SXSW: Global News After "The Twitter Revolutions"
When the Arab Spring arrived two years ago, news organizations across the region and around the world struggled to report what was true amidst a sea of social media messages.
"The Twitter Revolutions" have led to two hard years of struggle for new, often fragile democracies from Algeria to Egypt. Admid the horrific struggle for revolution in Syria often the only news that reaches outside that country comes from cell phones and social networks.
So how does journalism work--let alone flourish--in this post-revolutionary era of social media?
Four journalists from leading international news organizations reported on the current state of international news in the era of social networks at SXSW last week in Austin. Led by TIME's International Editor Jim Frederick, they included Meredith Artley, Managing Editor of Digital CNN, Andy Carvin, Senior Strategist, National Public Radio and Cairo-based NBC reporter Ayman Moyhelden.
Together they described a news business that has at times been overwhelmed by social messages but has also found new power in being able to take in messages from across entire populations rather than through official spokesmen. But its an uneven world with very different challenges in different countries.
"Two years ago when we had this panel no one was talking about how to gather news this way," said PBS's Carvin, "because we were all to busy looking at our cell phones talking about what we were hearing at that moment from all over the Arab World."
"When I think about global news coverage I think a lot about what infrastructure is in place in each country," he continued. "Twitter and Facebook were just becoming popular in Arab countries at the time of the Arab Spring so they ended up becoming powerful quickly."
He added, a little ruefully, "Governments and regimes are now studying how social media worked in the Arab Spring and learning the lessons."
"People tend to forget that during the revolution in Egypt the cellphone network was shut down," Mohyeldin. "So it took awhile for some news to get out. The police are now getting wise to how these things work."
"The Syrian electronic army has set up phony Websites that are about the UN that ask you to authenticate your Twitter account to get the news, and then they shut them down," said Carvin. "I think security policy thinking around social media is woefully lacking. So you wonder what regimes 2.0 are going to be like. It's a very new realm and that story is just being written."
What are the future business models that will work with social media for large outlets like CNN and NBC?
"There's the actual (process) of getting new audiences which in itself is the ultimate bottom line," said Artley. "I-Report for example is a great success for us. The business side tells us that having great social channels is a real draw for advertisers. It helps if we can say we've got reporters on the red carpet at the Oscars creating Tweets and Vines."
"Authenticity can pay off dividends," said Carvin. "The less corporate side influences the decisions made on news side."
"An NBC President once said that television news is about conveying experiences" said Mohyeldin. "Social media does that very well in its unique ways. We're becoming less and less concerned about where our viewers consume our news, but more that they do consume."
"The Isreali-Palestinian conflict is the biggest example (today) of the way social media influences mainstream news," said Mohyeldin. "There's tons of material on social media that never gets into the news, but it's a big part of what sets the news agenda."
Artley described the new way CNN decides what to cover and how: "There's a Venn diagram of the news agenda we develop every day," she said. "First you have the stories that you know you'll covert--there's a (snow) blizzard for example. The second type are what our audiences are talking about. The third is stories that are cool that might be outside mainstream media."
"We're focusing on something old, not sexy, which is day-parting," said continued. "I don't think we take in consideration where our users are when they consume the news."
@CNNBRK is the largest news account on Twitter. Artley says they're trying experiments. @CNNBRK is nothing but breaking news, but they now experiment with publishing links to popular stories over the lunch hour when traffic peaks.
"We see our tablet use by customers soar in the evenings. Now we're just experimenting with ideas, which is a good thing," she added.
Mohyeldin discussed how social media changes some things, but not the fundamental judgement of a news reporter. "It's not about being first, it's about being right," he said. "I could get the most inflammatory video of a massacre but I am under absolutely no pressure to report that until I'm confident it's real."
"And you have to understand that everyone you talk to or get material from has an agenda of some sort," added Carvin.
"There was a funny tweet about how Twitter and Facebook are used in the US and in the Arab world," said Mohyeldin. "In the US it's all about what's social and in the Arab world it's a galvanizing force for change."
"There are forces of community that make the dialogue horizontal across the population rather than vertical, from the top down," he said.
The value of journalists can't be replaced, added Mohyeldin. The reason? "In short, context," he added.
"Information has become ubiquitous, but what we add is context to understand."
I'm a Customer Experience Designer and speaker, connecting clients with customers through Service Design thinking. I study online influence and have done research and writing on that subject for the past several years. I speak in public, often by invitation. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org