Old news is new again thanks to Facebook’s frictionless sharing

Some news websites are seeing remarkably strong traffic to old stories, prompting an intriguing question — how important is it, really, that news be new?

Tim Bradshaw reports in the Financial Times about “a surge of Facebook traffic to years-old stories” since some websites enabled the open graph, or so-called “frictionless sharing,” to Facebook of every article a person reads.

In one particular week, Bradshaw notes as an example, the most-viewed stories on The Independent’s website were from the late 1990s. “Most are oddball stories with eye-catching headlines, including ‘Sean, 12, is the youngest father’ (January 1998), ‘Eton pupil died in ‘fainting game’ ‘ (March 1999) and ‘Scotland’s ugliest woman honoured’ (May 1999).”

What seems to be happening is, as one person reads one of these bizarre stories, the link is automatically posted to Facebook, where some friends read it, automatically sharing it again, and so on. Meanwhile, no one may have noticed the time stamp on the article was years old. Or maybe they just didn’t care.

Research shows that the reasons people share things have to do with relationships. We share things that make us feel good or make us appear smart or funny to the people with whom we share. Sometimes that means we share a breaking news story (we want to appear to be the first to know), but other times it means we share stories that are bizarre, funny or sad.

Sometimes a good story is just a good story, as long as it is new to you.

A few examples:

  • Humor or irony. Is it any less amazing that a woman was arrested for cursing at her overflowing toilet if you hear about it today instead of when it happened four years ago?
  • Narrative stories. A really well-told story of a character overcoming conflict to reach a resolution can be read anytime and retold for ages. Think of novels, folklore or fairy tales. Some news stories fit this role.
  • Health and fitness stories. The approval of a breakthrough cancer treatment certainly counts as timely news. But many other stories about health don’t become newsworthy to an individual reader until the day they or someone they know is diagnosed with a condition.

This phenomenon of reviving old news stories wasn’t really possible before the Internet. Each day’s newspapers were discarded, each newscast aired live and then disappeared. Now that we can read anything from any time and share it with anyone, we’re learning more about what audiences really want.

For a news publisher, this creates opportunity. While all the energy and resources every day go into creating the next daily news report, there is some audience (and revenue) to be gained for free from work of the past months or years.

There are some ways to take advantage of this now. I’ve written about how websites are getting huge amounts of traffic to old Web pages from the social-browsing service StumbleUpon, as its 15 million users search for things that are interesting, though not necessarily new. Many news organizations are also learning how to reuse previously published content for e-books that capitalize on the timeless value of great work.

As in the case of The Independent, Facebook’s new frictionless sharing system seems to be the most powerful driver of this activity. I have concerns about privacy and user experiences with frictionless sharing, but some publishers may find a cautious and conscientious way to implement it that will pay off with past and future readers.

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  • Anonymous

    Of course, how much traffic a story gets has very little to do with whether that story is actually news, or how important the story is.

  • Alan Stamm

    A recent example is CNN’s report from February 2006 of a 20-point scoring streak in a high school basketball game near Rochester, NY, by a senior with autism — Jason (“J-Mac”) McElwain.

    Though he became a YouTube sensation, met President Bush a month later, was on the Today show and was profiled in a national magazine, the original cable news report orbited again on Facebook last month . . .
    . . . shared as if new by admirers who missed it originally or just enjoy no-friction replays. 

    Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager weren’t writing about the Internet in 1974′s “Everything Old Is New Again,” but could have been:

    Don’t throw the past away / You might need it some rainy day