The people formerly known as informed

So what happens when “the people formally known as the audience,” as the citizen journalism hypesters like to say, take charge of the dissemination of news? A study released today by the Project for Excellence in Journalism provides a hint, and it’s not exactly encouraging.

The researchers examined the top stories appearing in the crowd-edited news sites Digg, Reddit, and during a week in June and compared them to the top stories covered by the mainstream media. They found that the stories in the user-driven sites were “more diverse” but also “more fragmented and transitory.” Hard news tended to be buried in a stream of soft news, gossip, product announcements and trivia. The researchers write:

During that week, the immigration debate led the coverage [in the mainstream media], accounting for 10% of all news stories … That was followed by coverage of a major fire near Lake Tahoe (6%), the failed bombings in the United Kingdom (6%), events on the ground in Iraq (6%), Supreme Court decisions (5%), the 2008 presidential election (4%), flooding in Texas (4%), the policy debate in the capitol over the war in Iraq (4%), U.S. domestic terrorism (3%), and the missing pregnant woman in Ohio (3%). In all, the top ten stories that week accounted for 51% of all the stories in the Index.

In the user-generated sites, these stories were barely visible. Overall, just 5% of the stories captured on these three sites overlapped with the ten most widely-covered stories in the Index (13% for Reddit, 4% for Digg, and 0% for

The immigration debate in Congress, the biggest single story of the week in the mainstream media, appeared just once as a top-ten story on Reddit, and not at all on Digg and Similarly, the war in Iraq accounted for 10% of all stories in the [mainstream media]. Across the three user-news sites, it amounted to about 1%.

What were the favorite stories on the user-driven sites? For the most part, there were no dominant ones. The only story with any real traction was the release of the Apple iPhone, and that was just on one site (it accounted for 16% of the stories on Digg that week). Otherwise, users put forth a mix of diverse and unconnected news events from day to day. On the morning of June 26 on Digg, for example, a story about intelligent design topped the list followed by a story about a woman suing record labels for malicious prosecution. But by 5pm that day, both had vanished from the top ten.

Not surprisingly, given their geeky audiences, technology stories were by far the most prevalent on the user-edited sites. What’s perhaps more revealing is that the second most popular category was “lifestyle”:

Coverage about everyday lifestyle activities and concerns was the second most popular topic area on user-driven sites. Roughly two-in-ten stories (20%) on fit this bill, more than what was found on both Reddit (15%) and Digg (11%). In the mainstream media, by contrast, lifestyle stories amounted to about 3%.

As an example, and Reddit both linked to a story about fruit and vegetables eating each other told through Photo-Shopped pictures. And both Digg and Reddit both linked to an amateur Web site in which the author showed photos he took by attaching a camera to a kite.

It’s often assumed that the Net will improve our understanding of what’s happening elsewhere in the world. But the report indicates that rather than expanding coverage of foreign stories, citizen-edited sites only reduce it further:

Readers across the three user-news sites were also more inclined to focus on events within the U.S. borders. Looking at the geographic focus, coverage on the three user-news sites this week was even more U.S.-centric than the mainstream media as measured by the Index. Digg led the way, with 89% of stories falling in this category, with Reddit (83%) and (81%) close behind. In the mainstream media, 71% of stories were focused on events from home.

The study is, as the researchers note, just a snapshot, but it’s a telling one. It certainly doesn’t tell us everything about how people collect news online, but it does show us what happens when you put a crowd in charge of selecting news. The techno-utopians would have use believe that citizen journalism will provide an antidote to the mainstream media’s long-run shift away from hard news and toward soft news, that it will counter the trend toward news-as-entertainment and entertainment-as-news. But the indication so far is that the precise opposite is true. When you replace professional editors with a crowd or a social network, you actually end up accelerating the dumbing-down of news. News becomes a stream of junk-food-like morsels. The people formerly known as the audience may turn out to be the people formerly known as informed.

18 thoughts on “The people formerly known as informed

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    Old post of mine:

    “The People Formerly Known As The Audience” … are STILL the audience

    [Media guru], we’re still the audience. If you don’t like my comment, you can personally attack me to a number of readers that is orders of magnitude more than I could realistically reach myself. I have no effective way to reply. That’s “audience”.

    If I do volunteer journalism, but it is not propagated by A-list gatekeepers, and not appealing enough for the popular sites, it’ll be ignored. That’s “audience”.

    And what happens if the professional journalist just doesn’t care if he or she gets it wrong, as long as it brings in the crowd? That’s “audience”.

    Don’t shoot the messenger.

    I got flamed from on-high for it, where I couldn’t effectively reply, which sadly proved my point.

    Anyway, that the people-now-known-as-the-digital-sharecroppers are more interested in lifestyle than foreign policy is not, err, news. The program of net-evangelists is to perform a sleight of hand on data-mining and intellectual respectibility. The more clever evangelists will rebut that they never said lifestyle will go away, deflecting from the point that the coverage seems to be worse under the popularity-pandering model they hail as “democracy”.

    Oh, and you’re an elitist.

  2. Oliver Widder

    The crowd may be not so smart as the editors.

