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When readers control the news

At the end of last month several big guns from the U.S. newspaper industry got together for a discussion on the future of print media. The crux of which was that daily editions aren’t going to disappear completely any time soon, but the role, format and content of such titles will be decided on by consumers.
Publishers from USA Today and Washington Post were involved in the debate, and one of the resounding messages therein was the unknown nature of a technologically-driven media marketplace. Phrases like “we don’t know??? were omnipresent, whether discussing the prospect of another 20-years of broadsheets or the much-mused over notion of a physical digital paper (a la Minority Report).
It’s all rather vague, yet is also indicative of a wider trend wherein many traditional editorial outlet are placing more and more control with readers- the doors to the ivory tower have been blown open, and the power is now with us, the consumer. Take North Wales’ Daily Post for example, with feature interviews now being decided on via Facebook votes; the more likes a celebrity gets the more chance they have of being featured in the paper.
The Guardian famously gave web browsers the option to remove any mention of London 2012 when Olympic fever hit Britain. And the move proved highly successful in generating headlines about the paper itself- many of which lauded the title for the innovative experiement that both offered readers greater say over what they read, and presumably provided a substantial amount of statistical feedback on the nature of audience tastes.
The humble comments section on a web page is one of the most established ways in which readers are given direct input into the nature and tone of content. Whilst most of us don’t give these posts much time, editors and publishers pore over comments in order to gain a better understanding of opinion, level of interest in a particular subject and an article’s potential to create sentiment and rhetoric. This, by default, will always influence future coverage.
Back in 2011 The Next Web ran a fascinating story on the relationship between user comments and online content. Using the Livefyre third party comments platform as an example, the suggestion was that whilst the technology exists for publishers to analyse the overall ‘talkability’ of a topic online, if such a feature was made available it would risk dictating the news agenda. All media outlets need to drive traffic and increase engagement, so giving them a map of ‘hot subjects’ would encourage those in charge to only publish stories on those issues, forsaking equally important but less ‘fashionable’ articles in the process.
The point being that there’s a fine line between the pros and cons of reader-controlled news. As traditionally printed outlets grow more reliant on digital- an inevitable outcome of the online diaspora- they will naturally become more dependent on insights regarding the specific types of story proving most popular amongst their readership. But for this to genuinely improve their offering, rather than simply turn pages into popularity contests, it’s vital that editors and media decision makers do not lose sight of the reason they are sitting in that chair, and the responsibility that comes with being an information gatekeeper.

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