Don't Try to Fight the Web

CNN president Jon Klein said yesterday that the competition he fears the most comes from social media sites rather than rival cable news channels: "I'm more worried about the 500 million or so people on Facebook versus the 2 million on Fox." Yet another sign that traditional news organizations don't quite know how to handle the social media universe.

Klein said that CNN wants "to be the most trusted source," but that "on Facebook, people are depending on their friends as news sources." As Robert Eisenhart argues over at, Klein has reason to consider Facebook a major media player: "Politically polarized news outlets, like Fox News, have led the public to view all media outlets as politicized. While Facebook is not a traditional source of news, the ability for users to share articles with their friends makes the social networking site a trusted source for information."

But what Klein and CNN don't seem to fully accept is that social networking sites don't have to be rivals. The major media outlets are no longer fighting among themselves, they're now fighting a new medium; the telling aspect of the situation is that they're still fighting. But Klein and company would be heartened to find out that Facebook, broadcast sites than to newspaper sites. CNN therefore stands to gain from Facebook's media aggregating powers, and should come up with ways to harness it more effectively.

This spirit of cooperation was somewhat on display in YouTube's partnership with Al Jazeera English to cover this past weekend's elections in Iraq. While YouTube is not, strictly defined, a social networking site, it is a centralized location where a communities of registered users share videos and comments with each other. The partnership enabled users to upload videos directly to both Al Jazeera English and YouTube, with the possibility of getting their video on air. Both partners benefited and, more importantly, the collaboration played into the different benefits of two disparate forms of news gathering and dissemination in a way that was substantive and actually enhanced the quality of the information available to users and viewers. It wasn't just a new media gimmick tacked on to make an old media company seem more up to date.

The problem remains, however, that striking that balance is no easy task. Finding flaws with traditional media's efforts in new media is easy, figuring out what they should be doing is a little trickier. Just this past Tuesday, Google's chief economist argued that the key to newspapers' continued survival online lies in "engaging" more readers, not charging them for the general news content that readers can get anywhere else. Google's position is that newspapers need to focus on hooking readers during their leisure hours, when they are more inclined to spend more time on sites. Easier said than done, but part of "engaging" readers will surely involve lots and lots of cross-platform collaboration, partnerships that utilize the strengths of different mediums.

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