The web’s last decade has been marked by platform stagnation. Facebook and Twitter have dominated the conversation and reliably been a way for newsrooms to find an audience for their journalism, albeit at the cost of subjecting themselves to increasingly hostile business practices. Correspondingly, in many newsrooms, audience strategies have calcified around these platforms.
Suddenly, social media is in flux. Facebook has been boomer territory for years, has been the subject of a seemingly endless stream of ethics scandals, and is no longer growing. Twitter is being terraformed into a neo-reactionary billionaire’s funhouse mirror interpretation of a playground for free speech.
For the first time since Instagram’s rise to popularity, we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Multiple platforms have emerged that intentionally seek to avoid mistakes of the past like community toxicity, surveillance capitalism, and targeted advertising. The previous inhabitants of incumbent networks have turned to a mix of these new platforms and old ones to host their conversations, but there are no contenders that could seriously be the replacement.
So far, the co-operatively organized fediverse of social networking platforms headlined by Mastodon has been the fastest-growing attempt (with Tumblr and others committed to join next year), but Reddit, Post, and others are also trying their hardest to use this moment to gain market share.
Even blogging is seeing a major resurgence, led by developments at Substack. This fall, the latter introduced a brand-new, popular feature fit for 2022. an RSS reader. Who had that on their bingo card for this year?
For newsroom audience teams, this kaleidoscope of options represents a new challenge. given a limited set of time, people, and resources, how can you best decide which platforms to bet on? (Here’s a hint: it’s not going all-in on vertical video.)
The current landscape makes clear what has always been true. On the internet, nothing lasts forever. The most resilient choice is always the one that allows you to own your relationships with your audience and directly build community with the people who care about your work. That way, when a platform inevitably disappears, your relationship with your community remains intact.
This is also true regardless even when a platform doesn’t disappear. Business majors know this as one of Michael Porter’s five forces. the more a newsroom is dependent on a company’s platform for views or revenue, the more that company can exert power over it. The more power a platform has, the more a newsroom is subject to changes in its business models, ownership, and policies.
Just as it is not clear which networks will succeed in the next era of the web, it is not obvious which newsroom experiments in community-building will work. The answer can only be to try, learn quickly from failure, and try again. Newsrooms will necessarily need to experiment and learn from each other. Ideally, they will collaborate on these experiments, sharing both code and approaches.
Avoiding adverse supplier power has always been prudent, but recent changes on the web make it unavoidable. This year, newsrooms will have to reconsider their audience and social media strategies and quickly find ways to reach their communities more directly than they ever have before. Owning their relationships will no longer be a choice; it will be a matter of survival.