe leather. But the world has changed, and the emphasis of information work has changed too, away from creating new records and towards making stories from the vast real time digital documentation of our world.

Wisdom of Crowds or Mob Rule?

So social listening might be necessary. How about the activity of using it to see which stories and events are popular or about to be popular on social networks, and incorporating that into your editorial agenda?
Some see that process as good. It’s democratic – editors can finally respond to what people actually want to share, like, act upon and discuss each day.
Some see it as bad. It’s a capitulation to the crowd – the transformation of serious news into posting of cat videos.
Both sides have a point. Like any technology, real time knowledge of trends can be used for any end.
Overall though, I believe that social signals will benefit the creation of quality journalism.
First, they keep newsrooms relevant. Editors still enjoy a great deal of agenda setting power, but they no longer exist in a vacuum. They must hit the stories that have the world talking or they become irrelevant.
Some people sneer at the term “trending” but “trending” actually describes an incredible thing: real time knowledge about what humans are interested in.  It’s information we’ve simply never had before in human history, and we’re currently massively underestimating it. This real time connection can speed up and sharpen up any newsroom, and revolutionize the audience relationship.
Second, social signals improve an activity that already existed. You see, newsrooms always wanted to know what story would matter today for their audience. The NBC Evening News never led with the discovery of a new moth species in Borneo. But the question of what would matter today was answered by educated guesswork.
With social signals, that interest can suddenly be measured and assessed with great granularity. This means publishers produce more of what people are interested in, and get greater engagement than before.
This could bring surprises to what we understand as “news.” For example, NewsWhip’s data shows science and health reporting are heavily engaged with and of great interest to audiences, much more than indicated from the column inches or space they get in today’s mainstream media. People want to know about breakthroughs, and about how to live better. Might this become a bigger constituent part of news?

Bonus: There’s No Need to Sell Your Soul

Does this mean journalists should reshape their reporting around what’s trending?
Of course, the answer is no. They should take from it what they need – and get on with their work.
Today, thousands of newsrooms will have editorial meetings deciding which stories to focus on. Many will now have real time social data from across the web as an input to aid that decision. Many won’t. I think the newsrooms with access to that data will make qualitatively better decisions than the newsrooms that don’t.
That does not mean the newsrooms with data will defer to some “most shared” list in place of setting an agenda. Instead, they’ll have to hand exact information on what’s happening, and likely quite a few nuggets from topics of interest to their audience that they could never have discovered without social signaling technology. They can intelligently incorporate that into their work.
The best publications will keep their souls and put this information to good work, selecting, validating, reporting, and discharging their duties to their audience.

Reality is not Going Away

The usefulness of social signal technology is rapidly gaining acceptance across newsrooms, behind closed doors, quietly. But journalists like to talk and compare notes, and based on the volume of data that’s out there each day, the use of tools is technologically inevitable.
So – a prediction: if the CJR calls back in 2016, editors will feel freer to discuss their social signal technology and processes. They might share a few stories and best practices. I look forward to reading about them.
This post originally appeared on Medium.


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