Column: “If the news is that important, it will find me”

Excerpts from prepared remarks read at the Internet and Mobile Marketing Association of the Philippines Summit on September 10, 2015, and published on September 15. 

I wanted to begin by revisiting our most recent collective trauma: [last] Tuesday’s traffic apocalypse.

One photo of the scene on Edsa went viral; [on Thursday], it [was] front and center of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It was also the Top Story on Inquirer.net [in the] morning.

Traffic PDI

As far as I can tell, it went viral on Twitter through @orangemagTV, an events magazine.

But it started as a photo taken by a 29-year-old man, now known to many simply as MykJosh.

The photo has since taken on a life of its own—including [a] seasonally appropriate version. Merry Christmas!

I thought I’d start with these images because they illustrate my theme: The evolution of media roles, from standard to search to social. I think this framework best makes sense of the chaos, the clutter, the constant change, reshaping the news and information landscape.

At least, it makes the most sense to me ….

Many factors are responsible for [the continuing] uptrend [in Inquirer.net monthly visitor traffic, which goes back over three years]; the most important, in my necessarily biased view, is the greater integration of standard, search and social media in our operations.

I borrow my framework from the media theorist, social activist, and favorite blogger Ethan Zuckerman, who joined the MIT Center for Civic Media in 2011 and in 2013 wrote “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.”

In the chapter titled “When what we know is whom we know,” I read, and reread, the following summary paragraph:

“Before 2000, we encountered news primarily through professional curators. For the decade that followed, we began acting as our own filters, searching for what we wanted to know. This decade offers the promise that our friends will help us find what we need to know.”

To be sure, Zuckerman does not use the 3-S framework; that is my own gloss on his insight. He does not call the first media, the oldest and the one we are all familiar with, standard media; he calls it by many names: mainstream, traditional, professional, curated. I use standard because, well, alliteration rocks.

Who defines the news in standard media? Professional gatekeepers, editors and news managers, like me. Thursday’s front page, for instance, was a convergence of choices made by the Inquirer’s editor in chief and managing editor, its art director and editor for Page One, its chief photographer and social media editor.

The standard media role measures itself according to its ability to set the news agenda—not only to follow the current news cycle but to get ahead of it. The unusual decision to use a quote for a headline, for instance, is an attempt to frame the traffic apocalypse of Sept. 8 in a novel way 36 hours after the event.

Starting with early search engines like Alta Vista and Lycos, and then firmly with Yahoo and finally Google, the new role of search media was born. Let me quote Zuckerman again: “Companies like Google realized that a conceptual shift was underway and built a business around the idea that you knew what you wanted to know better than any expert ever could.”

Who defines the news in search media? We do, as individual readers, users, consumers. When I searched for the first use of the traffic photo, and Googled MykJosh, that was news to me. I mean, that was news for me. At 3 a.m. today, one of the Top 10 search items for Inquirer.net was “Alden Richards crush on Julie Anne.” Who is to say that the answer to the query, raised so forlornly in the wee hours of the morning, is not news?

Because Google does such a terrific job aggregating and organizing all the queries, the search media role is often confused with online traffic trends … Aggregate data make the Google Family Feud-type game possible. But in fact the search media role measures itself not by the power to generalize, to think in trends, but through its ability to be specifically useful, to lead to content that meets an individual searcher’s need to know.

The Edsa traffic photo was tweet-quoted by Orange Magazine, which in turn was retweeted 293 times. To the photo’s striking colors (contrasting rivers of pale neon yellow and taillight red), Orange Mag provided a caption which, in my view, added a whole new layer of virality to the original. “Traffic situation in Edsa now. Stay safe everyone.”

Zuckerman imagines a time in the future “where people don’t make a decision to read the news. Instead, they simply encounter the news that their friends choose to amplify.” He quotes a college student: “If the news is that important, it will find me.”

That’s the thing. MykJosh’s photo found many of us. And that was news.

Who defines the news in social media? Our peers do. Our community of like-rs and lurkers, our circle of friends and followers, our network of digital equals.

The social media role measures itself by its ability to drive the conversation, online and in real life, all the way from condominium window to the front page.

Editors’ Note on INQUIRER.net: The original mistakenly identified Mr. Zuckerman as founder of the MIT Center for Civic Media; it has been corrected at 6 am [of September 15] to reflect the fact that Mr. Zuckerman joined the center only in 2011.

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