    But you have the freedom to not follow the crowd.

    In mainstream media you have to take what the smart editors think it’s good for you.

    So I’m happy to be dumb.

    See my small cartoon



  3. Seth Finkelstein

    Funny cartoon:

    Oliver, you’re missing the point. If someone says “Don’t worry that we’re replacing milk with Kool-Aid, drinking Kool-Aid is much better than that old priest cathedral undemocratic milk” – and we then find it’s not true at all, one of the evangelist lines is to switch to saying, “Well, nobody is forcing you to drink Kool-Aid, and if people like it, who are you to argue with them?”

    I mean, sometimes you can just count it off, like some sort of bingo card :-(.

  4. Oliver Widder

    I do not say citizen journalism is better than mainstream.

    It’s different.

    And because it’s different you can not just survey the first pages of the main social network sites.

    The notion of counting the top ten to cover the whole thing does not work here.



  5. Nick Carr

    I’m sorry, Oliver, but I like the cartoon Seth links to better than yours, even though yours has my name in it.

  6. Ciaran

    Umm, I wouldn’t call digg et. al. ‘citizen journalism’. But forwarded links and comment boards for the bored at work crowd is where the big audience is.

  7. ramon sanguesa

    I agree with Ciaran about doubting wether digg, etc. are citizen journalism sites… It seems it would be more appropriate to compare traditional newspapers and media with Zero Assignment and similar sites.

    As to stories in these places being more centered in the U.S I wonder if the same result would have been obtained looking at other social linking and bookmarking sites. Meneame (a Spanish variant of the digg idea) seems to show a balanced mix of local and international news, with a geeky bias.

  8. Oliver Widder

    Nicholas, you’re maybe right.

    But the Seth’ cartoon certainly shows the difference between mainstream media and 2.0.

    In mainstream media you’re not able to change the fisrt page of your newspaper. In 2.0 you can select just what you want to read. LOLcats or Middle East politics is your decision, not that of an oh so smart editor.



  9. alan

    The researchers attempt to collect available data from a narrow band of user-news sites and try to compare the results with traditional media’s news is misleading.

    User sites, like dig that I visit on a daily basis, are but just a fraction of sites I visit when looking at the spectrum of daily news.

    I also frequent a variety of sites that take an in-depth look at specific details from the daily news.

    “The people formally known as the audience,” I presume that’s most of us reading this, are no longer captive. I decide what my front page is going to be. I can also dig, no pun intended, as deep and hard as I want to on any given content. The available resources on the web makes the daily rag handier for wrapping my fish and chips.

    I strongly resist your attempt to suggest that, “you actually end up accelerating the dumbing-down of news. News becomes a stream of junk-food-like morsels.” I would suggest that it could well be the opposite.

    The proof of the pudding lies in the amount of exertion used to penetrate the daily news.

    Cheers, Alan.

  10. captnswing


    as a reddit regular, I disagree with your implicit assumption that these sites aim to compete with traditional media, or even try to replace them.

    rather, they function as a complement to traditional, editorialized media.

    on reddits pages, its the story that the mainstream media did not carry, or the different viewpoint that did not get heard enough, that keeps me coming back to the site.

    cheers, -frank

  11. Dennis Howlett

    Has it occurred to the researchers that Digg, Reddit etc are reflecting the things that are of interest to the people who submit stuff to those sites. The fact this is different from MSM doesn’t make it better/worse.

    Fact is that we live in an attention challenged world so it is no surprise that certain stories last little time at all on these voting sites.

    That might change over time because even with a claimed 71 million blogs, the reality is most people in the ‘real’ world don’t know about blogs.

  12. pedrobeltrao

    What about comparing blog meme tracking systems with the traditional media ? I read all tech news from Techmeme, the traditional media is always lagging behind. The same for science news, I read science from science bloggers. There is a good tracker too called

  13. Alex

    I get my news from NPR, Msnbc, Slate, the New Yorker, etc… I go to Digg and (among others) for stuff that you can’t find in the mainstream press. Even if it’s a mainstream subject, it’s often a much different take then the stuff you’ll find in the papers. When I tag an article on, it’s usually because I think it’s something interesting that I’ll want to look at later, that won’t appear on the front page of a newspaper. So, I feel like your implication is incredibly short-sighted.

  14. dixonge

    Nicholas Carr is an excellent example of WHY the masses select different news than professional ‘editors’ – because people like Mr. Carr are condescending, and no one likes to be told what to do, or what is good for them. Also factor in news fatigue. If I prefer smaller doses of news about Iraq that does not mean that my news is ‘dumbed down’ – just different. For all he knows I’m reading about DNA or other scientific and complicated and decidedly NOT dumb topics. Just because mainstream news has a political fetish does not mean that they are smarter.

  15. Nick Carr

    no one likes to be told what to do, or what is good for them.

    Actually, plenty of people like to be told what to do and what is good for them.

  16. alan

    “Actually, plenty of people like to be told what to do and what is good for them.”

    Cheeky but true, I give you high scores for your honest comeback and can almost hear your wicked chuckle naughty Nick!

    Cheers, Alan.

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