The shifting shape of news content in a digital world

Canadian communicator and philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 declaration that the medium was the message offered prophetic insight into today’s era of digital content.

To put a complex subject simply, the vehicle used to consume information determines not only how we read, but what we read. Insightful communicators know that content not devised for digital consumption, dissemination and discussion will be left behind.

Most editors realize the expanding role digital platforms play in broadcasting their message. Studies now suggest that more than half of Canadians consume news digitally. This number can only be expected to grow.

We have seen Canadian outlets, with varying degrees of success, try to bolster readership by displaying content on social media channels and improving readability on tablets and other devices. But communicators who view digital promotion and accessibility as ancillary to content creation miss the mark.

In an era where content is not only read online, but curated, presented and promoted through social platforms, concepts like shareability and interactivity must be part of the initial formula, not an afterthought.

Many news producers have struggled to adapt to this shifting landscape. It’s this dynamic that has allowed for the emergence of “media advocacy” groups like Ontario Proud.

Ontario Proud boasts over 350,000 Facebook followers, devising and sharing Facebook-friendly content, including videos, memes, polls and short statements, usually aimed at disparaging Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. For context, its 350,000 followers substantially exceed the followers of all four Ontario provincial party leaders combined.

While Ontario Proud has been criticized for inflammatory content, its producers clearly understand that socialization must be at the heart of content. In response to Ontario Proud’s success, we have seen countervailing left-of-centre Facebook pages emerge in recent months, such as Ontario Pride and North99, both of which use similar tactics to create an opposing message.

Facebook’s display algorithm is not publicly disclosed, but we know it heavily promotes posts that generate strong reactions, positive or negative. As such, it’s imperative for organizations to reach their audiences in ways that trigger such responses.

This is not to suggest that credible news organizations should aspire to create content like that displayed on Ontario Proud. Canadians expect a much higher standard of accountability and truthfulness from news providers than social media advocates.

But the lessons learned from the success of Ontario Proud demonstrate that controversial positions are worth writing and are more likely to be virally discussed. Editorial boards have obligations to be accurate and fair, but not to be neutral.

Still, some would argue that the current landscape inherently favours vile, cruel and negative content that doesn’t contribute to positive discussion forums.

This is a fair observation, but ultimately raises more questions about the obligations of social media platforms than the merits of any specific content. If the recent appearance of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation gave any indication of public sentiment, it’s that Facebook is not seen as a neutral information vessel, but a public space that people and organizations depend on. Principles of respect are expected and required to be enforced.

Necessary rules and restrictions do not have to conflict with the driving forces of social media content: shareability and buzz. Content can be created in a way that meets these principles without sacrificing the depth and veracity that set top news organizations apart.

For example, the New York Times, recently announced its 2017 subscription revenue exceeded $1 billion with over 157,000 new digital subscribers in its fourth quarter alone. Its success reporting on President Trump, a vocal critic of its content, offers a case study of how thoroughly-investigated stories can generate the strongest reactions, building relevance for online and social media use.

These circumstances are unique and what works for the New York Times will not necessarily be a universally winning formula. In a constantly-changing digital media landscape, the most sustainable practices remain unclear. And as organizations seek to adapt to the current landscape, many will fail.

But if the increasingly tribal nature of digital media tells us anything, it’s that organizations not looking to integrate socialization into content are firing at the wrong goalposts.

It’s time for communicators and journalists alike to accept that the medium is the message. And that medium is increasingly digital.

Views expressed are those of the author and may not represent those of Navigator or its affiliates.