Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Columbia Journalism Review as part of a series on platforms and the press published jointly with the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy. You can find the original version here.
In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 94 percent of US-based journalists said they use social media professionally. At the same time, two-thirds of them claimed that social media has a “somewhat” to “very negative” impact on their work.
To claim that digital platforms have irrevocably altered the consumption, distribution, and production of news would not raise any eyebrows. But journalism outlets across the world did not foresee the extent to which social media would affect their reach—in positive and negative ways.
Starting as intermediaries between media websites and users, social media platforms quickly expanded their role to create engagement between content producers and audiences. Today, Tik Tok and Instagram compete with news sites as prime access points for information.
Our own newsroom partners at Report for the World are digital-native local and national outlets that started amid the boom of social media. In their early years, they benefited from easy, free access to their audiences through Facebook and Twitter.
It was no coincidence that “the dizzying growth in the number of lean-structured digital-native media” across the world happened in parallel with the worldwide use of social media, explains Stefano Wrobleski, director at InfoAmazonia,in Brazil—one of our first newsroom partners. It would have been “difficult to distribute [our] content without the platforms,” says Wrobleski. Similarly, when our Hungarian partner Atlatszo started, in 2011, they gathered over ten thousand followers on Facebook very quickly. “Facebook was essential for distributing our stories and content and finding our audiences…and [it] became the number one source of traffic on our website,” says Tamás Bodoky, its editor in chief.
The downside of social media dependence
Today, Atlatszo has an impressive 120,000 Facebook followers. But actual engagement and reach has fallen. This is largely due to a policy change that came in 2018, when Facebook announced that its algorithm would prioritize “posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions” between friends and family. Other platforms followed suit.
Since then algorithms have been redesigned to disseminate “emotion stirring” content over fact-based stories, Leticia Duarte, a Brazilian journalist and program manager at Report for the World, explains.
More recently, the continuing influence of social media on journalism has itself been under question, especially as Meta and Twitter experienced drastic changes over November.
At least eleven thousand people—about 13 percent of Meta’s workforce—were let go from the organization in November. With many employees of the Meta Journalism Project being part of the cuts, speculation that the company “is parting ways with journalism” has been rife.
Simultaneously, Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter caused a large percentage of its workforce to quit. The press started to preemptively mourn its demise, while calling attention to its integral role in journalism.
The claim that we might be witnessing tectonic shifts in the role of social media giants is gaining ground. But social media, as a distribution channel, is not going anywhere.
Fisayo Soyombo, the founder of our newest Nigerian partner, the Federation of Investigative Journalists (FIJ), says social media remains “a valid crowdsourcing tool” for his team. He points to the power of platforms in “breaking the news,” allowing users to spread the message quickly, and with impact.
Even if Twitter and other giants collapsed, new ones would quickly follow suit, says Duarte. “As soon as the rumors about the Twitter crisis started, for example, users already started looking for alternatives such as Mastodon, Hive, and Koo. The question is which models will prevail, as users, experts, and governments increasingly require more ethics and transparency from the platforms.”
Recent surveys point to a gradual shift away from digital platforms among news consumers in the US. In 2021, 51 percent of Americans said they got their news from digital services, compared with 60 percent in 2022. But, in a majority of the world, digital news is overtaking traditional media, such as radio or television, because of the affordability of smartphones and 4G networks. In large countries like Brazil, India, and Nigeria, where RFW corps members live, a majority are using smartphones to access news. As a direct consequence, digital platforms, including social media, will remain a key source of distribution for newsrooms in the Global South.
As niche, independent media that are acutely affected by the ongoing fluctuations in the social media world, our newsroom partners are devising means of diversifying the types of digital platforms that can distribute and monetize their stories. Simultaneously, they are cutting through the digital noise by diversifying their content—from producing visual stories to increasing audience interaction on platforms. In parallel, they are pursuing different means of exposure and engagement, including different types of collaborations.
Diverse methods of distribution
When speaking about platform-driven journalism, we tend to think mostly about Meta, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. But digital methods such as newsletter subscriptions, paywalls, and collaborative sites have created audience engagement as well as sustainability for independent media, well before the emergence of social media giants. Search engine optimization tools that increase the visibility of news websites have amplified these efforts.
For hyperlocal media outlet Agencia Mural, in São Paulo, WhatsApp has always been an important means of targeting audiences. This became especially true during the pandemic, when the outlet launched a WhatsApp-based podcast, Em Quarentena, with a five-minute news episode that relayed vital information about the COVID crisis to the community. They produced two hundred episodes, going on to win awards.
Others among our partners have shaped their beats based on direct engagement with audiences. For example, Atlatszo in Hungary hired a Report for the World corps member to cover education, based on the expressed desire of their audiences through their newsletter.
Partnerships between public interest media, within countries and across continents, have also been on the rise.
Collaborations and community building
Local public service media are building new types of coalitions on the ground to counter the dominance of digital platforms. Building intra- and transnational collaborations is helping diversify their distribution and build their reputations. For example, our partner Agência Publica is at the forefront of fostering collaborations, not just in Brazil and Latin America, but across the world. The outlet has a creative-commons policy, with stories often republished and attributed by media in the US and Europe.
Coalitions are also helping media of different sizes and revenue models counter state repression and corporate encroachment on their spaces. Our newsroom partners in India—The Scroll, The Wire, and the News Minute—cofounded the DigiPub News India Foundation to nurture a “healthier ecosystem” for digital news media, from legal protection to innovation. The News Minute is also creating a membership model, as opposed to subscriptions or paywalls, to create a “community of readers that support independent media.”
Alongside these myriad efforts, this is a good moment to reimagine the layout of digital spaces, where news media can lead as legitimate information providers, instead of vying for attention from users. For this to happen, social media platforms must help users distinguish between content from journalism outlets and other sources of information, and integrate tools for audience engagement and subscribed content. When used as search engines, these platforms must devise better mechanisms to quell misinformation and disinformation. They must enable newsrooms to carry out their work with reach. This is the ideal long-term scenario, which requires concerted efforts from governments, platforms, advertisers, development and rights groups, and users.