Spreading the news around

John Gushue
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It's a popular belief. Most people often feel that if something truly and completely important has already happened, they would have known it by now. Why? Because someone would have told them.

It's a belief (and often a canard) that frustrates news editors and producers, who fret that their newscasts and papers are being ignored by a would-be audience. That is, rather than checking out the news directly, these folks rely on others to alert them to what's important, if not filter out what's relevant.

Granted, word of mouth can be contagiously quick when something huge happens. In fact, one of the better-known academic studies on the subject - by a team from Carleton University in Ottawa that specializes in emergency communications - looked at how quickly people in Gander found out about the Arrow Air disaster in December 1985.

Then, as now, people spread the word directly, but instead of just phones and personal contact at their disposal, there are now so many other options: Facebook, email, Twitter, and on it goes.

It's obvious people turn to these tools - any means of communication, really - when disaster strikes, or something unusual happens. But what happens on a day-to-day basis?

Well, there's still a digital filter, not to mention an interdependence on determining what's important. Quite often, the key factor for many news consumers isn't the front page or the top headlines on a broadcast, but what friends and contacts have already determined is significant.

Last month, the U.S.-based Pew Research Centre released its latest study into how people are getting their news. The focus of the Project for Excellence in Journalism was online news in particular, and it showed what many of us in the digital news business know very well.

Namely, Google is king. Far more than any other source, Google can deliver an audience to you ... or keep it away.

But another finding was significant. That is, Facebook has emerged as a potent force in news distribution. Of the 25 news sources (and these vary from ABC to the Washington Post to Yahoo!'s news aggregator) who allowed researchers to look under the hood and sift the stats, some are already gaining eight per cent or more of their traffic from Facebook.

That may not sound like much, but it's significant. The reason is that news is becoming social. Facebook makes it simple for people to add a link to what interests them, and while it may be, say, a YouTube video or a funny picture, it's also quite likely a link to a news story. During the federal election, I think I could have kept up quite well with the major developments just through my Facebook feed alone.

Curiously, the Pew Centre (and I should mention that the organization has a sterling reputation with journalists) found that Twitter accounts for a small proportion of news traffic.

Actually, that's being generous. The report found that Twitter "barely registers as a referring source," with sites getting, at the very best, one per cent of their traffic from the microblogging service.

This caused some ponderous chin-rubbing in the journalism world, since journalists have taken heartily to Twitter. Have we made a mistake?

Not by a long shot, and here's why.

The Pew report based its Twitter stats solely on referrals from Twitter.com ... a website I hardly ever visit. Like many people, I use Twitter through a variety of apps: one on my phone, one on my desktop at work (several, actually, now that I think about it), and yet another on my laptop.

More importantly, I've come to see Twitter as an important part of the digital news food chain. Its users are probably the most voracious consumers of information out there, and that definitely applies to news. These are the people who thrive on breaking news, who relay that news, and who - yes, indeedy - put links into their Facebook pages, among other things.

The Pew report is a snapshot, and while the data is American-only, I think it's representative of where we've been in the last few years with news distribution. The idea of getting your news from one source, and putting aside a set amount of time to consume it, is quite frankly antiquated.

"Segmentation" is a word that's been used derisively to describe what's happened with audiences, but for me, it's far more than that. It's a reflection of reality, of how ordinary people get their news, and want it.

The challenge in the coming years will be how to get their attention, while delivering what they want when they want it.

John Gushue is an online editor with CBC News in St. John's. Twitter: @johngushue. Blog: johngushue.typepad.com.

Organizations: Pew Research Centre, Carleton University, Google Arrow Air Washington Post Yahoo! CBC News

Geographic location: Ottawa, Gander, U.S. St. John's

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