Is LinkedIn the Biggest Threat to Print Journalism?

By Ben Ashwell

LinkedIn has had a transformative effect on the world of recruitment, with its Talent Solutions now representing more than half of its overall revenue. But could it now be looking at print journalism with a critical eye?

Opinionated columnists and bloggers are key to driving traffic to websites and boosting print circulation. It’s how the New York Times and the Times of London justify their paywalls – as a reader you will be granted unrivaled access to leading commentary on the biggest news stories.

But what happens when you can read the opinions of high-profile bloggers elsewhere for free? The debate over paywalls lasted years as the journalism industry struggled to come to terms with the power of the internet. In just six weeks LinkedIn developed and launched its Influencer platform, granting anyone and everyone access to essays, opinion pieces and commentary from an impressive roster of bloggers. These include Barack Obama, Bill Gates, LinkedIn’s own CEO Jeff Weiner and Adam Lashinky, senior editor at large for Fortune Magazine.  And then there’s Richard Branson, who has artfully played out his career in a series of publicity stunts cunningly timed to coincide with new business ventures (breaking world records for crossing the Atlantic by boat, hot air balloon adventures, dressing up as an air hostess). Branson has 2.2 million followers on LinkedIn and his most popular article (“Things I Carry: A Smartphone? I Prefer A Brilliant Assistant”) has been read 652,889 times and liked by 4,172 people. For some perspective, the Wall Street Journal’s average daily circulation, including digital hits, is 2.38 million – according to the Alliance for Audited Media.  The New York Times averages 1.87 million per day.

But while LinkedIn’s crack team of Influencers may detract from newspaper columnists, the site isn’t a total hindrance to journalists. It allows them to search for individuals to contact, keep up to date when people move jobs and monitor updates of employees in large corporations. But some of that is about to change. On July 29, LinkedIn will be retiring its Signal function. To the average user this won’t mean much, but it could hinder some journalists.

Signal was launched in September 2010 as a way for users to de-clutter their newsfeeds. Users searched for what they wanted to see and could save their preferences. It silenced the background noise of more than 225 million users and allowed users to home in on exactly what they were looking for. For most people this would have been a convenient, but not groundbreaking, development – which is perhaps why the company has decided to get rid of it.

However, for journalists it served as a valuable resource to find stories, sources and conduct research. Obviously this would only be phase one of working on a story, but it still granted searchable access to some of the world’s leading companies.

LinkedIn is not necessarily saying that this resource is gone forever, but that certain aspects of it may spring up in different clothes in the future. “We are looking into new and better ways to integrate the ability to look for ‘updates’ as part of the main search experience,” said Darain Faraz, Communications Manager at LinkedIn.

But it is also interesting that the retirement of Signal coincides with the announcement that LinkedIn has expanded its advertising offering with sponsored updates – similar to what we have already seen on Facebook and Twitter, but also similar to a large number of news websites and blogs.

It’s also only two months since the site revamped its LinkedIn Today channel to look much more like a magazine or news aggregator. Now subjects are grouped by category (Economy, Big Ideas, Editor’s Picks, Healthcare, Business Travel etc.) that direct users to content on external sites.

All of this could, of course, be purely coincidental. There is no doubt that the development of a publishing function is an attempt to increase stickability on the site. But there is also the faint possibility that, like the recruitment industry before it, print journalism may be asleep to the threat of a new competitor.

Ben Ashwell is a British freelance journalist living in New York. In Britain he was the Editor of HR Grapevine and now writes about a range of topics from business, technology, travel, books and film. He can be found tweeting (mainly nonsense) at @benashwell.

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