The News Cycle Heartbeat

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The Monday Note covers the intersection between media and technology and the shift of business models. It is jointly edited by Frédéric Filloux, a Paris-based journalist and Jean-Louis Gassée, a Silicon Valley veteran currently general partner for the venture capital firm Allegis Capital in Palo Alto. Their column appears on CBS each Monday.

How do mainstream media and blogs interact? How do they feed each other? Everyone in the news media would love to get a better view of the mating dance.

A few weeks ago, scientists at the Cornell University unveiled a thorough analysis of the relationship between the two universes. Borrowing from genomics techniques, they dug into a huge corpus of politically-related sentences and tracked their bounces between mainstream media (MSM) and the blogosphere. Here was their data set:

• About 90 million documents (blog posts and news sites articles) collected between August 1 and October 31, 2008, i.e. at the height of the last US Presidential race.

• 1.65 million blogs scanned.

• 20,000 media sites reviewed, marked as mainstream because they are part of
Google News.

• From this dataset, researchers extracted 112 million quotes leading to 47 million phrases, out of which 22 million were deemed "distinct." These phrases were important enough to be considered as news.

• The phrases where political statements or sound bytes pertaining to the political race and uttered by the two candidates, their running mates or their staff.

• Processing these 390GB of data took about nine hours of computer time (using a complex set of algorithms, involving "markers," as in genetics).

The findings, in a nutshell:

1. Mainstream media lead the news cycle. They are the first to report a quote, the story behind it, the context, etc.

2. The 20,000 MSM sites generate 30% of the documents in the entire dataset and 44% of the documents that contained frequent phrases.

3. It takes about 2.5 hours for a phrase to reverberate through the blogosphere.

4. The phrases that propagate in the opposite way (from blogs to MSM) amounts to a mere 3.5%.

5. A news piece decays faster on the MSM than on the blogosphere.

For those who want the complete analysis, the full report is available here.
As expected, this research triggered controversy. The most detailed argument came from the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.

The Lab points to flaws in the Cornell study: "GoogleNews indexes loads and loads of political blogs, from conservative Hot Air to liberal Talking Points Memo. It includes Daily Kos, Power Line, AMERICAblog, and the celebrity news site Just Jared." In other words, GoogleNews indiscriminately mixes MSM and blog material; this promiscuity weakens the Cornell demonstration somewhat.

One could also argue the MSM have good, powerful blogs (The NY Times, Washington Post, Wall street Journal, Guardian, Financial Times). The line is increasingly blurred between traditional journalism and blogging. (The reader benefits for this overlap as buttoned-down reporters tend to embrace the blog culture and some bloggers become increasingly professional.)

Nevertheless, the Cornell study remains, so far, the only research of this magnitude. Reflecting on the Cornell study, let's consider the following:
First, MSM sites leading the news cycle by a couple of hours doesn't come as a surprise. The reason lies in the news gathering capabilities of big media, especially during a political race where news organizations have to be in many places at the same time. For a simple matter of journalistic firepower, the vast majority of bloggers won't be able to catch up.

Second, the study doesn't take into account the Twitter amplification factor. Granted, it really took off in the last six months or so, after the Cornell study concluded. This amplification factor is a game changer: from now on, news is most likely to break first on Twitter. Corollary: as it shows up on Twitter, the snippet of news will have further chances to be first captured by the blogosphere, bypassing the transit through the MSM (see a previous Monday Note on how MSM strain to recapture the breaking news).

Third, the short lag time - 2.5 hrs is nothing - between MSM and blogs is counterbalanced by the duration of the news cycle throughout the blogosphere. Practically, if a piece of news doesn't "win" the blogosphere - and the brand new twittersphere - it quickly falls into oblivion. The growing pre-eminence of the "blogotwit" system also raises an interesting public relation challenge. As this remarkable story in the New York Times puts it: spinning a story is way more effective through this new channel, the blogotwit, than through the old MSM.

From a pure PR perspective, it is now better to have a technology reporter mention a company on a Twitter feed rather than in a newspaper or magazine article. In the Twitter case, the reporter has thousands of followers - quite "qualified" ones in marketing parlance since they connected by choice, deliberately. In the other MSM case, the news will be buried in a print publication with an unknown number of readers of varying quality.

Fourth, the news cycle's audience structure will be influenced by the generation factor. For evidence, see last week's amazing story of the Morgan Stanley intern Matthew Robson.

A few weeks ago, the London branch of Morgan Stanley hired a 15 year-old summer intern. Someone in the investment bank decided to ask him to summarize his - and his friends' - media consumption. For the media practice of Morgan Stanley, the result were so stunning that they decided to circulate the report (full text here). Morgan Stanley's epiphany triggered torrents of comments (even though the report is not so surprising for anyone with teenagers at home).
If there is anything chilling in this spontaneous one-person survey, it is the obsession for FREE stuff. It dominates the entire media galaxy:

• News: newspapers are dead, except free ones. Teenagers are not as fond of Twitter as they are of Facebook, for instance. (Yep, Twitter sounds like young parents' stuff).

• TV/radio: they don't bother much watching regular TV: the BBC iPlayer, streaming Internet radio allows them to listen and view what they want when they want (problem is: almost no one is currently making a dime from asynchronous media consumption).

• Cinema/movies: as the ticket price rises when they reach 15, they switch to pirated DVD.

• Music remains the great casualty of the digital era. The cheapest legal offering is still too expensive for them. 8 out of 10 acknowledge relying systematically on illegal, P2P, download. Songs are eventually traded over a phone equipped with a Bluetooth connection.

• Communication/phone: forget about the mobile monthly plan. They prefer the pay-as-you-go system, mostly for text-messaging. Live chats are managed differently: an Internet-connected game console, a PC of course, or even a cell phone connected to a free Wi-Fi base station. Don't expect them to surf the web on their mobile device: it's too expensive (wait and do it at home). And the most sought-after features of a phone are its music capacity, its price and battery life (phones are kept for roughly two years before upgrading). As for directories, no paid-for "118″, Google does the job.

Well. You got it: these kids are the future of our average revenue per user, folks. Cheer up.

By Jean-Louis Gassée and Frederic Filloux
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