The impending death of traditional media invokes plenty of questions – and angst. Alexis Beckett tells us why four online gurus in Vancouver say it’s time to instead shift the focus to social media’s immense opportunities, new ideas, and plain coolness.

The impending death of traditional media invokes plenty of questions – and angst. Alexis Beckett tells us why four online gurus in Vancouver say it’s time to instead shift the focus to social media’s immense opportunities, new ideas, and plain coolness.

Even the most stalwart digital believers can’t predict the death of traditional media with spot-on accuracy. But is it looming? Well, yes, of course.

“The media you grew up with is the media you use,” says Alfred Hermida, an associate journalism professor at the University of British Columbia and founding editor of the BBC news website. As more and more people come of age in a world that turns to social media and online news for its information, traditional media – i.e., print – will first cease to be relevant, then cease to exist.

Certainly, the idea that print will kick the bucket invokes plenty of questions – and angst. What will the new media world look like? How will we get there? What will this mean for journalism?

All those and more were at the heart of last week’s “How Social Media are Changing Journalism” panel. In addition to Hermida, New York Times social media editor Liz Heron, OpenFile Vancouver founding editor Karen Pinchin, and CBC digital programming director Steve Pratt all took the stage in Vancouver to discuss the industry’s evolving future – and the many opportunities that come with it. After all, for these digital media gurus the interesting part isn’t the certainty (or not) that traditional media will die, but all the new ideas, information and insight that come with the online boom.

“We’ve always shared the news,” says Hermida. Sharing news through Facebook is just an instant version of sending a news clipping. His research shows 17 million Canadians are on Facebook. There, they can share the news information that is important to them. They’re also using their friends to curate their news, trusting each other in the role of news editor.

Bucking the presupposed trend, Hermida points out that it’s not just young people using social media to curate news, but also largely retirees.

Before Facebook and other social media, adds Pratt, you had to find the news: “Now the news finds you.” Social media allows news to be more efficient and tailored to the reader, so you don’t have to do all the work yourself, hunting for what matters to you. The experience of sharing and consuming news through social media fosters community, says Hermida. “Social media is about connecting,” he adds, “not broadcasting.”

Heron agrees. While the Grey Lady uses social media to find out what the news of the day is and what reaction it’s getting, staff also asks one, important question: How can we add to the conversation? For Heron, it’s all about using social media in creative ways that go beyond distribution and news gathering.

Take one recent project the Times used to revolutionize audience involvement in news production. An interactive map created for the 9/11 anniversary asked readers the classic question, “Where were you?” It then allowed them the option to share their comments on the site via social media using preloaded hash tags and messages saying “I just shared on The New York Times,” inviting their friends to tell their own stories.


Coming Out was a similar project allowing young people who identifying as LGTBQ to share their stories. The Times used hash tags already being used by the community to connect on Twitter, ensuring the message reached the intended audience through their own channels.

Social media doesn’t always have to be the second avenue, either. At OpenFile, says Pinchin, the social media discussion usually starts when citizens make story or news item suggestions based on what’s important to them. “Even the biggest news starts somewhere,” she says, “And it [often] starts locally.” Suggested topics can lead to wild social media discussion even before they’re assigned and reported on by professional journalists. “You get the best of both worlds,” adds Pinchin.

In other words, adds Pratt, what was once a one-way broadcast of information has become a two-way dialogue. For Pratt, it’s important that dialogue happens between users, completely independent of the CBC. Radio 3, for example, is always on the lookout for new ways to get the public involved in public broadcasting. Canadian artists are promoted using profiles the artists build themselves. Those profiles create the library of songs. The experience is interactive, with users curating and sharing playlists compiled from the database, and metrics feeding back into what gets played in broadcast.

Radio three compiles the material and users can listen when and how they want. They also have live hosts who use social media to engage with audiences and provide feedback on air. Users can talk to the CBC and hear the answers. “For us,” says Pratt, “it’s been really powerful in building community.”

But in a market flooded with contributors, is everybody a journalist?

Hermida got the panel jumping when he used the term “act of journalism”: “When someone commits an act of journalism it doesn’t mean they’re a journalist.”

Pinchin cringed at the term. She believes the industry should focus on media literacy to inform consumers of the difference between journalism and something that might be ethically compromised. After all, she warned, ethical compromise isn’t a domain exclusive to bloggers. While Heron didn’t cringe, she also disagreed with Hermida, saying, “We’re all journalists.”

So while Pratt speculates on how quickly print will be dropped once a viable business model is created for online-only media, nobody is predicting the death of journalism itself.  “As long as you’re creating quality product,” says Pinchin, “there will always be a need.”

Alexis Beckett is a first year student at the UBC School of Journalism. Her work has appeared on the school’s award-winning website You can read more from Alexis on her blog Girl on the Wing at Alexis write stories about the ways social media and technology intersect with politics and journalism and tweets under the handle @whenshesaid.She is also involved in the School’s pioneering course on reporting in indigenous communities.