Last week Twitter launched its newest tool, Curator. A trending topic amalgamation tool for media outlets that is designed to compete with the likes of Storify and Newswhip. Curator’s main USP at the moment is that it is free, for now anyway, to media outlets who request access. Curator will allow users to see what topics are trending and where, and will offer a search function with filters to narrow down on location, word count, device and even more subtle nuances like feelings expressed in a tweet.
Users can then curate these tweets into a storyboard for display on their website or elsewhere. By entering a new market and differentiating their product offerings Twitter is hoping to strengthen its user base and add a new revenue stream.
My issue is with news curation in general. Yes companies like Storify, Newswhip Spike and now Curator help media outlets notice or identify trending topics and viral content quickly and conveniently but a quick look at the clientele of these companies tells a more concerning story. They are being utilised by nearly every major media outlet, globally! Storify is used by The BBC, Al Jazeera, Mashable, HBO. Newswhip is used by USA Today, HuffPost, Bloomberg, Daily Mail, NBC, Upworthy. The list is endless and we can rest assured all of these companies will probably be giving Curator a go too.
I understand the desire of newsrooms to have access to issues that are generating conversation online but the problem arises when all of the world’s media are covering the same issues merely because these are the topics that are gaining momentum, going viral and getting likes or shares. Just because a story has these attributes and is trending doesn't necessarily make it news worthy. Kim Kardashian’s ‘Break the Internet’ story went viral like wildfire last year, but how big her rear-end is, or how far Kanye West is up his own, doesn't make it any more significant.
These stories don't matter, at all, and all they serve to do is distract from far more important stories that actually impact on peoples lives. Imagine the number of groundbreaking news stories that might not have been reported or noticed if we had always relied on what was hot and trendy to dictate what is worth covering. Social media listening tools have their merit but it’s a sad state of affairs when a majority of the media is focusing on Kim K instead of actually reporting news simply because it’s what the Twittershpere is saying is popular. We’re currently adrift in a sea of sameness as a result of both management’s fixation on metrics and data, and lazy journalism.
On the same day that most media were breaking the internet for Kim K’s Paper Magazine cover story a much more important but less reported issue was unfolding in Ireland’s Dail. Taoiseach Enda Kenny was closing ranks and denying that Minister for Enterprise Richard Bruton was “part and parcel” of political obstruction regarding allegations that a number of politicians held Ansbacher accounts and engaged in tax evasion. It’s time we stopped treating what was previously called gossip as news and end this constant regurgitation of bullshit. What it really comes down to in the end is the ability of editors to recognise what is important news and what is not. At the moment there seems to be far too many that are selecting what to cover based on the numbers of page views, likes and shares instead of whether or not the actual story is of importance to the public.
So where do we go from here?
What we need is a shift in thinking, but it won't be quick or easy. It
may also come from an unexpected source. In 2009 Chartbeat, a betaworks
venture, was the first analytics company to start measuring a site's
realtime audience, in a bid to differentiate from Google Analytics use
of historical data to notice trends, and give editors insight into how
many people were reading an article at that very moment. Chartbeat
organised this data into a colourful mosaic called 'Big Board' which
reorganises itself as an audience grows or shrinks. It quickly became a
staple in every newsroom, ultimately leading to a plague of clickbait as
editors went with "what's hot". Access to all this realtime data hasn't
improved the quality of journalism since its inception. If anything
it’s had the opposite effect and has been hugely detrimental.
Chartbeat has since seen the light beyond the storm they helped create and now has a new way of measuring a site's audience. They call it The Attention Web, the duration of time a user spent on a landing page. Chartbeat conducted studies on how 5000 people interacted with content and discovered that the most engaged users, people actually reading the article, were moving the mouse or scrolling every 3-5 seconds. The company has recently become the first to be licensed by the Media Ratings Council to measure attention, following a 6 month audit, and has also made their metrics public in a bid to boost industry standards. The Attention Web is the latest "hot" topic for editors but it too could lead to a regurgitation of content as editors notice what's attracting the most 'attention' and focus on these issues too intensely. And if a readers attention is as easily obtained as their clicks were with snappy headlines then we'll be back to square one all over again in search of the next sure thing.
It's not all doom and gloom though. There still is quality news and content out there, as long as you look in the right places. Medium is a blog publishing platform, from two Twitter co-founders, that has some stellar articles on it covering a wide array of issues and interests. Storyful is a social media news company that uses journalists to authenticate and then curate content that is then sold on to media and marketing companies. My view of Storyful is mixed though as despite them covering important issues like the Boston Marathon Bombings their Facebook page shows them to be mass distributors of clickbait as does their site selling UGC videos designed to go viral. Add to this the recent acquisition by NewsCorp and Storyful’s credibility could soon start to lessen.
In summary, I’m not sure what the future holds, but hopefully I’m not the only one who’s fed up with the deterioration in what we’re told is news and yearns for something more than Kim K and other pseudo-celebs. Unfortunately the reality is the more visitors your site attracts the more money you can charge advertisers and in our current obsession with big data and numbers, while something as mundane as a celebs rear-end is, according to Adweek, able to attract 6.6 million page views with 5 million of those being unique visitors in a single day, up from an average of just under 26,000 a day throughout the previous month, it doesn't appear that the much needed shift in thinking will come anytime soon.
Perhaps Edward R. Murrow summed it up best upon receiving the "Family of Man" award in 1964:
If we were to do the Second Coming of Christ in colour for a full hour, there would be a considerable number of stations which would decline to carry it on the grounds that a Western or a quiz show would be more profitable.– Edward R. Murrow