Tuned In

HLN, Social Media, and the “If It Trends, It Leads” Problem

The network is rebranding with a focus on following hot stories on social media. But maybe audiences want a news network to be more than a follower.

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First it was CNN Headline News, a.k.a. the network you watched on mute while doing the elliptical in the hotel gym. Then it rebranded as HLN, a.k.a. the network you watched to see Nancy Grace get mad at this sick, sad world. Now it’s keeping its name, but becoming the network you program by updating your Twitter and Instagram feed.

In its latest effort to boost its ratings, relevance, and youth-audience demographics, HLN announced yesterday that it would rebrand itself as “the first TV home for the social media generation.” Which means? According to the announcement:

Taking a cue from today’s connected and wildly social generation, HLN will curate the news from across all platforms. Headlines will be ripped from the most “plugged-in” sites and blogs, and HLN will make it its mission to share the trending news, viral events and stories that have viewers most obsessed, plus discover emerging social stars.

Leaving aside the glossary of social-guru buzzwords–curate! viral! trending!–there are some potentially good principles here: getting your audience involved, inviting viewers to contribute, listening to what people care about. In a lengthy interview with Buzzfeed’s Peter Lauria, new HLN head Albie Hecht said he was toying with the network tagline, “We’re not the news, you are.”

Which, OK, is probably a mantra journalists could stand to repeat to themselves now and again. But if you spend even a little time in the news business, you know that this kind of populism is never so popular among media executives as when it can be used to provide a noble reason to cater to whatever people are fixated on and make a ton of money. There’s already a fixation–not only online and not only at HLN–on chasing “trending, viral” stories–seeing what’s burning up the social-media charts and slapping up quick coverage to grab precious clicks and eyeballs in the minutes before the audience catches a new wave.

You see it in news websites and TV networks like HLN’s corporate sister CNN, which is why for one morning last month it covered the arrest of Justin Bieber like an attempted coup. (Disclosure: CNN and HLN are both owned by Time Warner, which also owns TIME until the upcoming spinoff of Time Inc. from the company.) You see it in the politics-news frenzy over every whipped-up nontroversy of faux outrage that consumes Facebook. You see it in the myriad “What celebrities are Tweeting about _____” stories. You see it in the flock of Flappy Bird stories–some in this very news outlet–that filled the media like a cloud of passenger pigeons for the approximately 30 minutes yesterday that America cared very, very deeply about Flappy Bird. If it trends, it leads.

And again: sometimes if it trends, it should lead. (Especially on a network like HLN, which has always been more about immediate headlines than longform, long-time-horizon news.) Sometimes journalists are so caught up in their own social, geographic, and professional bubbles that they don’t notice an important story or controversy until the bubbling voice of social media makes it unignorable. Sometimes journalists are too quick to dismiss pop culture news that carries bigger social implications. I write this, after all, as someone who analyzes pop culture for a living. I have written too many posts about Duck Dynasty to be snooty about that kind of thing.

The question is is whether you listen to social media to help you do the job of covering what matters, or if you simply use it as a rationalization to say that whatever social media is fixated on for that minute is, de facto, what matters. (Or to use Twitter, YouTube, &c, as sources of cheap content.) There’s also an audience in social media for news outlets that take a long view of what’s important, and people can tell when you’re just me-too-ing whatever the crowd seems to be fixated on in order to ingratiate yourself with them–That thing you like, I like it too! If there’s one thing that social media responds to, after all, it’s authenticity, the one thing you can’t get by just following trends.