In the great 1990s sci-fi series Babylon 5, set in the late 2250s, print newspapers still exist 200+ years in the future, but with a (to us) familiar twist. In one particular episode, the captain of the titular space station walks up to a kiosk and requests specific newspaper sections and topics. When he’s done, the kiosk spits out an instantly—presumably digitally—printed, customized newspaper.
A bit of science-fiction futuriana, to be sure, but that’s not far removed from the idea of digitally printed on-demand newspapers that the industry has been talking about since at least the 1990s. Or, in other words, using technology to deliver us the news we want, not what some editor thinks we want. (Yes, this is also the idea of the Google News Alert.)
I bring this up because I happened across an interesting experiment conducted by a social media aggregation site called NewsWhip which thought it would be interesting to see what major newspapers’ front pages would look like if they included the top stories from those publications that were trending on social media. That is, what stories were readers sharing vs. what was on the front page of the print edition?
What if front pages were selected by newspapers’ readers instead of their editors? At NewsWhip, we’re always interested in the news stories people are choosing to share – and how those stories differ from the normal news stories editors put on the front pages of big newspapers. So we ran a little experiment.
A little work at our end, and we used those most shared stories to make new “people powered” front pages for each newspaper – giving the most shared story the most prominence, the second most shared the second most prominence, etc.
We replaced headlines and pictures, though did not get into replacing story text and bylines. The results are pretty neat – maybe even thought provoking.
Actually, the “people power” papers are not as frivolous as one would be inclined to think, and actually aren’t a million miles removed from what the papers chose for their actual front-page stories. The only real differences were less foreign policy (i.e., few Ukraine stories) and more diet and health, especially in the British papers.
Now, mind you, focusing on the stories that are most shared via social media doesn’t necessarily give the best sense of what is being read, or even what readers find personally important. For example, there is a lot of food being shared on social media, but seldom is it one’s everyday humdrum breakfasts and dinners, but is instead some remarkable feast out at a restaurant or slaved over at home for a special occasion. So focusing on the meals one shares on social media doesn’t necessarily give the best sense of what people typically eat on a daily basis. Otherwise, get thee to a gym!
Back to the news, though. Speaking for myself, what I read for my own edification of what is going on the world is very different from what I would tend to share on Twitter or Facebook—I tend to pass along more whimsical, humorous, absurd technology kinds of things, rather than the more prosaic news stories one needs to function in a democratic society. I dare say most people are pretty much the same.
Back in 1993, I took several courses at NYU on the emerging “multimedia technology” (remember the “interactive CD-ROM” and how it was gong to be a billion-dollar industry? Ha!) just as the Internet was ramping up in earnest, and friends of mine and I would sit around—as college students are wont to do—anticipating and solving all the problems of the world. One of us had remarked that there was a real danger in a media landscape in which we could all pick and choose our own news, having it served up to us exactly as we like it, as if it were a restaurant serving us the food we now post on Facebook. The last 20 years, and the fact that a disturbing number of people seem to get their news solely from e-mails forwarded from their crazy uncle, suggests that perhaps the danger was not entirely overstated.
There is also a danger in relying too much on having the “crowd” decide the editorial content of newspapers, magazines, or other news sources. What people want to know and what they need to know can often be two different things.
Perhaps it’s the journalistic equivalent of being made to eat our vegetables, but I’m perfectly happy to have the “media elite”—editors and publishers—decide what’s important, or what they think is important. Could they do a better job sometimes? Of course. But there is still a great value in having an objective “curator” of the news—and I say this having been a printing industry writer for 20 years and worked very closely with—and even been—those curators.
Personalization technology—be it newspapers or anything else—has given us the unprecedented ability to only seek out and receive the content we want whenever we want it. However, we need to be certain that it’s what we really want.