FAQ: How has social media changed journalism – and what does the future hold?

tools on a shed wall

Tools image by Lachlan Donald

This latest set of frequently asked questions comes from a MA student at Coventry University who is researching Instagram. Their questions revolve around the impact of social media on journalism and Instagram in particular.

How are the new social media apps changing the way journalism is produced, distributed and consumed?

There’s a lot of scope in that question so in breaking it down it’s firstly worth making a distinction between apps (i.e. tools, used by producers to capture, publish and share) and platforms (i.e. a place where content is hosted).

So for example Instagram is a platform that hosts content which can be accessed on a tablet, or on mobile, or a desktop or laptop computer, but can also be published to through an app on mobile or tablet.

In terms of production new apps have had an impact on how we capture the stories that we create (for example live streaming video using an app like Facebook is different to live streaming broadcast content), and indeed those that it is possible to capture (being mobile rather than studio-bound, for example).

It has an impact on how we publish those (being able to go live quickly rather than months of planning), and how we distribute those (using hashtags, sponsored posts, @-naming people, engaging in comments, etc.)

In terms of consumption, obviously apps make it possible to consume journalism in a mobile context where previously this was not possible (especially with video), and to engage in conversation and feedback around those stories in a way that wasn’t possible (adding comments, questioning with others, engaging with journalists and news brands themselves, etc.)

Distribution has been the area which has seen the most significant impact: publishers have lost control over distribution, and audiences have a much bigger role now.

New platforms have changed the editorial values that are used to curate the content that we are exposed to.

Previously journalism was subject to a series of stages (pitching/commissioning, editing, layout, programming, etc) whereby stories were chosen to be exposed to an audience, typically by editors, and then the audience had a choice of which page to read, or which broadcast to pay attention to, and their input into this process was limited to crude audience metrics or correspondence.

Now, stories are subjected to additional algorithmic curation whereby an audience is exposed to stories based on factors such as whether lots of people have shared and/or viewed that story, whether they have a history of engagement with the accounts sharing those stories (including the publishers or journalists), whether they themselves have consumed similar stories in the past, etc.

Obviously beyond these basic changes there are also variations between platforms: visual platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest have helped drive journalists to become more visually literate, using photography more than ever.

Twitter (among others) has helped to popularise the use of gifs and emoji which are now widely used in journalism.

Snapchat has popularised a new sequential, hybrid form of storytelling, and so on.

What kind of content are the audiences used to at the moment, and what is more engaging?

You’d need to look at audience research, research on consumption, and particularly research on engagement, to answer that question.

Does this kind of digital journalism include the public now more than ever?

Again, you’d have to look at research on how much media organisations have involved the public in their journalism. But I would certainly say anecdotally that the shift of power over distribution from publisher to audience means that they have a bigger role than ever in journalism — and most publishers seem to have recognised that.

Any thoughts on the way Instagram is being used by the media?

Instagram is a tricky platform for media organisations because its technical limitations also limit its potential for publishing.

Specifically the inability to include links is a significant barrier to publishers using it in a big way: it restricts the ability to drive traffic to a news website. Instead they have used the profile link (only introduced last year) as a ‘hack’ to do so.

As a result most media organisations have tended to approach Instagram as a platform for brand-building among younger audiences, rather than a place to drive audiences or traffic. They also tend to use it with softer topics that suit its visual nature, such as food and travel writing, music and entertainment, etc. (rather than hard news).

Linking in Instagram Stories, however, has opened up more opportunities, and Stories is an obvious growth area. We’re seeing more presenter-led journalism on that side of things, including behind the scenes insights etc.

For me it’s been interesting to see the return of the presenter in news video production after a decade or more when we learned that presenter-led video (especially in a studio) didn’t perform well online, and it was better to produce videos where the presenter got out of the way of the subject. But the informal nature of social media has created a different dynamic which has brought the presenter right back (perhaps for the same reason that we had presenters on TV: because the choice of medium was already decided, and we always needed something visual).

What can we expect for the future of the use of social media in journalism?

It feels to me like we have largely passed the initial impact of social media platforms, and most news organisations have incorporated social publishing into their workflows and learned some initial lessons, put strategies in place etc.

The focus has shifted now to chat apps, and a new set of problems about how to reach audiences as they move to those platforms (and how to measure that).

In terms of (non-chat) social media, then, I expect the near future to mainly be about smaller changes in strategy (deciding to focus less on specific platforms because they provide too little returns, and more on others) and ongoing cultural change (more and more journalists getting better and better at producing content on these platforms — most of the work is still quite poor).

The near future is also likely to see more tension between media and social media — with Facebook being a particular focus of that.

There’s growing discontent with the control that those platforms exercise over news, and their role in the spread of propaganda and hate speech.

Social media companies are increasingly having to accept editorial responsibility, which makes them publishers, and increased regulation is looking more and more likely.

The other change is likely to be automation: a shift from journalists managing social media accounts to AI-driven algorithms choosing when and what to share on social media (and how).

This is already happening in a number of companies. It may be that social media managers instead focus more on building relationships with audiences, or the role becomes replaced with one that is more about AI management.

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