Much of the often-agitated press appears obsessed with social media, tweeting and posting stories to attract measurable buzz, and possibly job security.
But the impact of Twitter and Facebook is not particularly significant in the competitive marketplace, according to Pew Research Center's annual "State of the Media Report" released Monday.
Social media is not a cure-all for struggling news organizations. Ironically, it's old-school credibility that still matters. The most influential factor on news consumers is, in fact, the "reputation or brand" of the news organization itself, the massive study found.
"Facebook and Twitter are now pathways to news, but their role may not be as large as some have suggested. The population that uses these networks for news at all is still relatively small, especially the part that does so very often," the report states.
Indeed, the study found that only 2 percent of Twitter users frequently follow up on all those tweets and retweets that suggest a story.
"Social media news consumers have not given up other methods of getting news, such going directly to websites, using apps or through search. In other words, social media are additional paths to news, not replacements for more traditional ones."
Panicked news organizations looking for the next big thing should remember their roots.
"The reputation or brand of a news organization, a very traditional idea, is the most important factor in determining where consumers go for news, and that is even truer on mobile devices than on laptops or desktops," said the study, which was based on a survey of 3,000 U.S. adults.
Overall, just 9 percent of Americans frequently access news from Facebook or Twitter on computers, smartphones or tablets. The largest number — 36 percent — go directly to news organizations, 32 percent rely on a key-word search, and 29 percent consult a news aggregator site or app, such as Google News or Newser.com.
Social media users appear brutally discerning. Or fickle.
The Pew study found that 2 percent of those who access Twitter via their computer, for example, often follow recommendations for news stories they receive though the brief missives; 85 percent say they "never" follow through. The numbers are similar among users who receive tweets via smartphone or tablet.
The findings are a little more forgiving for Facebook: 6 percent of computer users follow up on news-story recommendations. Fifty-three percent say they "never follow up" on the recommendations. Again, numbers are similar among smartphone and tablet users.
Social media is only one component of the ornate delivery systems all news organizations use to seek attention, and therefore revenue sources. Some still produce traditional print, fondly referred to as "heritage" products. All experiment with hybrid digital goodies of every persuasion. And to charge, or not to charge for online material? It is a tricky business.
When news spreads instantaneously among journalists, bloggers and aggregators, exclusive content is rare, meanwhile. Though consumers are tracked by strategists and "curators," their behaviors, and where they'll spend their money, remains a mystery. Twitter and Facebook may not hold the answers yet.
"The notion that large percentages of Americans now get their news mainly from recommendations from friends does not hold up," the Pew study concludes.
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By Andrew P. Napolitano
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