By Catherine Woodiwiss
Something weird happened in 2017. National publications, in the midst of booming readership, abruptly began bleeding pageviews and Facebook story shares steadily dropped. The cause: Facebook tweaked its “feed” algorithm to prioritize individuals instead of news publishers. A small coding change by software developers single social media platform radically shaped news readership. What was once a system of direct story dissemination from news source to reader became a system of peer-to-peer shares and constantly-updated social aggregators. Journalists are now asking: How do publications take back control over how and when users see their stories?
However, 55% of U.S. adults get their news from social media “often” or “sometimes,” suggesting readers find the new content delivery system useful. Looking at this trend from a systems design perspective, the question becomes: How are users behaving in this system right now, and what do their actions tell us about what they want and need from distributors?
By examining human behavior within a complex system and mapping how the components in that system interact, we can learn from user behavior and create new ways for journalists to reach users within the existing parameters.
Mapping the Ecosystem of News Dissemination
Mapping the ecosystem of news dissemination involves:
1. Choosing a frame
A map of a complex system will always be a good-faith approximation—things are infinitely interconnected, so we can’t map to true granularity. Instead, we place a frame on the system: What do we most want to understand?
We’re looking at news dissemination, but what we really want to know is how readers find and share stories. The system frame is then: How does a person encounter a news story?
2. Mapping the system objectively, as it is today
Our frame is an approximation, but from there a map is objective. The components and behaviors on the map must be true right now, not what we wish to be true.
To make visual sense of the map, we create a key such as:
- Circles = people interacting with the story (writers, editors, partners, other outlets, users)
- Squares = artifacts containing the story (content types, platforms)
- Arrows = the movement of the story (from one person or place to another)
Our map might look something like this:
3. Identify patterns—and anomalies
Looking at our map, we can concretely see that users:
- Encounter media stories, rather than seek them out
- Get stories primarily from people they follow or curated trends in their social media
- Interact publicly with story content—sharing links, screenshots, quotes, and driving more shares of the story
- See stories context-free, even if they are part of a publication, issue, or series
- Don’t pay for news stories
Podcasts (and newsletters) tell a different story. With podcasts, users:
- Seek out new episodes
- Sample and choose podcasts by trial & error
- Interact publicly with podcast recommendations and reactions
- Hear stories in context, as part of a series
- Don’t pay for podcasts
What next? Proposing Innovations
This systems map suggests at least two compelling paths ahead for publications seeking to “solve” how users encounter their stories:
Innovation Path 1: Ignore the Aggregator
Outlets looking for direct subscription content should pay attention to where users don’t rely on third parties—namely, podcasts and newsletters. Using a version of the editors’ question above, we ask: How do we create a system where users want to engage directly with a publication rather than a third-party aggregator?
Listeners seek out podcasts at specific times such as when cooking, cleaning, exercising, etc. Podcasts are easily bingeable, and users often listen in sequential order, quickly developing trust in the subject matter and the hosts. The content is not easily shareable and this means distribution happens almost entirely without aggregators—many recommendations come directly from peers.
This is similar to the model for TV streaming. If publications take cues from podcasts and TV streaming services and leverage the same behavior to revamp how they produce news content as a whole, they could create a system such as:
Idea: Apple TV+ for Journalism
A paid multimedia subscription platform, available as an app and on all streaming devices.
- New, limited, original shows and podcasts
- Hosted by major and rising names across media
- Exclusive to paying subscribers and not shareable on social
This platform could include investigative specials, documentaries, spotlights in VR (experienceable from your home!), weekly news satire podcast, video profiles, illustrated essays—or any combination that is relevant for the publisher.
Innovation Path 2: Empower Users to Control the Aggregator
Aggregators dominate dissemination because people use them. Designers looking to place the power and personalized control in the hands of users may find cues from concierge-driven brands. Doing away with the reliance on algorithms leads to the question: How do we create a system where users have full control over the stories they see?
By choosing who to follow, people indirectly curate which stories they will encounter. Whether conscious or not, users place enormous trust in these digital relationships. Equipping users to be their own curators will require something that takes minimal effort, feels personalized, transparent, and provides curation services.
Idea: Sephora’s Tenets of ‘Clean’ Certification,’ for Users
A fully customizable filter for news:
- Users add up to 10 qualities they want to exclude in their news and then 10 qualities they prioritize in their news (e.g., content/trigger warnings, content format, subject matter, location, bylines, outlets)
- The filter draws from all publications that fit these criteria with options to subscribe, bookmark, follow, or ignore
- Newsfeeds show only shares from fit publications
- Users are invited to share their list with others
- Every 3 months, the filter prompts users to review current subscription/follows, provides further customizable options, and makes additional subscription/follow suggestions
Creating Real Change
Right now, journalism is focused on near-sighted reactions, playing catch-up with social media algorithms, and trying to stop the bleeding. By zooming out to a systems lens, we can look at the news ecosystem in context, and start to identify where interesting things are happening. By taking a user-centered systems approach, we can create design ideas that use existing behavior patterns to have real impact. And that approach is what will lead to systemic changes in journalism.