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Editor's Note: Following RJI’s first event in collaboration with The Associated Press on Feb. 25 during Social Media Week in New York City, we asked a group of media scholars to comment on the question: Are news organizations setting the agenda or chasing it on social media?

With more news published online, consumer behavior has radically changed. People switch more frequently from one source to the other, search engines allow reaching particular news articles extremely quickly, and powerful social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat incite consumers to share stories — making some content much more popular than others. At the same time, it has never been easier to start a “news business,” spurring unprecedented competition among content providers.

As a result of these two factors, competitive dynamics have qualitatively changed between news outlets: everyone is now battling in the same space.

Roughly speaking, in the past the news market was dominated by a limited number of providers and there were a limited number of differentiated substitutes. Today, one could argue that playing a game on your mobile device or watching a movie on Netflix represents an alternative to what news consumers do with their time.

In contrast, we argue that today competition increasingly looks like a nonstop contest between content creators: each publisher “bets” on a few news stories hoping that they will become popular by the various dynamics of search and social.

News articles that make it to the company's top list get special attention in the hope they become the “go-to-place” for the particular stories reported. If a publisher has a unique piece of content and that asset goes viral the site will immediately become an attractive destination for readers. In that scenario, that company has won the “bet”!

We found that increased competition in a “contest” pushes publishers to give higher importance to more marginal stories. Similarly, the higher the competition for clicks, the more news providers end up choosing less mainstream news on their front page.

Such dynamics are not entirely foreign to traditional news outlets: choosing the front page story of the newspaper or the main news item in the evening news has always been an important decision for news providers, yet this was not the main driver of competition. In contrast, today, how much traffic the main news story gets in terms of clicks is far more important for the success of the publisher than before.

My recent research with colleagues from Columbia Business School and Haas School of Business at Berkeley University analyzes the consequences of this change, especially in terms of the diversity of news that the public eventually sees.

We found that increased competition in a “contest” pushes publishers to give higher importance to more marginal stories. Similarly, the higher the competition for clicks, the more news providers end up choosing less mainstream news on their front page. In other words, media companies are now looking for ways to find content that no one else has. One of the ways of sourcing less-mainstream-news is to source from social media.

From the perspective of readers and viewers this results in a broader agenda of news topics (in fact, sometimes leading to so much diversity that it is hard to speak of an agenda at all).

We also explored how this effect-behavior affected content providers' capability to forecast the popularity of news. This is relevant because many emerging media companies in this space — including BuzzFeed and Vox — have become successful because of the advanced forecasting algorithms they have developed. They are able to predict what will become viral and that gives them an edge against all the other providers.

We found that less capable forecasters end-up choosing topics conservatively. We also evaluated the effect of a strong brand on competition. Here again, we find that established news providers tend to be more conservative. These theoretical findings are consistent with anecdotal evidence in today's news market.

Overall, rather than setting the agenda, news outlets seem increasingly chasing the agenda set by consumer dynamics out of their control.

Miklos Sarvary  
 
Guest blogger



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