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Is social news the future of newsgathering?

Is social news the future of newsgathering? Tom Hespos
By now, you’ve probably heard that Turkish protestors placed a full-page ad in The New York Times.  Convinced that their struggle wasn’t getting enough play in the mainstream media, three protestors took to social news sites and IndieGoGo (the same crowdfunding platform that brought you such hits as Let’s Build a Tesla Museum and Let’s Bring Star Trek-Style Tricorders to Market) and raised well more than the $50K they needed to place the ad.

When I say “well more than” I mean over $90,000 as of this morning.  There’s a thread on reddit dedicated to figuring out what to do with the rest of the money.

For the propellerhead data geeks in the crowd, here are the particulars as of this writing: $92,840 from 2,361 donors in around four days.  That’s an average donation size of a little less than 40 bucks.  Not bad numbers.

But we’re not here to talk about the numbers.  Nor the politics.

Step back for a second and take a look at the big picture, because this is one of those profound generational things that should give you pause if you’re in the media business.  The people who get their news in a crowdsourced fashion were convinced that people who don’t are so hopelessly clueless about what is going on in Turkey that they bought a $50,000 ad to bring them into the loop.

Why should this matter to people in the media business?  Let’s take a step back for a minute.

For years, it’s been a running joke on social news sites that the mainstream media follows social news.  That is, the top stories of the day on a site like reddit tend to become the mainstream news stories of the day some 1-3 days later.  If you’re unfamiliar with reddit, I’d urge you to become intimate with it immediately.  Spending just a few minutes with the site a couple times a day makes you want to stop watching television news and cancel your subscription to the newspaper if you still have one.  The effect is uncanny – you’ll watch the news, think “I saw this on reddit two days ago” and want to change the channel.

This effect isn’t new.  Before it was achieved on reddit, it happened on DIgg (before it imploded and became the laughingstock of social news).  To a lesser extent, the effect was achieved in the tech news sector with Slashdot years ago.

So the running joke is less of a joke and more of a confirmation for social news users that democratic news agenda-setting works.  And when they see that something politically important is getting a lot of play on reddit, but not so much in the mainstream media, that means something is broken on the mainstream news side.  If it’s an important world news or political story, sometimes social news users move to correct the imbalance.  That’s where you start seeing things like crowdfunded ads, as we’ve seen earlier with Occupy Wall Street.

Here’s the funny thing, though.  Social news tends to fly under the radar of the metrics we use in the media business to judge the relative size of things.

For instance, if you simply look at comScore numbers, something like reddit looks to be a fraction of the size of The New York Times Digital.  Reddit has less than a quarter of the nearly 41 million monthly unique visitors the Times has.  As for its potential reach to the web population, the Times boasts 18.3% to reddit’s 4.1%.

Nothing about those numbers sheds any light whatsoever on their comparative influence.  Nothing tells you that a story that reaches the front page of reddit will creep out to Facebook and Tumblr over the course of the day, becoming one of the top-linked items of the day.  Nothing tells you that the same story will eventually reach your nightly news broadcast a day or two (or three) later.

Above all, those numbers don’t tell you that reddit illustrates the stark contrast between newsgathering methods in social versus that of the mainstream media, and that one clearly has an advantage over the other.

Tom Hespos is President of New York agency Underscore Marketing. He is a frequent contributor to industry trade publications and has been writing a regular column about online marketing and advertising since March of 1998. His clients include Wyeth...

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