With the decline of newspapers across America, more and more people are turning to the Internet for their latest news fix. It certainly has its advantages, especially for news junkies extraordinaires, who need to know who won the election in Singapore in real time (Lee Hsien Loong) or the latest details about the boating disaster in Togo. You won’t find much about those stories on CNN, or on Fox or even MSNBC for that matter.
Most people tend to be selective in their stories, and depend on the Internet to select for them. Most of them get their news via Google. In fact, according to a recent Pew poll, the search engine giant provides about 30 percent of traffic to the biggest news sites online. The problem is that Google uses algorithms to decide what’s news and what’s not, and it’s not always the stories that matter. In a Ted Talk given in 2008, Alisa Miller, CEO of Public Radio International, pointed out that in February 2007, “the U.S. accounted for 79 percent of total news coverage,” while most of the rest was Iraq. “The combined coverage of Russia, China, and India reached just 1 percent,” she declared. That same month, the most important story reverberating from sea to shining sea was none other than the death of Anna Nicole Smith. Google algorithms may help us find the stories, but do they really help us find the news?
There is some good news though on the horizon. The same Pew study showed that more and more people are getting their news from Facebook. It was responsible for at least 3 percent of traffic to the 25 news sites studied, while five of those sites got 6 to 8 percent of their traffic from Zuckerbook. Most of it comes from the ubiquitous “Like” buttons that Facebook likes to plaster across the web. It seems that they are having an impact.
So why is that a good thing? Most Facebook users get their news from following their friends’ news feeds, and the chances are that the people you are friends with will share at least some common interests with you. Gleeks attract Gleeks and news junkies attract news junkies. No longer are you dependent on what some impersonal algorithm says that you should like. You now have a chance to get the news from your friends, and see what they think you ought to know.
It’s having an impact, too. ““If searching for the news was the most important development of the last decade,” says the Pew report, “sharing the news may be among the most important of the next,” With 500 million users worldwide, Facebook is well-positioned to play a key role in sharing it.
Twitter, not so much. While it may be helpful in tracking developments in Japan and the Middle East, it hardly has the same impact as other newsish sites like the Drudge Report. In fact, only the LA Times gets more traffic from Twitter than Facebook.
Perhaps it’s because even in a soundbyte culture, people want more than just a hundred or so characters to understand the world around them. Or perhaps it’s because the news is news and Twitter is just commentary.
There’s one way to find out. You can Tweet this page and see if it goes viral. Of course, you should probably click “Like” on SanJose.com too. 500 million potential viewers is kind of hard to beat, and you’ll be playing your own little part in what Frank Sinatra called on all of us to do: “Start spreading the news …”