The Financial Times noted* yesterday that news stories that are popular with Web users have little commonality with the stories deemed important by professional news organisations.
The FT was reporting the results of a week-long study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), which compared top headlines from the mainstream media with the highest rated stories voted by users on three leading 'citizen journalism' sites: Digg, Reddit and del.icio.us. These sites have no editors; instead, Web users submit stories they find interesting and other users vote on them.
The PEJ study found that the major mainstream news topic in the week of 24-29 June was the immigration debate taking place in the US Congress. By contrast, the most popular topic on the user-driven sites was the launch of the Apple iPhone.
Such a study inevitably has major flaws. People who use Digg, for example, tend to be the kind of technology geeks for whom the launch of the iPhone was indeed a major world event. But just because the iPhone was popular on Digg doesn't mean that everyone in the wider world cared about it. Indeed it's interesting to note that the iPhone launch rated significantly less highly on Reddit and on del.icio.us, suggesting that the user bases for these two sites are less technology-focused than Digg's.
The study, and the FT's coverage of it, also fails to make the crucial distinction between 'interesting' and 'important'. People use Digg, Reddit and del.icio.us to share stories they find interesting. But because the sites have no editors, there's no onus on anyone to decide how important any of the stories are. Britney's sparkly pants are interesting, in their own special way, but outside the realms of pop culture academia, you'd be hard pressed to make a convincing case for their importance.
The 'wisdom of crowds' is useful for the mainstream media, but only up to a point. Thanks to the web, news media organisations now know which of their stories are the most read and the most talked about. News sites, including the BBC, now display that information on each page, no doubt creating an artificial positive feedback loop whereby the popular stories become even more popular.
But media organisations shouldn't dwell too much on this kind of data. Their role is to distinguish the important from the merely interesting, and to make sure that we, the news readers, recognise that distinction too. News media must be careful not to make the interesting seem important, as is the case with the user-generated sites, but to make the important interesting enough to make people want to read it.
UPDATE: For more views on this story, read Roy Greenslade at the Guardian, and Graham Hayday at Digital Pebbles.
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