But the next step is something newspapers have traditionally not done: treating readers and viewers as partners in a conversation. That can mean fostering dialogue with readers in comment sections; through Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr accounts; or even giving some reader-generated content special visibility. The Wall Street Journal invites readers to participate in live video chats on its website, as does HuffPost Live, which airs 12 hours per day, five days a week, and then repeats. “The conventional media approach is, ‘We do our thing, and you consume it’—it’s one-way,” says Mark Coatney, who launched Newsweek’s highly regarded Tumblr account when he was a Web editor there in 2008. “Effective media organizations on Tumblr interact with the audience as equals.”
This new form of engagement can pose some challenges. On Newsweek’s Tumblr site, Coatney cultivated a punchy, irreverent tone and often discussed controversies swirling around Newsweek itself, such as the news that the magazine had been put up for sale. That kind of personal, informal voice might clash with the sensibilities of a straitlaced newspaper, wire service, or network news program. And most reporters are already scrambling to meet the escalating demands of the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle, so they have little time to interact with readers.
Indeed, media organizations are now willing to let the audience help cover the news (look at CNN’s iReport). Amateur uploads may be the best—or, indeed, the only—content available in a crisis such as the 2009 protests in Iran. Twitter and Instagram users have also proven themselves vigilant when it comes to identifying frauds and hoaxes. Berger says that at The Economist, where she previously worked, video from the 2012 campaign trail was contributed by civilians “in every state who were tweeting on the ground.”
With all of the user-generated content floating around the Internet, it’s not surprising that something like Storyful emerged to organize it. News outlets subscribe to the service, which combs the Web (typically trawling through Twitter and other social-media platforms) to find the best video, photos, and written content produced by average users. Storyful then relies on a team of journalists to verify each item’s accuracy, and pass the vetted material along to its subscribers for reuse. “ABC News calls every night asking for the best content to put up tomorrow,” says Berger.
They like to anoint new brands
If there is one website that epitomizes the general-interest newspaper in the era of social media, it is BuzzFeed. Almost 60 percent of its readers are between the ages of 18 and 34—easily the highest proportion of any major general-interest news site. More than 40 percent of the traffic comes through mobile devices, and the majority of that is through social-media apps such as Facebook’s. “Sharing is our main goal and quality metric,” says Jonah Peretti, referring to those times when an item gets posted or linked to on social media by a BuzzFeed reader.
Visiting the New York office of the rapidly expanding company is like watching a cartoon of new media at work. The publication’s headquarters, tucked into a nondescript Chelsea building, seem like a metaphor for the Web itself: casual, transparent, and non-hierarchical. There are massive windows showcasing impressive views of midtown Manhattan, and large communal workspaces that—in the manner of online publications—lack the loud banter of newsrooms. Reporting and discussions among the overwhelmingly young staff are more likely to take place over email and IM apps than face-to-face or on the phone.
Peretti sits in a glass-walled office in the middle of the floor. After Huffington Post was sold to AOL in 2011, Peretti left to focus on BuzzFeed’s expansion into original reporting. And just as HuffPost’s mastery of search-engine optimization defined media wizardry a few years ago, BuzzFeed defines it today.
“When we launched, we didn’t have verticals around traditional content categories,” Peretti explains. “We organized the site around the emotions that lead to sharing. If a football player does a funny touchdown dance, you share the video because it is funny, not because it is sports.”