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The Rise of Mobile and Social News - And What It Means for Journalism

16/06/2015 07:06 BST | Updated 15/06/2016 10:59 BST

News consumption is undergoing two fundamental shifts across the globe. One is the rise in news audiences accessing journalism through their phones and mobile devices, the other, related to this trend, is the increase in people who read or watch news through social platforms, such as Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, WhatsApp, or Twitter. This report documents that these two trends are not national phenomena confined to the US or just a few markets. They are playing out all over the world.

What is perhaps most important about this development is the speed of the change, and the profound change it signals for journalism organisations. The existential question of a decade ago 'who is a journalist?' was born out of the access of the general populace to publishing tools. Now the question has been replaced by 'who is a publisher?' Protocols like Twitter and social platforms like Facebook are being joined by messaging services such as WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) and Snapchat. News organisations have realised that, inorder to reach readers or viewers, particularly in younger demographics, they have to publish through these platforms.

The overall effect of this shift has been to affect how journalism is produced. Perhaps the most forward thinking of the 'new' news organisations is the US company BuzzFeed, which has managed to raise in excess of $70million in venture capital funding and has rapidly grown to a monthly reach which rivals many older and traditionally larger organisations. BuzzFeed has been built around the proposition that distribution of journalism will happen primarily through social networks. It has expertise in understanding how social platforms spread news stories, and what formats of journalism work best on the real-time social web. BuzzFeed does not care very much what its homepage looks like because it doesn't expect people to visit it as a 'destination site', but rather to encounter the news through social feeds.

Who controls the pathways to the audience?

If BuzzFeed is correct in its strategic direction (and it is already being emulated by many legacy news organisations), then the control of pathways to audiences no longer lies with the organisations which publish news but with the platforms that carry it. In my 2014 Reuters Memorial Lecture, I outlined this new relationship between the social media companies born in Silicon Valley and news publishers and journalists as creating a new paradigm. The free press is now controlled by companies whose primary interests are not necessarily rooted in strengthening public discourse and democracy. On the one hand, journalists can reach far greater audiences immediately than was the case in the past. On the other hand, journalists and publishers have very little control now over how information reaches the world and there is limited transparency.

Facebook does not see itself as a publisher, it only sees itself as a platform. But once Facebook is the world's front page, publishing responsibilities begin to attach themselves to the company. The most clear example of this is the process by which Facebook decides which news to feature in the feeds of its users. If it only features news which is recommended by friends and family, then Facebook's users might miss an important event. Does the Facebook news algorithm take into account other factors, like how recently the news happened? Does it worry about whether the stories that its users are spreading are true? Does it get rid of stories which might be deliberately biased or misleading? Does it want to show us stories which are videos before it shows us stories which are text? Each decision means reprogramming the algorithm which selects types of news stories. Facebook might see this as an engineering task, but these simple decisions are also editorial.

The Facebook effect spreads beyond simply offering a platform and into actually shaping journalism. In the coming years we will increasingly see news organisations employing journalists who are there to report directly onto social sites exclusively. Over time, if it makes economic sense for technology companies to employ more explicitly editorial staff, such as Facebook's 'content curators' who effectively perform an editing function, then we might see social media companies more consciously expanding their editorial role.

How can publishers respond to the rise of platforms?

It does not look as though this trend inspired by the rising importance of smartphones is going to slow down anytime soon, and it is certainly never going to reverse altogether. News organisations are stuck as to how to respond, particularly as they lack any scale or technological solutions that might match those created by Silicon Valley. In America at the beginning of 2015, Facebook initiated an experiment with publishers whereby it would publish whole articles or videos instead of just publishing links to them. The rationale for the development was that links to external sites slowed down the way news reached readers.

Most surprising was that news organisations like the New York Times signed up to a greater loss of control by being one of the first organisations to participate in the test. (Others are said to have been approached but declined to take part; most have not been asked.) The idea that an organisation so apparently dedicated to the control of its own brand would take this route is a signal of how much changed behaviours in news audiences is forcing even the most resolute organisations to make compromises. This is a decision every publisher has to make. The trade off between control of your own journalism, versus reaching large audiences, is inevitable for both national and international media.

Fragmentation of news provision, which weakens the bargaining power of journalism organisations, has coincided with a concentration of power in platforms. The only remaining question is how fast will we see a shift from the old models of distribution to the new?

How can platforms deal with publishers?

The conundrum of how social platforms should handle news is made more complicated by the fact that their internal structures and code are highly commercially sensitive. How Google, Facebook, and Twitter make their money is by using data to meet the needs of advertisers and users. If we cansee exactly how they do that, then their businesses lose a competitive advantage or their algorithms could be 'gamed' by unscrupulous third parties.

An absence of data, or rather the secrecy of that data, about what happens between the creation of news and how itis consumed, creates commercial problems for publishers and raises broader issues for democracy. In Europe there is a highly regulated media environment. Even in the US commercial broadcasters are licensed to operate. By contrast, the largely Silicon Valley based companies which are growing vast influence in this area remain largely untouched by media regulation in the US (though they are of course subject to copyright, patents, etc.), and strenuously try to avoid it in Europe and other markets.

Fragmentation might mean that we can no longer even identify what news media are, let alone check that plurality and equality of access are guaranteed. We can no longer really know which stories are being promoted the hardest or which are suppressed with any degree of certainty. Social media companies and other technology companies that control information channels - Apple via its App Store for instance - have become dominant players in global news distribution by accident rather than by design and we are still grappling with how to address this new order.

The future of journalism

As journalism becomes ever more dependent on these new distribution platforms to find audiences, news publishers are forced to examine their business models and strategies for the future. If a news company wishes to reach a large audience on the web it has little choice but to develop relationships with third-party platforms, but this puts revenue models and decisions over the ultimate shape of journalism even further into the hands of software companies.

Will Facebook and their peers become news organisations? Should news companies create their own technologies? Can regulation step in to take a more significant role in bringing transparency to these new processes? These are all important questions. I suspect that in each case at least part of the answer is 'yes'.

What about news audiences? For the news consumer there is a lot to be said in favour of the new environment. The real-time world of news and events fits in your pocket. The social web is a great empowering force for information and journalism. However, the civic impact of having the paths to audiences controlled by largely US-based social platforms is as yet unexplored. Understanding of where these clear trends are taking us ought to be a major policy issue, just as it is already a major business issue.

The next phase of development is already upon us. Messaging services like WhatsApp are growing more quickly in some parts of the world and among a younger demographic than platforms like Facebook. These platforms are, if anything, even further removed from the broadcast environment we are all used to as a driver of news and discussion.

Existing journalism businesses and new entrants into the market must have a strategy to deal with their future which is centred on mobile distribution and which accepts that there is little they can do to control the environment in which their journalism is distributed. News businesses, which thought the shift from an analogue model to a digital model was painful and fraught a decade ago, now have to make even greater adjustments. Social platforms which felt they could maintain their status as 'just a platform' and avoid the implications of bearing publishing responsibility are also realising that this is untenable. What follows will reshape journalism more profoundly than we once could have imagined. This might be good news for consumers, but in terms of civic and democratic health, the jury is still out.

Emily Bell is director, TOW Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. This post is part of the Reuters Digital News Report 2015