PEJ Social News Report Demonstrates Only That Digg and Reddit Are Highly Niche Sites

The Project For Excellence in Journalism compared the news coverage of social news sites Digg, Reddit, and Delicious to that of mainstream media and found, not surprisingly, not a lot of overlap. What I found most notable is the report mistakenly assumes that the news on Digg and Reddit reflect the interests of their entire user base:

Then, names like Digg, Reddit and Del.icio.us emerged as virtual town squares that became a way to measure the pulse of what the web community finds most newsworthy, most captivating, or just amusing.

Here’s how the BBC casts it:

A news agenda formulated by citizens would be radically different from that put together by journalists

The problem is that a very small percentage of Digg’s and Reddit’s “citizens” control the news on the site — very much like a group of traditional editors. They may not be “professionals,” but they are acting as a traditional editorial hierarchy.

Here’s an analysis I did earlier this year of Digg’s top users:

It turns out that only the top 2,457 Digg users have gotten 3 or more stories to the homepage, putting them in the top 0.35% of Digg’s 707,593 registered users. And only the top 1,662 Digg users have gotten 4 or more stories to the homepage, putting them in the top 0.23%. Even more telling is what you get if you graph even just the top 250 Digg users — can you guess? Of course, it’s a long tail:

Digg Top Users

The irony of the report’s title subtitle — “Your Vote Counts” — is that for most users of Digg and Reddit, their vote actually doesn’t count much in determining which stories get attention. Both sites actually have algorithms that count the votes of successful, active users — i.e. the de facto editors — more (often MUCH more) than someone who just signed up for an account today.

The other issue, which the report does address to a limited degree, is that audience for Digg and Reddit is principally young, male, tech enthusiasts (with a dash of puerile interest) — the “users” or “citizens” of these sites are in NO way representative of the broad, diverse group of mainstream news consumers.

Here’s an example of top stories on Digg that reflects the interests of its highly niche audience:

Digg Top Ten Stories

Digg and Reddit are excellent sites for highly niche communities to share information of common interest. But they are definitely not a way for a general news consumers to find out what’s going on in the world or in topics of interest outside of handful of niche topics:

During that week, the immigration debate led the coverage, accounting for 10% of all news stories in the News Coverage Index. That was followed by coverage of a major fire near Lake Tahoe (6%), the failed bombings in the United Kingdom (6%), events on the ground in Iraq (6%), Supreme Court decisions (5%), the 2008 presidential election (4%), flooding in Texas (4%), the policy debate in the capitol over the war in Iraq (4%), U.S. domestic terrorism (3%), and the missing pregnant woman in Ohio (3%). In all, the top ten stories that week accounted for 51% of all the stories in the Index.

In the user-generated sites, these stories were barely visible. Overall, just 5% of the stories captured on these three sites overlapped with the ten most widely-covered stories in the Index (13% for Reddit, 4% for Digg, and 0% for Del.icio.us).

There is certainly great value in how Digg and Reddit introduce a diversity of sources, which would be particularly valuable if they could broaden the perspective on major stories — but the complete absence of major stories is of little use to mainstream news consumers, even those looking for more diversity of coverage.

While I understand and appreciate what the Project for Excellence in Journalism was trying to test, the comparison is of little value — like observing that Newsweek has very different coverage from PC World or Teen People, i.e. comparing general interest sources to niche sources only demonstrates the difference between general interest and niche.

15 thoughts on “PEJ Social News Report Demonstrates Only That Digg and Reddit Are Highly Niche Sites”

  1. I think you’re very right Scott, and anyone who has spent time on Digg knows how easy it is to suddenly fall under the impression that Ubuntu is a pressing concern of the public.

    I’m not sure what your point is though. Yes, Digg is controlled by an elite few (although I can tell you it is very easy to crack that and become one). So is the mainstream media. Didn’t we already know this?

  2. Agreed entirely, though you may not have been precise in your phrasing.

    While Digg and Reddit do indeed reflect “the interests of their entire user base,” they do not reflect “the entire interests of their user base.”

  3. As I said on Reddit today about this story… analyzing the stories on the front page misses the real point about these sites. I spend far more time on Reddit (and Slashdot) reading the *comments* than I do any of the stories that get linked to. (Not so much Digg, where the comment threads seem dominated by 14 year olds). But at least on Reddit and Slashdot, the community is composed of enough knowldgeable, intelligent people that an interesting discussion emerges from almost any topic – even a picture of a stupid cat.

    It’s the comment threads that you find the real news of the day, context, and good information, not the front page stories.

  4. While I agree that it is possible that the views of the small subsample voting at Digg and Reddit are not representative of all readers, I do not see anything in the article that suggests that the story selections of mainstream editors are. In fact, why would we expect them to be when the journalism culture often expresses deisdain for “pandering” to consumer tastes. Actually, the examples cited of what Digg and Reddit users prefer seem very reasonable — more stories that affect individuals most (domestic stories over international) and greater diversity. See my post “How can Old Media journalists call themselves “professionals” while being almost completely wrong about what their readers want? Study reveals an astonishing disconnect” at TheFutureOfNews.com.

  5. It would be interesting to see the change in focus on social news sites if the mainstream media channels vanished into the ether. Surely the average news consumer finds their appetite for “mainstream” stories thoroughly sated, hence the migration to niche aggregators. I suggest there would be far more diversity, and far more ranting, if this were the only ballgame.

  6. I think the study also fails to underline that actually today we have an increasing complementarity of news sources, that people can (and do) check the news throughout their days, both online and offline — and so there is a on-going integration of traditional and niche media sites, which seems much more important than their even too obvious differences.

  7. The PEJ’s conclusion that: “online users gravitated toward different topics than those from traditional news outlets,” seems a bit obvious to me. The “social news sites” are more than likely only a piece of most users’ every day news consumption. I don’t think that digg, reddit, or del.icio.us really and truly replace the mainstream media brands (NYTimes, Washington Post, WSJ, CNN) in providing the news “of record.” Despite their flaws and perhaps occasional biases, these media brands are established and trusted for a reason — and when you really want to get a sense of what’s going on in the world, most people are probably going to check out one of the above mentioned mainstream media outlets. However, the MSM often does not have the most fun, quirky, interesting, useful stories — the kind of stories you’re inclined to pro-actively share with your friends. That’s what social news sites are about — those articles and blog posts that you want more people to see than otherwise would.

    So, doesn’t it make sense that there wouldn’t be a ton of overlap between social media sources and mainstream media sources? I go to reddit and digg to see what’s considered “hot” at the moment by my peers, not to see what’s happening in politics or the economy. I find that the beauty of social recommendation is serendipitous discovery.

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