So, why is that? In my experience, traditional media outlets tend to have a dozen or so editors who call the shots. They decide what’s newsworthy. Although these editors are highly educated and experienced, they’re also mostly white, and mostly men. So the news is filtered through this lens.
Where I work we also have a team of editors, but we also rely heavily on other tools. We measure and analyze web traffic, looking at how our audience response to stories, and we also monitor online trends in real time. So not only are we considering our own news judgement when deciding the day’s stories, we’re also considering our readers’ news judgement.
The news has now been democratized: it’s gone from an exclusive group of privileged editors to anyone with an internet connection, and the latter is much more diverse. Stories historically ignored by the media are now getting attention. Minority readers demand articles that reflect their experiences. They’re telling us what they want, and we’re listening. I’ll give you an example: last year, I wrote an article about crime-fighting sites targeted to specific ethnicities. These sites were started to fight barriers to funding that minority businesses usually faced.
It’s a fascinating story that received almost no previous coverage by traditional media outlets, even though crowdfunding sites were a global phenomenon and most people already knew about it. When we first published my story, it received more than 3,300 shares. Readers were responding. But that’s not the most impressive part: we also hosted a Twitter chat to discuss my story using the hashtag #StartupDiversity. That generated tens of millions of impressions and at least 1,200 tweets with the hashtag were published in just one hour.
The proof is in the data: people care about these stories. Another example of this bottom-up approach to news was recent coverage of police killings of minorities. When unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a community watchman in late February 2012, media coverage of his death was scant. In fact, it took almost an entire month before the term ‘Trayvon Martin’ even registered online.
But by late March, social media helped propel an overlooked news story into one that was the center of global conversation. Over time, though, the story faded from the headlines. But recently, online momentum has kept minority deaths in the news. When Michael Brown, another unarmed black teen, was fatally shot by a police officer last August, media coverage was consistently focused on police killings of minorities: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, and many others have not disappeared, and that’s largely due to online chatter. At this point, you may be thinking, “Anita, traditional media outlets use analytics and other digital tools, too.”
And you’d be mostly right, but old habits die hard. Editors still have the final say on what makes the front page, and producers still have the final say on what leads the newscast. In comparison, readers drive the layout of our home page: the stories they click on the most move to prime spots. Readers decide themselves what they think is important. One major criticism of online publications is that they pander too much to readers.
When we see an influx of twerking videos or goat pics, if we give the people what they want, this criticism is legitimate and one that journalists and industry watchers frequently debate about, but the pros outweigh the cons. Fun, frivolous content may rise to the top, but so will important stories that wouldn’t normally make front page of a newspaper or lead the newscast. This shift away from prioritizing the judgement of a select few is so necessary.
We need to keep up this momentum and continue producing stories that everyone cares about. We need to listen to all voices. Let’s embrace a new front page.