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LinkedIn and Substack to the Rescue of News?
Some good news, for a change, on bringing readers to quality journalism
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
We have been living recently through a steady drumbeat of bad news regarding how we are going to bring quality journalism to the attention of readers. This has been especially so with the decline of Twitter over the last four months and the lower salience of news for many readers after what FDR much earlier called the “constant repetition of the highest note on the scale” throughout the Trump term and particularly from the onset of the pandemic through January 6.
But in recent weeks it seems to me that a number of more promising trends have emerged. I want to talk about two (or maybe three) in this week’s newsletter.
LinkedIn Helps Plug the Twitter Gap
The first, perhaps prosaically, is that I and others have noticed the increasing importance of LinkedIn as a tool of discovery for news. A Reuters Institute survey last month rated it the leading substitute for Twitter. LinkedIn has been a significant source of readership for this newsletter for some time, but recently, as Twitter has faded, readership through LinkedIn has risen appreciably. To make sure it wasn’t just me, I checked in with friends who are some of the smartest observers of audience trends I know, and this column reflects their observations as well.
To be sure, there are important limits on substantive sorts of news for which LinkedIn will make the biggest difference. For instance, editions of Second Rough Draft dealing with the business of the press routinely draw larger readership than do those on the substance of coverage. Perhaps that’s because what I have to say is more interesting (or just more unusual) in the former area than the latter, but the difference in response is significantly more marked on LinkedIn.
Millie Tran of Conde Nast, one of the biggest young talents in the field, notes that LinkedIn is more powerful for her company as a driver of traffic to stories on business, science and technology than on fashion or style. More generally, because LinkedIn begins as a social network tied to people’s professional lives (and mines related data assiduously), news with the same ties will get the greatest boost there. As a secondary effect, this also means that the resulting audience is what marketers would call more highly qualified.
The deeply insightful Celeste LeCompte of Chicago Public Media (who used to work with me at ProPublica) points out that LinkedIn’s roots in recruiting have given it a natural edge in replacing Twitter. She says of LinkedIn that
much of the watercooler/recruiting function that Twitter played for journalists seems to have moved there… The knock-on effect of this is that LinkedIn now becomes a place to get information and ideas in front of journalists, which was always one of the powers of Twitter for reaching more people.
Not Just Another Substack Plug for Substack
The second source of good news for the distribution of journalism may be the platform on which you are reading this, Substack. This newsletter was born on this platform, and is now two years old. At the outset, Substack served as a nice (and niche) provider of blogging software. But in the last year, and especially since the launch of its app and other upgrades, it is becoming, from the perspective of content providers, more nearly a network. Substack itself, for instance, has become the leading source of new subscribers to Second Rough Draft, even though more traffic to individual columns still comes from each of Google, Twitter and LinkedIn.
As Celeste notes, the advantages of Substack will be available more to smaller players than to larger ones, who will, understandably, want to keep their own newsletter operations in-house, thereby reaping significant first-party data and integration with other systems. Any further growth of Substack might thus further tend to level the playing field between emerging publishers and declining legacy brands.
It will also likely to give rise to more work along the lines of veteran reporter Seymour Hersh’s purported scoop on Substack last week about what he asserts was a major covert US operation in Europe last Fall-- a story which was met with pretty definitive denials from US authorities. Before you dismiss the idea of a scoop as big as this one-- if true-- breaking on Substack, recall that Hersh himself broke the story of the My Lai massacre through the long-forgotten (and admittedly short-lived) Dispatch News Service in late 1969, 20 months after the massacre itself.
What About the New Search Wars?
I said I wanted to talk about two or three developments. The third, the significance of which is far more speculative, is what impact will be felt from the sudden increase in competition in the search business, as Microsoft’s seeming head start in AI perhaps poses the first serious threat to Google since the first decade of the century.
I wrote a piece about search for NiemanLab a dozen years ago which I think holds up pretty well. It recalled a session I attended in the early days of Google when Larry Page (I think) told a fawning questioner, “I’m glad you think Google is great, but I think it sucks.”
He said this because Google, while already dominant in its arena, was not that good at finding users the answers to the questions they were posing. (The “I’m feeling lucky” button emphasizes this problem, and wasn’t used much even before being downgraded three years ago.)
With the AI upgrades, search will get much better. When it does, the game of SEO will be dealt a further blow. As I noted back in the NiemanLab piece, remember, it’s called “search engine optimization,” not “search optimization.” The winners, I continue to think, in any game in which SEO is a loser will be content of higher quality and thus higher value. There will, to be sure, be twists and turns in this saga, many of them starting this year. But better search should, I hope, be good for better journalism.
It’s about time we had that sort of good news.
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