Old Media Still Powerful: Blogs Follow News Outlets 2.5 Hours Later

A new study by Cornell researchers shows that traditional (old-media) news outlets lead the blogosphere by 2.5 hours when it comes to breaking news. It's a sign that the old guard should chill out about blogs and how they're destroying the news world.


The Cornell research took an innovative new approach to studying the news cycle. Instead of examining a few case-study pieces of news and extrapolating the behavior of the different media outlets from these limited cases, it used a powerful algorithmic search. 1.6 million mainstream media and blog Web sites were analyzed in real-time, and to see how news propagated through them all specific phrases were sampled from each site and compared to see how they appeared elsewhere—kind of a text-based fingerprint.

By comparing where these fingerprint phrases, or memes, first surfaced, and then watching for them to pop up elsewhere online, the Cornell team has uncovered how news propagates online. To see how this works, check out Barack Obama's "lipstick on a pig" sound bite's rise to newsworthiness in the graph above—it was the most prominent fingerprint phrase, or meme, found during the study. The main result is that it's still the traditional news portals who tend to break the news. Blogs followed up the stories an average of 2.5 hours later.

That's actually no surprise—blogs don't have hundreds of journalists embedded in hotspots around the globe, and don't get special invites to government press interviews. That's just the professional blogs—the millions of amateur blogs tend to be run by a single person, and they often follow the major ones in a kind of "me too!" information propagation wave.

And this is where the study gets interesting, as I suspect that these hoards of secondary blogs are diluting the average speed of the blogosphere's response to news. Big blogs, with professional bloggers who keep their fingers on the pulse of news tend to react pretty swiftly in my experience...but you don't have to trust my word—you can simply keep Googling to see how this particular piece of info spreads across the net. The study is also one in the eye for old-guard media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, who keep complaining about the blog's erosion of the old media's powerbase and how it'll have to react by charging for online content. It's a chant that's recently been taken up by European news publishers, who are making noises about laws against news aggregator sites which are supposedly stealing their business. This study instead suggests that tough news is now often broken online rather than in print or on TV, it's still in the hands of the same people. And the two-hour delay between the source and the following blogs is actually a lifetime in a news room.

But there's another interesting statistic revealed by the study: In 3.5% of the cases news broke on blogs first, before later being picked up by the news sites. Thanks to innovations like Twitter, and an increasingly professional blogosphere, it's this stat that CNN, the BBC and their ilk need to keep an eye on. As time passes it's only going to rise.

[Memetracker via The New York Times]

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  • Kit Eaton

    @All. Not sure the Neiman piece is a rebuttal as such--I'd expect to see a proper rebuttal published in the form of a peer-reviewed paper in a journal, drawing its own conclusions and leading the discussion onwards and upwards. Until then it's just an informed opinion that questions the original study. The Cornell group were confident enough with their methodology to publish the results at a conference.

  • Manjit Syven Birk

    Flawed methodology assumes that the news cycle is a science. It is not, it is a deeply flawed construct that is based more on mythologies than science, more on opinion than fact. My first response to this graph led merely reminds me to focus on the quality of MY OWN news consumption. This graph is a consumable, it is a disposable construct that has a given shelf-life and in that respect NY Times column inches are as disposable as the ever flowing cycle of blogs. It is obvious that the Neiman Journalism Lab does a terrific job of enabling statistical verification and integrity and who cannot welcome such precision and quality analysis, but Clayton Christensen has also shown that sometimes when we focus merely on the quality aspect we invite the innovators dilemma. The key issue for the news cycle is more on the lines of this disruptive innovation. I wish we could reserve exact and accurate science into areas such as nutrition rather than the news cycle. Take Micheal Pollan for example http://www.michaelpollan.com/ - first we see he is a contributing writer to the New York Times, so pointing out this statistical anomaly won't stop the NY Times from being a collector point for an always emerging braintrust, but more importantly Pollan is focused on what goes into the body, which in turn affects one aspect of mental fitness. Zachary Seward at Neiman quotes a Cornell professor Jon Kleinburg who says "“This shows how important it is to look at blogs and news media as one single organism.” I think its even more imperative to look at the news media and media consumption as one single organism but in quoting a Cornell professor it also reminds me that we continue live in a very small world, and the only people who are capable of expanding that world is our given selves - but I do appreciate Noah's link, because it led me down a new pathway of thinking - and new pathways of thinking best sums up the word "New Media" to me, it is an emergent journey that should cross multiple discipline boundaries not merely a scientific one or even interesting conversation. . . M.

  • Ilya Grigorik

    As Noah pointed out, Nieman's rebuttal points out a few flaws.

    However, I would also point out that the connection between spread of phrases and breaking news is a rather weak one. Essentially, what they proved is that when 'mainstream media' writes about a concept, a wave of discussion follows in the blogosphere - is that surprising? After all, that is why they are the mainstream media! Due to the distribution and the size of the soapbox they are guaranteed to stir up the conversation no matter what they write about. The connection to breaking news in this context is weak one to say the least.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Jason Nope--they're not saying that at all, because they don't reference microblogs. The study was begun before Twitter and its kind really took off. Keep your eyes peeled for ongoing research though.

  • Manjit Syven Birk

    The problem here isn't old media, it is media viewed in an old way. Alicia Miller of PRI provides a different view of this here: http://www.ted.com/talks/alisa... I cannot fail to see here all the lipstick marks on this bigger piggie diagram, for it makes little or no sense to how I personally view the world, and I did not do much myself to contribute much to all these many spikes, so the credit for them is not mine. I prefer Alisa Miller's perspective of news in the US is consumed and when I draw a continuum between that and the famous "The Vast Wasteland" speech of Newton Minnow found here http://www.americanrhetoric.co..., then I can see this Cornell diagram speak to me with a far different message. If it is about the scales of justice and where the legal balls have been placed on the scale, then the answer is simple, we can look at this below the line of the continuum I have drawn and everything under that line is what I would refer to as "Old Media" thinking. "New Media" thinking sits above this continuum and it is far and few between - the Cornell Diagram above sits firmly below the line because it represents what thinking people have consumed, not how people think differently because so called "New Media" exists. The distinction should be "Above the Line Thinking" and "Below the Line Thinking". Whenever the scales tip, we are descending below the line no matter who we think is on the "winning side" of the traditional arguments. "New Media" simply means to me that I am the one who is responsible for my own thinking. "Old Media" is below the line and there exists groupthink, pluralistic ignorance, traditional conflicts and thought leaders stuck on pedestals, who publish or perish depending on how they lead me to think, and so "Old Media" for me isn't what people say it is, it is anything below the line of the continuum I have drawn, it is the deepening depth of the new vast wasteland . . . M.

  • Jason Kintzler

    This says nothing about microblogs. Are they saying Twitter isn't beating mainstream media to the punch when it comes to early distribution?