News organizations face the reality that digital media started the transfer of power from newspaper editors and broadcast news directors to their formerly passive and dependent audiences. Mobile and social media sped the change because they empowered the audience to get nearly any information they wanted when they wanted it and on whatever device they were using. Now, audiences have the power of choice that they never had before. 

Audiences now have independence from their formerly symbiotic relationship with any news provider, marketer or communications director. This independence gives the audience the ability to be networked together, which changes the information flow dramatically. We still have much to learn about how to work in a culture where the audience has the power that editors and communication directors, our former “deciders” and gatekeepers, used to have exclusively.

At one time, the way to inform an audience was to communicate to (not with) them in a “one-to-many” model, where information flow goes from the source in a nearly one-way path to individual audience members. Individuals were not networked together with one another. They did not know about one another, nor did they communicate with one another. They also rarely, and only with great effort, communicated back to the organization. There was virtually no feedback loop and no real-time reaction.

This communication model comfortably houses a hierarchical, authoritarian management style with a one-way flow of power from leader to employees that mimics the flow of information from source to audience. The combination of a one-to-many communication model with a hierarchical organizational structure created a culture with little feedback to leaders who could then operate as if the audience weren’t there. Organization leaders became comfortable not having to include direct audience input as part of their decision-making.

A newspaper example

Newspaper editors meet each day to choose the best stories for the next day’s paper, particularly the front page. They usually meet weekly to talk about the Sunday paper or special editions. They use their journalism experience and their knowledge of the community to decide, for example, that Sunday’s in-depth article should be about increased crime or perhaps the community’s changing diversity. For more than a hundred years, the process seemed to work well. But once digital, then mobile and social, media enabled the audience to interconnect, to talk to one another and to also immediately talk to the news organization, the one-to-many communication model became a “many-to-many” model. This new model requires new behavior from news organizations. 

The audience now can discuss among itself and to leave the news organization or business out of the conversation. Editors and communication leaders quickly went from being the sole source of information reaching the audience to potentially being ignored or excluded.

For editors who used to determine what the audience would know and when, an independent, empowered and networked audience that didn’t need the news organization to get its information was a cultural shock. The many-to-many model requires new ways of thinking about the news organization’s role in a new information ecosystem where the audience can use mobile media to get the information it wants, whenever it wants it, wherever it is and on whatever device it is using. 

This makes the audience an independent, powerful element at the center of the information ecosystem. Editors have had to change their thinking almost overnight about how they communicate with the audience. Editors and communication directors have to learn how to partner with an audience they used to talk at. They also don’t have to guess at what the audience is interested in. They can ask and get immediate answers.

Learn to speak social media without an accent

Benefits of the new information ecosystem created by mobile and social media only come if you can accept and participate in the new culture they create. Creating social media pages isn’t enough. Creating a Twitter feed and a Facebook page to promote your stories or projects is adding new tools without realizing that their inherent social nature demands that you change your nature, the way you work. Adding new technologies without participating in the new culture they create is a partial advancement. The audience understands you are trying. But they also understand that you’re not native at this, and you are not using it the way they do. It’s the same as if I were giving a speech in English, and I spoke in a heavy Russian or Chinese or French accent. The audience can understand me, but they have to work at it a little, and they know I’m not a native speaker. That’s the way too many news organizations’ social media attempts appear to a young audience. We’re speaking social media with a heavy accent.

Social media aren’t just technologies to be added to the newsroom. They change the culture in which that newsroom hopes to be effective. Social media require active participation with the audience. They come with multi-networked communication built-in. They demand a culture with an active, talking, empowered audience that news organizations never before had to pay attention to. 

Getting back to the example of the newspaper’s story meetings, editors using the culture of social media can partner with their audience to know better what the audience is interested in. They don’t have to guess. News organizations can ask on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram what their audience wants them to work on. Therefore, they can do stories that answer questions the audience is interested in. They can ask for source connections. They can partner with the audience for ideas and sources. Partnering increases the audience’s trust in you and your message. But this still is relatively foreign to an organization whose roots are top-down management in one-to-many communication models.

Communication organizations also need to consider that social media aren’t just another tool to use in the same way and for the same purpose that all of their other tools and techniques are used. They have changed the way to reach audiences. They are an indirect (marketing) and a direct (engaging) vehicle to reach young people. 

Appointment viewing? Why?

Today’s young generation doesn’t make appointments to get information as older generations did when they ordered a newspaper to be delivered or sat down at a specific time to watch television news. Youth today, our future audience, trust their social media to tell them what’s important. They are comfortable waiting for the news to come to them. They know they don’t have to seek it. They know that if major events happen, various people in their social networks will tell them. Social networks spread information in real-time, so young people who rarely read a physical newspaper are informed faster about major news than their parents or grandparents who wait for the newspaper on their doorstep or for the evening broadcast news.

Using social media as your source of news comes with the benefit that your information is from someone you already trust and have already chosen to be in your network. News from your social network is an answer to the low trust much of the public has in news organizations and official institutions. News from people you know is inherently trusted more than news from an institution you’ve never had a relationship with. The challenge is how do news organizations take advantage of that? They have to start by speaking the language of social media.

New, young hires need to be trusted for their knowledge of the real-time, interactive participatory social media culture, not just for their ability to tweet and update the Facebook page. Social media are the new tools that help experienced journalists or communication directors gather information in new ways or tell they’re researched, verified stories on new platforms. Traditional organizations need the ability of young people to learn how to speak social media with less of an accent. Young, new hires can help news organizations that can trust and implement the information ecosystem changes young people can make within the organization.

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