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Did social media bring down the News of the World?

The media and PR community is this evening reeling from the news that News International is to cease publication of its most profitable newspaper The News of the World.

News of the World

The final edition, to be published this Sunday, will bring to an end a 168 year print run.  The staff – 200  journalists  and 500 people in total – are tonight facing an uncertain future, after a ‘tearful’ Rebekah Brooks broke the news. The editor, Colin Myler, described it as the saddest day in his life stating that the paper was on a high, having recently won 4 press awards and been nominated for a further 11. Its circulation dominates the UK’s Sunday newspaper market with an ABC of over 2.6 million and a readership of 6,500,000 – a whopping 12% of the UK population (data source Metrica / Gorkana UKPulse).

So what has gone wrong? As widely reported the paper’s phone tapping of private calls between at first what appeared to be restricted to royalty, celebrities and politicians has escalated to include hacking into the phones and intercepting the emails of bereaved soldiers families, murder victims and the families of the victims of the London terrorist bombings on 7/7.

There is a school of thought that the first group are fair game, but the violation of the privacy and grief of normal people embroiled in personal tragedy was too much for Britain to bear.  Coupled with allegations of bribing police officers and led by Npower, Ford and O2, the advertisers in the paper turned their back on it in disgust.  Social media went into overdrive and as Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition said it’s “clearly people power that has forced this decision… the revulsion people have felt… and the decisions advertisers have been making.”


Metrica Radar social media monitoring of News of the World closure reaction

Phrase cloud from Metrica Radar (radar.btsdev2.co.uk/gorkana/metrica) on the reaction to the closure of the News of the World

All PR professionals know that an organisation’s reputation is crucial to its success.  Reputations take years to build but can be lost in a flash – as today’s events have graphically shown.

The mainstream media has come under intense pressure from the disruptive technologies that the Internet has enabled. The explosive growth in on-line media, social media, sharing and aggregation services have led to audience fragmentation, a decline in readership and plummeting ad revenues for publishers.

In response to these threats, mainstream newspapers are competing fiercely for readership.  This pressure, especially for the red tops has led to more and more desperate means to be utilised to deliver the latest scoop.  And it isn’t just the tabloid press that has been accused of this – for example, Sarah Helm, the wife of Tony Blair’s chief of staff during the Iraq war claims: “We were used to seeing notes that we put in the dustbin appear on the front page of the Sunday Times.” (Coincidentally – or not – also a News International owned publication).

The problem we have here is that the fierce competition for maintaining readership, stoked by the rise of online and social media, has led to practices becoming apparently wide-spread that are not acceptable to the audiences that they are trying to maintain.

One key defence that mainstream and traditional media has always levied at the social media upstart is that it is the medium to be trusted, its stories well researched and its commentary and analysis authoritative.  You could trust traditional media in a way that is just not possible with user generated content. So when James Murdoch, the chairman of News International said that the paper had “breached the trust that the paper had with its readers”, the game was up.  The paper that specialised in investigating, uncovering outrages and ending careers had had its own terminated in similar circumstances.

It’s ironic that this expose of the News of the Word’s betrayal of trust – its key asset – has occurred in the month that the Guardian has announced that it’s to follow a ‘digital first‘ policy, is considering publishing less frequently but more in-depth content (think ‘Newsnight’, not ‘News at Ten’) and is also looking to open an office in New York to expand it’s on-line readership overseas and try to maintain a profitable business model. The Daily Mail and others are also looking to follow similar policies.

The News of the World’s shameful demise has happened just the day after the Huffington Post has begun operations in the UK. Has the betrayal of trust by the News of the World, and it is feared more of the mainstream media in the UK, hastened the tipping point towards the widespread adoption of social media as a more trusted source?  We welcome your views.

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Written by Richard Bagnall

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  • Anonymous

    To me this has little to do with old media vs new media – they are simply channels through which content is delivered. It is the ethics of the publisher of content, be it on or off line that is in question.

    Whilst I take your point about the increased competitive environment the print media operates in due to the growth of on-line and digital channels, I would not be too quick to codemn the ‘old media world’ – I’m sure such behaviour would (and probably already does) go on within certain quarters of the digital media world – would the NOWT honestly behave any differently if it was distributed in purely digital format; I suspect not. 

    This is an issue about how the media as a whole (and politicians and the police) behave and operate. Money, power and influence are beguiling to many and as a result can have a strangely corrupting effect in this regard. As these factors become increasingly present within the digital/on-line/social media world as it becomes more established and influential, it will be interesting to see how temptation and a need to break news first will influence the behaviour of those within it.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Adrian,

      Thanks for your comment.  The main point that I was looking to convey through the post was that pressure of maintaining readership which has been declining for a number of years through first the advertising led media recession and then the scaling of social media is increasing the pressure on journalists and potentially media organisations to lower their standards.  Yet it’s these standards that the MSM points too when it explains why it is a source that should be trusted more than social.  But you’re right – it’s not whether the News of the World is old media or digital that affected the way that it behaved.

      And I totally agree that the big issue here is about morals, power and corruption and that this embraces the police, politicians and the media.  As you say, it will be very interesting to watch this story unfold, and to see how the pressure of breaking a story first affects rational thinking and common decency in publications and journalists both on and off line going forward.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.


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