the news frontier

News Organizations That Haven’t Learned To Share

The seams in certain outlets’ social sharing strategies
March 7, 2012

The Economist does not let users of its free app share news items via e-mail, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or anything else. An Economist representative told me over the phone that paid app users are permitted to share content, and that’s good, but the purpose of their free content is to lure payers, no? The Economist website allows users to share free content; if that strategy is worthwhile, why not let app thumbers do the same?

I want news providers to make money and I want them to pay me for my own work, but news organizations typically must share some free content in order to maximize online advertising and make paywalls most effective. The Wall Street Journal, for example, which has had a paywall for the better part of two decades, offers a sizeable portion of its online news for free, and all of the Journal’s video content is outside the wall. And free content on the Journal’s app is shareable.

Yet there are still too many influential news organizations that never learned to properly share.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, doesn’t provide readers a tweet prompt for content locked behind its paywall. Silly, particularly in a hyperactive digital age when many news consumers are at least partially sated by a headline, dek, photo, and lede, elements which are outside The Chronicle’s lockbox. Sometimes I lug the URL to Twitter myself, but this is an unnecessary fold in what should be a seamless process.

When one tries to tweet a link to any Chronicle content, free or paid, the action yields only the link to the story. Twitter users must type in their own description of the content. This omission extends to their advertisements for academic jobs. Paid ads! I’ve often seen on The Chronicle site ads for unique faculty positions I thought some of my followers could be interested in. Again, after clicking the tweet prompt, I receive a link but no job description. I often close the dialogue box and move on. Seconds matter in the war for digital attention.

Research on digital tasks consistently shows an inverse relationship between numbers of keystrokes and the likelihood a typist will complete an action digital landowners desire. The more work a user has to put into a particular task, the less likely they are to complete it.

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Other social media transgressions are less severe, but still consequential. Within Time magazine’s app, users must scroll all the way down to an article’s end to share it. Try sharing Time content on Facebook and, as with The Chronicle, you receive only a long link to the story, without a heads-up regarding what the post will announce. Tweet from Time’s app, and you’re not given the opportunity to type a description of the news item or otherwise modify the headline provided. You simply get a note that “Your post was sent to Twitter” with Time’s immutable language.

Only as recently as February did the online handlers of The Colbert Report make it possible for online viewers to share with social media a specific segment from the half-hour show. Previously, viewers could only share a link to the entire program.

In deciding the particulars of how audiences can share journalism, news organizations must achieve balance between content that is easy to share, and that which audiences can repackage if they wish.

Perhaps the most common social media misstep news providers commit involves positioning Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook buttons and the like at the end of a news item, so that clickers must perform several swipes on screen or mouse to reach share functions. Al Jazeera’s English news app commits this error. Some might argue that this policy encourages readers to spend more time on a page and actually consume more of the content. But which is preferable: one user spending more time with Al Jazeera content, or, potentially, a digital socialite sharing the same article with her 15,000 connections? Either way, it doesn’t seem likely that a publication would lose an engaged reader just by placing share buttons atop their page. Washington Post sharing buttons are frequently below the scroll or at an article’s dead end. The Christian Science Monitor also frequently positions its sharing tools below the scroll, as does The Jerusalem Post and Foreign Policy magazine. (CJR’s app does this, too.)

There are plenty of news organizations that make social media options immediately available, of course, such as BBC News, GlobalPost, The Times of India, Univision, Politico, Le Monde, and The Moscow Times. And some information providers are, lo, adopting new ways to be both informative and social. The Guardian, which itself has a sturdy sharing platform, recently reported on a new MTV app that will live stream programs and allow users to chat with other viewers during the experience. An app with limited content will be free, and a paid application will offer premium content, both of which will initially launch in seven European countries.

Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR’s On the Media, wrote in his book The Chaos Scenario that we are in “The Listenomics Age…If you do not listen [to audiences] carefully, you are a fool. Not because the crowd is a threat (although, of course, it is) but because it is your greatest resource.” Garfield goes on to extol the importance for digital content providers to learn “the art and science of cultivating relationships with individuals in a connected, increasingly open-source environment.”

“The mindful use of digital media doesn’t happen automatically,” wrote Howard Rheingold in his book Net Smart, to be published this month. “[T]hose who understand the fundamentals of digital participation…will be able to exert more control over their own fates than those who lack this lore.”

Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin