Echo chambers

Industry observers like MediaFinder and Samir Husni have made a regular practice of counting magazine births, deaths and transmogrifications, something they do each year before weighing in on the relative health of periodical publishing.

Admittedly, I’m a skeptic.  In 2009 I wrote that the measures they use ignore changes in frequency and circulation, making them far too crude a barometer. Earlier this year, I returned to the topic, lamenting the reflexive coverage of a MediaFinder update.

Well, it’s close enough to the end of 2012 that MediaFinder can publish its year-end tally (here’s hoping there aren’t any surprises in the next three weeks). In response, Matthew Flamm reports “Magazines ramp up publishing in 2012”, recently published by Crain’s New York Business.

Flamm does good work covering magazine and book publishing, and he’s not the only one reporting this story. What worries me – what I think should worry all of us – is a media whose practices amplify the likelihood that historically weak stories get outsized coverage.

That’s what came to mind when I read a story on Poynter.org about a change to Storify’s design, which now “features specific social media elements — photos, tweets, videos and articles — that have the most resonance”. Storify is already a tool that many people, including journalists, use to find out what’s going on in the world.

Of course, sometimes what’s going isn’t what’s really important. In her Poynter story, Mallory Jean Tenore concludes:

“Part of the fun of using Storify is the serendipity of it — searching for hashtags, for instance, and finding interesting tweets to drag into your storyline. One of the potential downfalls of the new redesign is that users could all start to include the same elements in their Storifies, making them lack originality. The challenge for journalists will be to add context and elevate a variety of voices, even if they’re not the most popular voices out there.”

I don't blame Storify for the change. I might not ultimately like what Storify has done with its algorithm, but I am not forced to use it.

The last few years have seen more than enough criticism of the tools we use to gather and assess information. Echo chambers are not a new problem, but we have to make a decision to step out of them if we’re going to hear what we need to hear.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.