Extra Extra: Users Finding New Things is Different than Newspeople Writing News

The Project for Excellence in Journalismpublished results a few weeks back from a week long study of Reddit, Digg, Del.icio.us, and Yahoo! News. (“The Latest News Headlines: Your Vote Counts“).

The study asked “How would citizens make up a front page differently than professional news people,” and found that:

If a new crop of user-news sites – and measures of user activity on mainstream news sites – are any indication, the news agenda will be more diverse, more transitory, and often draw on a very different and perhaps controversial list of sources

As the project report goes on to explain, there was a signficant difference betweem what was considered important in the “mainstream press” and the “news agenda” of the user-sites. Additionally, they note that the sources used are different – “Seven in ten stories (70%) on the user sites come from either blogs or Web sites such as YouTube and WebMd that do not focus mostly on news.”

They conclude:

In short, the user-news agenda, at least in this week snapshot, was more diverse, yet also more fragmented and transitory than that of the mainstream news media. This does not mean necessarily that users disapprove or reject the mainstream news agenda. These user sites may be supplemental for audiences. They may gravitate to them in addition to, rather than instead of, traditional venues. But the agenda they set is nonetheless quite different.

There are, I think, a number of problems with these conclusions.

First, there’s no real reason to call Del.icio.us, Reddit, and Digg “news” sites. They track popular items of interest, and I guess you could call that news, but their not focused on news the same way sites like newsvine, ohmynews, nowpublic, or even indymedia are.

I wouldn’t call any of the three sites they studied a news site. They cover things which are new, I suppose, or at least newly discovered by the users – but that isn’t the same thing as the news in the sense that people use it of the news media. Reddit, for example, says:

reddit is a source for what’s new and popular on the web — personalized for you. Your votes train a filter, so let reddit know what you liked and disliked, because you’ll begin to be recommended links filtered to your tastes. All of the content on reddit is submitted and voted on by users like you.

Digg describes itself this way:

Digg is a place for people to discover and share content from anywhere on the web. From the biggest online destinations to the most obscure blog, Digg surfaces the best stuff as voted on by our users.

Del.icio.us, the least “news” of the three, is a social bookmarking site designed for people to share resources on the web with each other – not to disseminate news.

Second, the report compares the “news agenda” set by mainstream media, to a “news agenda” set by users on user-news sites. But does it make sense to talk of an “agenda” determined by popularity of a largely random set of actors, in the same sense that one talks of an agenda set by a very small number of trained, experienced, full-time editorial staff?

Is it really surprising that the coverage is more varied when contributed by random users across the web than it is when carefully assembled by a small news team who works together?

When they describe the portion of the study which covered Yahoo! News, they contrast “Most Viewed” with “Most Emailed” and “Most Recommended.” Not too surprisingly, the “Most Viewed” was the most sensational (people look at sensational stories more than they would recommend them or share them with others). The editors also don’t seem to get (I often see this not mentioned) that the email function is often used to send a story to oneself for later reference – not just to share with others.

I’d love to see a longer study which really looked at specific categories of news. Digg and Reddit both skew highly toward technology – makes sense, given their early adopter audiences – but when they are reporting news of, say, the war in Iraq, how different are the stories preferred on Digg to those on CNN, or MSNBC, or Fox News? But it can’t conflate “new stuff on the web” with “news.”