Social Media and Publishing: Revolutions Online and Offline

When Iran had their most recent popular revolution in 1979, people around the world had no 24 hour news source to convey what was happening. CNN would be launched the following year by Ted Turner so coverage was limited to shows like ABC’s Nightline (which was created in response to the hostage crisis which grew out of the uprising) and the regularly scheduled network new programs, as well as the daily newspapers like The New York Times and newsweeklies like Time magazine. The Internet? A gleam in Al Gore’s eye.

Now there are the stirrings of what might turn out to be another popular revolution inside Iran and newsjunkies have skipped a whole generation ahead, past the 24-hour news channels which mostly filled their weekend schedules with less-expensive canned programming, and have gone straight to Twitter and the Huffington Post.

The Huffington Post’s continuously updated coverage is particularly noteworthy as the knock against the site from mainstream media purveyors like the New York Times is that they are unable to do original reporting. Yet Nico Pitney’s constantly updated feed has consistently trumped the Times Lede blog in consistency, insight and timeliness.

As for Twitter, it’s role as the premier purveyor of breaking news was already clear during the Mumbai attacks in India and the plane crash landing on the Hudson river, both last year. What’s changed this time is that Iran’s repressive regime was able to jam cellphones, text messaging, blogs, social networking sites and BBC Persia but have been unable to block messages from being sent out on Twitter. This has been aided and abetted by sympathizers who have used the micro-blogging service to guide folks in Iran to safe Internet ports free of government interference.

Twitter has become  a tool not only for getting word out to the rest of the world about what’s happening (as in Mumbai) but also to shape events by facilitating protests and communications both within and outside of Iran. In other words, it didn’t just reflect the news, it created it. It’s notable that when Iranian security forces have raided dorms and other resistance sites, they have made a point of smashing computers.

This is a vastly different model than what traditional news services have done or perhaps even want to do, but the ongoing success of both the Huffington Post and Twitter over the last few days serves as a lesson of how mainstream media has failed to adapt. There is still a role for mainstream media to play – Twitter users were not content to get their updates online, a new thread was started called #cnnfail to express disappointment in the lack of coverage from the news net 9though they could have targeted any of the major mainstream outlets.)

This is especially striking at a time when folks like Rupert Murdoch and others in the news biz are talking about retreating behind a paid subscription wall. Murdoch has been able to do this fairly successfully with his recently acquired crown jewel The Wall Street Journal in part because many of those paid subscriptions are sponsored by employers. Will the financial firms still standing spring for the New York Times? I highly doubt it.

What the New York Times (and other papers and media outlets) still have are trusted brand names and a significant amount of traffic that they haven’t figured out how to properly monetize. In this they are really in the same boat as Twitter and the Huffington Post.

Where the two upstarts beat them is in engagement – getting folks to spend time and build a relationship with the site. The Huffington Post in particular offers a model that the much more prestigious Times might want to embrace instead of disparage. Aggregated news, citizen journalists, and traditional reportage all curated with that distinct New York Times quality seal.

The Times, to its credit, already does some of this, including linking out to blogs and other sites. Yet its social media TimesPeople area limits article sharing from other sites, something that would probably increase user interaction substantially.

If the Times and other news organizations were to let go and embrace the new news paradigm that Twitter and Huffington Post embody, they could begin to monetize in ways that may not have made sense beforehand. Imagine a Times-branded news search engine with keyword based ads. Revolution is coming, it’s time to embrace it or get out of the way.

Questions or comments? Feel free to leave them here or check out Reprise Media folks on Twitter.

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