• Nov

    News Sites Sleep While San Francisco Riots by

    Last night around 8 pm, I settled in for Monday Night Football and a nap. I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep lately – work hard, play hard, live hard is common for Terraleverians. I awoke 3 hours later to ESPN SportsCenter and a great segment on the new World Champion San Francisco Giants. This year’s Giants were a scrappy team of misfits that wanted it more than anyone else. As I hopped online to knock off a couple to do items before calling it a night, I stumbled across the #SFriot tag on Twitter. Giants fans’ celebrations had turned dangerous, complete with crowds, bonfires, vandalism and physical violence. Coverage was all over Twitter, as were links to listen in on SFPD scanners in real-time. As I tuned in, all thoughts of sleep went out the window.

    Twitter hashtags are great for real-time updates on a trending topic, but painfully limited when you want the background story. Search engines, on the other hand, are great for this. Google search results for “san francisco riots” returned Mashable’s story on the riots in coveted top slot. Mashable’s story was posted within a couple of hours of the first reports, and painted a quick picture of transpiring events by leveraging citizen journalism – documented accounts of news events reported by members of the public.

    It would be easy to cite this as yet another example of the power of social media to break and share news quicker than traditional outlets, just as it was during the Hudson River plane crash and the Haiti earthquake. But that’s a rickety bandwagon. Real-time channels can quickly become muddled by virtual onlookers contributing their own commentary on current events. It happened with #SFriot, where jokes about hipsters and social commentary on, of all things, social media culture.

    What is compelling about this particular incident is that social and technology news sites, such as Mashable, TechCrunch, and Gawker dominated the results for two of Google search verticals: aggregated web search and news search. Within the aggregated vertical, after the first three results, Google returned results for other riots. Did traditional news outlets not consider last night’s riots significant enough to cover in a timely fashion? Were they all asleep? Or maybe Google just wasn’t sure my interest was current or historical. Changing the search paramaters to San Francisco (instead of local) had no effect on the quantity or ordering of results.

    What does it say when Mashable and TechCrunch rank highest for current events and news search? These sites aren’t focused on general public awareness or safety. They are focused on cultural relevance, but from a very niche viewpoint – social media technologies. Mashable’s post was sufficiently grave, but it was written to showcase the real-time nature of social media and citizen journalism.

    As a business or individual, your ‘news’ may not be of the scale or nature of last night’s riots, but right about now, you should be thinking how this changes your outreach and coverage strategies when you have a story to tell.

    • Is your ‘news’ really news? Determine whether the information you have affects society at large, a local municipality or just your own customer base.
    • What sites and sources are most likely to consider your information newsworthy? Is it editorial content for journalists or conversation points for niche-interest sites?
    • What, exactly, is the angle that each  of your targeted sites is going for? How do you fit?
    • Are you presenting your content in a way that aligns with the goals and audiences of your targeted sites?
    • Are you in it for the coverage? Or are you interested in building a relationship with the editors and audiences of each outlet?

    Answer those questions, and you’ll know whether traditional media will sleep on your news too and if your strategy should focus on social news and citizen media.


  1. Gail Gardner says:

    I wonder whether someone with no ties to Social Media would see the same results as you did? Maybe personalized search is showing you sites it believes you would be most interested in.

    Someone with no history in Social Media might be shown more mainstream sites – or not. We would have to ask Internet users with other interests to search and see what they see to find out – at the same time.

    It is also quite possible that Mashable was just faster covering the story than the major media. A search on that phrase today has vastly different results – at least for me.

  2. Heather Herr says:

    Hi Gail,

    You have excellent points. While my IP didn’t change, I did run the search in multiple browsers, including one that I rarely use and on which I am never logged into my Google account, to see if I would get different results. I did not. Google continued to return social news sites as the top results for both their aggregated and news search verticals. Within the news search, after the third result, the relevance dropped off dramatically.

    I assumed that, even if no other locale had picked up the story, San Francisco’s local news outlets would have. That prompted me to change the location to San Francisco (as shown in the screen shot above). The results were the same. Another test would have been to order results with latest first.

    In this age, where virtually every industry is accessible 24/7, I expect that traditional news sites would be quicker on the draw. If news journalism is your profession, why would you not have a small staff on deck at all times, prepared to research and report notable events as it occurs?

  3. Jason Amunwa says:

    This is an excellent post, and very telling that news media is in need of restructuring as a reactive listening organization. Personally, I think they need to commit to two major shifts: in their mindset, and in their technology.

    Their mindset needs to adjust to realize that social media allows us, the news-reading public, to BE their feeler network. Their technology needs to enable them to monitor “chatter” on a macro scale (something like Panic! Software’s “Status Board”, but for global news –, and develop content faster, in order to react to news.

    I wholeheartedly agree that they should be the ones breaking the stories, instead of Mashable & Techcrunch – they’re great blogs, and all, but seriously, their job is to focus on the medium’s role in events, not the human side of the story.

  4. Heather Herr says:

    Hi Jason, thanks for your thoughts. I like the idea of news organizations allowing the reading public to be their feeler network. I know several journalists and news outlets have an active presence in social media to gather and vet sources for segments. At times, this is very effective, especially when a topic has already been established, but can be more challenging with breaking news. I also think we run the risk of acquiring a bubble mentality with social media. Niche networks abound, and when we are not tapped into them, it’s easy to miss their ‘news’. Any listening system would need to be supported by mechanisms for filtering and tip submission.

    A quick thing, the link you shared seems to be broken. :(

  5. Jason Amunwa says:

    Agreed – sorting the wheat from the chaff is critical to the effectiveness in disseminating newsworthy content, and right now, the tech that supports it is still kind of in its infancy. The semantic web will go a long way towards helping the cause, but it’s still a little ways off.

    As for the link, damn my propensity for trailing errant parentheses!


Leave a Comment