Our Individual News Stream: It’s always been personalized, it’s always been social, and it continues to depend on the quality of the news

I was born into a house full of newspaper readers–not just my parents, but each of my three sisters and my brother; all of us read the newspaper.  (In fact, for much of my youth, we were a two-paper household, subscribing to both the now-defunct San Diego Union as well as the Los Angeles Times.)

As a kid, I loved that the newspaper offered something for everyone: comics for my brother and me, sports for my sister Dina, national, international, and local news for my parents.  Every day there were new things to read about, and we could read as much as we liked of whatever was interesting to us.

I mention all this because it’s what went through my mind yesterday as I read Mashable’s post titled, “How News Consumption is Shifting to the Personalized Social News Stream.” In the post, Mashable’s Vadim Lavrusik discusses how various news organizations are finding ways to get personalized content to audiences who increasingly turn to friends, family, and others in their social circle for news and information.

Such a phenomenon may be a little fear-inspiring: If we are demanding personalized, customized content, is that demand evidence of the fact that we are becoming ever more seduced by an echo chamber that only makes us more myopic, rather than more informed?

The answer to that question, I think, is: no–because as news consumers, we have always found a way to “personalize” our news consumption, in the manner that I mention at the beginning of this post–by selecting various parts of the paper to read, or which parts of the television newscast we most want to watch.  So while my sister Dina might have grabbed the sports page as soon as the paper arrived, I was busy reading the comics and my dad was making his way through the A section.

This human practice of taking the paper apart and divvying it up amongst ourselves is what led media analysts Neil Postman and Steve Powers to note that, “No one reads the same newspaper,” because the content we choose–and the order in which we choose to read the content we’ve selected–is different for every person.  The same holds true today–it’s just that the selection of what is available to me is wider–I can turn to KQED and SF Public Press for in-depth, investigative reporting, SF Appeal and a variety of local blogs for Bay Area news, then read Farhad Manjoo‘s column in Slate for information about innovations in technology, and then check out the food section of the L. A. Times for great recipes.  In other words, I may not get all of my information from only one source.  And of course,  the way in which I share this information with others has also changed.  We may have all had our different favorite sections of the paper, but when my mom read a story she thought we all needed to read, she would cut it out and put it on the refrigerator to ensure that we saw it (incidentally, she still does this).  Now most of us do the virtual equivalent of that same practice, sharing “must-reads” through email, through Facebook, through Twitter and StumbleUpon.

But as much as my friends and family (and the folks I follow on Twitter) are “sources” to whom I turn for information, what matters the most is the quality of the information they are sharing.  Many news outlets are still squeamish about using social media to distribute their reporting and engage with their audience, even as they recognize the necessity and the usefulness of doing so.  But they shouldn’t be squeamish.  KQED, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, SF Public Press and scores of other news outlets are doing phenomenal reporting in the public interest that deserves to be heard, read, and seen by a wide audience.  So while our method of distribution may change (I may not subscribe to one paper, but I may read articles from several different media outlets shared on Facebook), the content still matters, and great content will get shared–and read–widely.

My point, then, is that people are as hungry as ever for great reporting, and they love sharing what they read, see, and hear with others.  And what is exciting about living in this age is that there are so many ways that we can easily share this great reporting.  I didn’t used to read Slate, but as my friend Jackie (who reads it every day) started sharing more and more stories from the site, I started reading it, too.  And I’ve kept reading it because the quality is good.  By the same token, I am friends with some of my former students through Facebook, and they have become fans of KQED and NPR because they have found that they are frequently interested in the stories I have shared from those sources.

In his post, Lavrusik paraphrases Jay Rosen, making the point that “prior to the evolution of the web to its current social state, people who you know couldn’t be news sources the same way that big media companies could. But now in a sense they are able to.”  But I’m not sure I would consider myself–or any of my friends–a “source” for news; instead I think we are more of a delivery service for one another.  Yes, I’m more likely to read something that a friend shares with me, but what makes me read a story is not simply who among my friends “shared” it, but rather what the content appears to be, and who the actual source of the information is; there are some media outlets that I find absolutely dreadful, so when someone I know shares a story from one of those outlets, I rarely click the link.

So, yes, our social interaction today includes (as it always has) the sharing of news and information, but that sharing is entirely dependent on having stories to pass along in the first place.  As news organizations reconfigure both their newsrooms and the methods by which they deliver their content, what has not changed–and what will not change–is the desire people have for quality news they can trust.  My friends can tell me about a great story that I should read, but they don’t have the training or the resources to create those stories in the first place; we need journalists and news outlets to do the work of reporting and give us the information we need.  And when they do, we are excited to share that information with the people we know.  Outlets that have a strong presence on sites like Facebook and Twitter make that sharing easier, but what determines their success in the long-run is, as always, the quality of what they produce.

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