And Now: The New News Regime

First published October 8, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This week, I moderated a session at SMX about real-time search. Personally, I find the convergence of social and search to be perhaps the most significant trend of 2009. Social adds an entirely new dimension to search. Traditionally search has been used to find “what” you wanted to know more about. Social adds the dimension of time. Suddenly, relevance isn’t the only measure. Search now needs a “stale date,” a measure of the freshness of the results.

Flying Rumors

There were a number of interesting things that came up in the panel. Presenters used a few recent examples to show how stories broke online: the death of Michael Jackson, the elections in Iran and the emergency landing of a United flight in Iceland.  It was fascinating to see where people turned as news broke. Not surprisingly, behaviors followed age-old grooves, but now those behaviors played out over a brand new landscape, the digital one.

For example, Jeremy Crane from Compete showed how, as we learned the news of MJ’s death, we first turned to Google and news sources for confirmation. But as time went on, we took new online paths. We turned to Twitter, to real-time search engines, to YouTube and other richer media sources as we worked our way through the process. If you were to look at how humans deal with loss, these paths really aren’t surprising. First we want confirmation from an authoritative source, and then we have to participate in our own ways. We need to talk about it (Twitter) and we need to reminisce (watching old videos on YouTube). We need to participate in some way in the experience to reach our own measure of closure. Funerals are never really for the departed; they’re for the ones left behind.

If It’s Not New, Is It News?

But the most interesting question came from out of the audience, right at the end of the session. The internal SEO manager for ABC asked a huge question: As news increasingly breaks online, how do traditional news publishers stay nimble and relevant? How do the New York Times and ABC News keep up in a world that includes Twitter and TMZ? That, indeed, is the question.

A few columns back, I gave my own example of real-time search, as forest fires encroached on my home town of Kelowna, BC. There I touched on the new speed of news. But the ABC’s staffer’s question brings up some added dimensions to that. The answer is not as cut-and-dried as it used to be.

Traditional news channels, with their journalistic checks and balances, can never be as nimble as rumor. It’s a game they can’t play; yet they feel they must. They have a decades-old tradition of being not only the official and credible source of the news, but also the first place most people hear news as it breaks. Now, however, we often hear about the news while it’s still a rumor, perhaps several rumors, as they bounce around the Internet.

The New Regime?

What we have here is a discontinuous shift in the industry. As one of the presenters quipped, public relations is now really about the public. News spreads through millions of instaneous connections, rather than tightly controlled and edited channels. Often, the traditional news publishers are relegated to a role of listening to and verifying online buzz, trying to sort what is true from what is social gossip. It’s a middle ground they’re having a difficult time adjusting to.

The news industry is in the middle of what Christopher Freeman and Carlota Perez  called a Regime Transition. When technology shakes the very foundations of society and its supporting institutions, there is usually a resulting passing of the torch from what was to what will be. My suspicion is that what we were talking about in that session is pointing to a regime transition of epic proportions. We are defining the new reality of news by where we turn to be informed. The traditional players have no choice but to see if there will be a place for them here — when the dust settles.

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