Over the past 20 years in newsrooms, I’ve seen Oklahoma City, 9-11, the Boston Marathon bombing and now Ebola. These are “important” stories that held long the nation’s attention. They’re examples of capital-J-journalism at its finest.
This was “serious journalism,” as many industry insiders might say. But in a world where publishers and journalists have become dependent on search engines and social platforms to distribute content, producing algorithmically-friendly journalism is the best way to build and keep a large audience. But what happens when the algorithms are indifferent to “serious journalism?”
The New York Times reported this week on “How Facebook is changing the way its users consume journalism.”
Most readers now come to (journalism) not through the print editions of newspapers and magazines or their home pages online, but through social media and search engines driven by an algorithm, a mathematical formula that predicts what users might want to read.
Greg Marra, an engineer on the team that designs Facebook’s algorithm, described the News Feed as “a personalized newspaper.”
It’s that personalization that led to the rise in popularity of sites like BuzzFeed and Distractify. Buzz Feed has leveraged social media to become one of the most powerful journalistic brands in the US. Don’t believe me? Consider for a moment that Buzz Feed reaches more unique visitors (71.2 million) each month than The New York Times (15 million), NBC News (26 million), Fox News (19 million), ABC News (6 million), CBS News (4 million) combined.
That success has led many traditional journalists like the New York Times and others to shift their social strategies to include “more viral” content. Call it Audience Development 101. Give social users some of the “fun stuff” to build a large audience and gain favor from the algorithms. Then, when the time comes to distribute “important content” you can reach them with “serious journalism.” It’s a strategy that we strongly recommend.
But it’s a delicate balance between growing audience and maintaining the principles that built the craft.
Last week, the social-verse was abuzz with news about Renee Zellweger appearing “unrecognizable” at red carpet event in Los Angeles.. Many newspapers and TV stations rode the wave of social commentary and engaged in conversations with their audience about Zellweger’s “transformation.”
But our friends at Mic pulled the old bait and switch. It’s certainly not a best practice to “trick” your audience, but this approach might be the exception. It’s a smart way to leverage viral popularity of a “soft story” to remind your audience of your biggest value proposition — providing relevant, contextual coverage of current events that impact their life.
It’s okay for journalistic brands to have fun on social. Your audience does not expect you to be as stodgy as you think. Especially in today’s social world, it’s important to be … well, social. No one likes the sanctimonious jerk at the party.
But as Mic showed us, it’s also okay to remind them occasionally what’s truly important.