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Journalists are no longer just in the information business, university professor says

In the age of social media, journalists are no longer only in the information business, they’re also in the attention business, says Professor Alfred Hermida.

Prof Hermida said that people today often go directly to articles they find in social media, and the homepages of news websites are less frequently visited. Smartphone users now use their phones to access 66 per cent of the news they consume.

Computer algorithms have effectively become editors, and a new role for journalists is helping people navigate the media to decide where they should focus their attention.

‘Journalists now help their audience to spend their most precious commodity: attention,’ he said. ‘Information is no longer the most precious commodity―information is cheap.’

_D3_4115Prof Hermida, a former BBC journalist and one of the founding editors of the BBC website, presented a public seminar at the JMSC on 17 March titled ‘Telling stories together: The risks and opportunities for journalism in the age of social media.’

He said there has been a shift in public attitudes toward news, and consumers now expect that the news will find them. This, he said, has implications for the role of journalists.

‘The problem isn’t having a voice, it’s standing out against the background,’ Prof Hermida said.

He said that during his time at the BBC, the organisation realised that while it was good at reporting for ‘news junkies’, 80 per cent of the stories on its website weren’t very well read. ‘In the attention business, consumers don’t have time to read the whole newspaper. Instead, they fill spaces in time by checking news on their mobiles.’

In Africa, the BBC found that half of its local language news service audience was using mobile phones.

It responded by doubling the number of stories it posted per day, but also making them more visually attractive by accompanying each with a picture.

‘Mobile leads to shorter stories and lots of little choices, as people seek to take advantage of time over space,’ Prof Hermida said.

_D3_4119Facebook is ‘the dominant player in news on social media’ and ‘news has become an expected part of the Facebook experience,’ he said. ‘Facebook needs journalists, but the problem is that journalists need Facebook more.’

Professor Hermida worked at the BBC for 16 years. He is now Director and Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of British Columbia.

Click here for more photos from the seminar.