‘Horizontal media’ – how social media has changed journalism

In a recent article titled “The people formerly known as the audience”, The Economist looked at how social media technologies have changed how we gather, filter and distribute news.

Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, has termed this change “horizontal media”.

Thanks to the rise of social media, news is no longer gathered exclusively by reporters and turned into a story. Instead, it emerges from an ecosystem in which journalists, sources, readers and viewers exchange information.

Today it’s quick and easy for anyone to share links with large numbers of people via Facebook or Twitter and without the involvement of a traditional media organisation. In other words, people can collectively act as a broadcast network, sharing information in a horizontal way rather than top down from the traditional media organisation.

With this in mind it was interesting to see The Economist’s graphic about the traffic drivers to the main US news websites (see graphic above).

Typically around 20-30% of visitors to the websites of big news organisations still come from Google’s search engine or its news site, Google News. And while the proportion of visitors referred from Facebook is smaller, it’s growing quite quickly thanks to social sharing and the “Like” button becoming more commonplace and easier to use.

Josh Nieman of Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University believes that more and more news sites will see referrals from social networks exceed those from search engines:

“This year you’ll see more and more news sites where referrals from social networks exceed those from search engines…Facebook is beginning to join Google as one of the most influential players in driving news audiences.”

Some news sites already present visitors with a list of stories recommended by their friends because they realise an endorsement from ‘someone you know’ carries extra weight. And according to Liz Heron, social media editor at The New York Times, journalists are becoming more inclined to see blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media as a valuable adjunct to traditional media – an important shift in attitude and one that journalists will need to adopt if they want to keep at the forefront of new developments.

It’s also interesting to see that Twitter is notably absent from these statistics. According to The Economist, surveys in both the US and here in the UK show that only 7-9% of the population use Twitter, compared with almost 50% for Facebook. But Twitter users are the “influencers”, argues Nic Newman, a former media executive at the BBC and a visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University. So the news itself is on Twitter even if the audience isn’t, given the reason why increasing numbers of journalists are cultivating both their profiles and followers on Twitter.

So while its not necessarily true that everyone is now a journalist, social media has created a culture of “horizontal media”, helping to ensure that more and more people are involved in creating and sharing news.