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This blog post won’t be shared on Facebook, and I should be worried

(Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

Journalism can never be silent: That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.” — Henry Anatole Grunwald

That’s a popular quote on journalism from the one-time editor of Time magazine. While today’s journalists are miles from silent, their work loses impact and value when it isn’t widely read. Speaking out isn’t enough when the result is unperceived existence. If a tree falls in a forest and no one posts a video of it on Instagram, did it make a sound?

Grunwald died in 2005, when Facebook and YouTube were in their infancy and Twitter hadn’t even begun. It’s a radically different world for journalists and media consumers. I just returned from the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, which offered insights into some of our world’s most innovative media companies, and how they ensure that their journalism and content isn’t greeted with silence. Media outlets such as Upworthy and Buzzfeed craft their work to ensure that it is shared on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

“The news needs to be a little more interesting, a little more engaging,” said Upworthy CEO and co-founder Eli Pariser, in a discussion with New York Times journalist David Carr. He warned that while news junkies will always find the important stories, it’s tougher for today’s casual readers to find those stories that traditional journalism has valued.

For democracies to thrive, citizens must be well-informed. Yet there are endless tales and examples of important stories taking a back seat.

According to Web analytics firm Chartbeat, one in three visitors spends less than 15 seconds reading articles they click on. We’re in a battle for readers’ attention and the stakes are high. If journalists want to be relevant and impactful, they’ll need to be betters salesmen of their content.

“There is a big appetite for this stuff if people are told that maybe it’ll be fun or interesting or compelling and doesn’t have to be choking down yesterday’s brussel sprouts,” said Pariser, whose company has drawn attention to topics such as stop-and-frisk thanks to its methods that help content go viral.

Serious topics once found their way to consumers through newspapers, which were essentially monopolies thanks to their printing presses. Now that’s changed, as anyone with a smartphone in their pocket has a capable digital printing press.

“One of the most interesting things right now is if there aren’t monopolies, if there aren’t these points or destinations, what’s the other side of it? I would say it’s getting better at social spread,” said Ze Frank, executive vice president of video at Buzzfeed.

While the bulk of Buzzfeed’s content isn’t traditional journalism, their methods are instructive for journalists interested in finding an online audience. The company starts by thinking about what people want to share, and reverse engineers content to fill those desires.

Media is now being used as a substitute for conversation. “When you post something on your wall, and the tag line you put next to it is ‘Oh my god, this is totally me,’ you’re using the media to say, ‘I have difficulty saying these kind of things but this person says it perfectly,’ ” Frank told me. One good example of this is the runaway success of the article “27 signs you were raised by Asian immigrant parents.”

Content is also shared as an emotional gift, when we want to make those around us feel differently.

“Finals time, big time for sharing like cute relaxing stuff,” Frank said. “When huge tragedies happen in the world there’s a number of posts on Buzzfeed that go crazy, which are like how to restore your faith in humanity.” Frank’s team continues to work to understand the driving forces behind why content is shared.

“We have 30 working formats now that get as granular as — one is ‘aspirational gen Y subcategory wonderlust.’ Which is totally wild,” Frank said.

It’s possible the surface is just being scratched here. My question for journalists is, why aren’t more of us focused on this?

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.



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