#NBCFail, the Olympics and social media vs. big media

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For years now, users have been determining what news is and how it is published, largely through Web and social media channels. It’s no longer the sole province of large print and TV publishers.The conversation sparked by the #NBCFail hashtag and the temporary suspension of reporter Guy Adams from Twitter has made this more obvious than ever but also showed just how much control big news organizations that A) partner with or B) own the platforms have over the platforms with the biggest reach.

Many people will bootleg news content (like providing an overseas livestream of the Olympics opening ceremonies) not because they want to hijack a revenue stream for themselves but just because they don’t like the idea of a closed system. With a platform like Twitter, it’s easier than ever to find raw feeds which satisfy those whose desire for news of an event outweighs the number of easily-available news sources. (I didn’t have to seek out a livestream of the opening ceremonies; I saw a link for it on Twitter from people I already follow.)

Barriers or inconveniences to the consumption of news (like having to download special equipment, make changes to obscure computer settings or watch a poor quality, buffering livestream) will start to seem like less of an issue to consumers as the real-time value of a news event increases. For me, the value of watching the opening ceremonies live seemed greater because people I followed on Twitter were discussing it. Unfortunately for publishers, the real-time news value is different for each person so it’s tough to know what publishing streams are monetizable and which ones aren’t without either experimentation or waiting to see how users themselves innovate.

As for the Guy Adams temporary Twitter account shutdown, Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic has a good summary.

NBC may not have known this tweet existed were it not for someone at Twitter who notified NBC of both the tweet and a remedy. Whether the information is public or private is debatable but NBC’s proximity to power, due to its (non-monetary) Twitter partnership, allowed it to get the account suspended without a thorough consideration of this point. Twitter acknowledged it should not have done this, but with the service already looking for more ways to monetize its product for publishers it’s clear they’re interested in hyper-serving this particular user base.

Let’s say an upstart publisher decides to start covering the heck out of the Olympics. Maybe it’s a traditional television channel, maybe it’s Web-only. Perhaps they find a way to provide a broadcast-quality stream of the BBC through fair use. Or they find a way to leverage content from athletes’ personal social media accounts to provide unique value. What’s to stop NBC – which is owned by Comcast – from shutting down that publisher on its Web and cable television systems? Nothing. Or what if NBC develops a “strategic partnership” with iTunes and asks Apple to remove another news publisher’s app because it feels that app infringes on its exclusivity agreement with the Olympics?

As with most issues surrounding social media and news distribution, the best practices in these scenarios are still being sorted out.

Scott Smith is the Director of Digital Strategy and Development for Chicago magazine. He’s also written and edited for a variety of publications including Time Out Chicago, Chicagoist and Playboy.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ourmaninchicago.

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