There’s a new editor in chief of mainstream news.
About a year ago I was putting the final touches on an article for a major media outlet. I honed, I proof-read, I tweaked. My self-absorbed goal was to have to the most popular item on this big media site for at least a few hours, and based on the topic and content, I really thought I had a shot. And then, minutes after my piece was published, the site’s editors put up a story about baby panthers.
And just like that, it was over.
There are a few rules that hold true even in this ever changing media landscape and one of them is that no one beats a good kitty story. While story placement and promotion matter, readers have a big part in determining which stories will rise to the top of the most popular lists on news sites. As a rule of thumb, editors choose the top stories while the reading public decides which stories will be the most popular by way of their shares, Tweets, Likes, and the like. Editors decide what to cover. The public decides what to read and share.
But I have a feeling the public is getting a promotion. In two major cases, conversations historically reserved for editorial meeting rooms have been extended to the social web.
First, there was the challenge to the Stop Online Privacy Act as it moved through Congress. Several major Internet organizations joined in a coordinated effort to bring the negative aspects of SOPA to the attention of the general public. Big sites either went totally black or at least supported the cause with prominent links to information on the subject. The media dramatically boosted coverage of the story. And in a very short time, public and organizational pressure forced the political backers of SOPA to fold. When was the last time a large swath of the American public even knew the contents of a bill before Congress?
This week we’ve seen an even more powerful shift. There was no coordinated organizational effort. But thousands of voices on the Internet still managed to organize in a way that drove the news. I write a daily newsletter in which I cover the top ten news stories of the day. As part of my daily routine, I visit about fifty top news sites multiple times a day. At the outset, the story about the Susan G. Komen Fund cutting its financial support of Planned Parenthood was covered, but it was not a major story on any of these sites. It was, however, a major story in my Twitter and Facebook streams. People were energized by the news and from the Komen Facebook wall to Twitter and blogs, they had an outlet to express that energy. Within a few hours, major media picked up on the surge of activity around the topic and it quickly moved to the top of front pages.
The story started small. The people decided it was major. Big media responded and gave the story more coverage. And within a day, we had a full-fledged media firestorm that was being driven from the bottom up.
At the height of the coverage, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviewed Komen founder Nancy Brinker. During the exchange, Mitchell explained that she was voicing the anger of many people and channeling the energy and ideas surfaced by thousands on Twitter.
That sounds like a pretty good way to decide what’s news.
SOPA and Komen represent a change in how we pick top stories. Even in an era of constant changes in the way we consume and share content, this is a remarkable moment in the history of news and public discourse.
There are of course risks to majority rule when it comes to what makes headlines. Sometimes the pace of the realtime Internet leads to the rapid and rabid spread of misinformation. Brands and individuals can witness the destruction of their reputations before anyone has a chance to see the facts through the fog of retweets.
But with the mainstream press and the Internet-enabled general public providing checks and balances, we might see a much improved process by which we all decide what should be the headline of the moment.
I’m guessing we’ll still be pretty interested in cat stories. Some things will never change.