Social Media’s A1 Problem (+ An Idea)

Even if you think they’re dying, newspapers have something your Twitter stream doesn’t: hierarchy of what’s important to read.

Story “weight” is intuitive on paper. There’s what’s above-the-fold, and on top of that, there’s clear positioning of pieces, with one more prominent than another. There’s differences in headline size, perhaps subheads. In some cases, there’s teasers to other stories to read once you’re inside the paper. When you get to the actual stories themselves, often times there’s another indicator: length in inches. Design works to show your eyes where to go, and what is editorially important to look over (perhaps over cereal, or a cup of coffee).

Home pages replicate this idea in part. Article pages are getting better at this, or at least people are making a case for it. Apps for tablets often do this as digitally close to a newspaper as possible. But social media doesn’t really replicate the “story weight” capability of a paper at all.

Take Twitter, for example. Your tweets don’t have an A1. They also don’t have an A2, A3, B4 or style section. There is no cover story for what you tweet during the day. Whether it’s a tweet about Big Bird or a tweet about a serious development in Libya, every tweet has the same weight.

A common objection here: “Twitter users aren’t necessarily looking for order in a Twitter stream.” They’re just looking for what’s new, or fills the moments they have to access news media (or what their friends are doing, and you, a news org, happen to jump in between that discovery with something interesting and clickable). This is a fine point, and probably true in a lot of cases. But, as a thought experiment, what about someone who only gets news from social media? Is any damage done to one’s civic knowledge if there is no semblance of recognizable hierarchy?

This may not be even much of a thought experiment. Increasingly, social media is where some people are getting their news, or a large portion of it– especially certain demographics, like young people, who are forming the habits and expectations of tomorrow. (They’re not even reading much, however, according to a recent Pew study that says only 4 out of 10 young people ‘read daily news or newspapers’.)

What are the conditions of social media platforms that an only-social-media-for-news person is up against to determine what is the important news of the day? How is that different than before, and why might it matter? Even if it’s not someone who only gets their news from social media, but largely does so, recognizing these disruptors to hierarchy may be helpful.

Amount of information

Whether seen as a pro or a con, there is a finite amount of information in a newspaper. There is an infinite amount of information online, and additionally, the tweets never stop. Your stories, the important A1-quality ones along with all the others, are up against stories that wouldn’t even share the same space as your print product.

To confound that, they all have the same weight. Match up a celeb gossip piece tweet, yours or a competitors, against a piece about Libya, and it’s tougher than in a newspaper for a non-news junkie to click into and read the important policy piece. In a newspaper, perhaps President Obama’s face is smack-dab on the front, staring at you before you open the paper and go to the style section.

Speed of information

Your articles, which are already up against others, are floating through a stream quickly. On paper, they stay put.

Timing of information delivery

The big, baddest one: your A1 story can be tweeted out once, and your audience may not even see it. By being a physical thing, a paper presents what is determined most editorially important for the start of the day, presenting some sort of “this is important” no matter what time you pick it up. You can’t guarantee that anyone will see your A1 cover story whenever they pull out their phone during something like their commute, largely because your social media team can’t account for everyone’s readership habits.

Other share factors

To get seen and beat the amount, speed and timing of info problems, your piece needs to get a substantial amount of shares, and it needs to do so over time. This is in order to accomplish being visible in the feed throughout a day whenever someone accesses that feed.

That’s something you can’t guarantee– content is king, but some important topics may not be. Foreign policy, for instance, doesn’t seem like it would naturally get a lot of retweets from the general public. And without getting a number of shares, the only way to do that is to tweet it out all the time. Depending on the medium, that may not even work (Facebook’s EdgeRank changes, anyone?), and you’re still banking on hitting people at the right times (even when they’re day fluctuates from the norm, as I know at least mine can).

Take a look at these tweets from @washingtonpost this morning.

Even when just looking at all of its posts at once, which one is the A1 story? Which one should I definitely be reading?

This isn’t to say that we should just pick up a newspaper and forget about social media, or only focus on something like tablets. This is worthy of discussion because the side door to your content may actually be the main door for some. And in either view, it’s a different kind of door we don’t yet know how to open to what’s “important” (I recognize some things are less important for some some individuals, but it’s a fair case to say that some knowledge is good for an informed civic body. Of ten times, you find that sort of thing on a front page of a newspaper, or at least the preferable real estate.)

I’d be remiss to not note here that the large pro of Twitter (and any digital media, really) is that it lets you change what is the most important during the day, allowing you to pivot from what was physically printed. This is a great tool, but even then, how do you weight what has become important? And does it really become “more” important, simply because it’s newer?

Do you bank on folks noticing the topic coming up in more than just your posts? Do you just use “Breaking” to denote what has become important? Does doing that bury something on the front page which is still important, but not really breaking? You’re doing your editorial team a disservice if distinctions are not recognizable, and accessible.

A suggestion to play with: Consider just noting what tweet is on your A1. If text is a UI, this may be a way to indicate to your social media-only / social media-mainly readers what is editorially most important to read. Perhaps something as simple as that, in an information-overloaded landscape, can help sway or nudge readers to care and pay attention to your preferred journalism of substance, instead of “The Twitter Narrative” or just an in-the-moment meme.