I had to read the sentence twice to make sure I understood it correctly.

Gen Xers are the most likely to get their news from websites and apps, millennials are most likely to get it from social networking sites, and baby boomers are most likely to get it from local TV.

“This can’t be right,” I said to a 26-year-old I work with, shoving the paper at her with that sentence circled. (I’m firmly Generation X and still prefer to print out documents to read because I like taking notes on them.) Meredith – a bright, hard-working college graduate – read the sentence and looked at me as if she didn’t understand my reaction. “Do you really get your news from social media?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “If I want to catch up on business news, I see what stories people are posting on LinkedIn.”

“Why wouldn’t you just read the Wall Street Journal?” I said. I mean, I know why. The idea that a digital native would pick up a physical newspaper would seem as strange for someone her age as if she had started getting onto the internet with a 2,400 bps dial-up modem over a telephone line instead of simply opening her smartphone. Only 5 percent of adults under 30 get their news from a print newspaper.

My question was less about the medium than the messenger. Had I had more time to think about my question, I would have asked why she was more interested in what stories her social contacts thought were important than, for example, the front-page editor?

She shrugged. “I figure the people I follow have looked through all the stories and picked the ones they thought were important,” she said, not getting that she had just described an essential function of an editor.

Meredith is typical for Americans under 40. Social networks are where the kids these days are getting their news. Almost all millennials (88 percent) read news on Facebook, followed by YouTube (83 percent), and Instagram (50 percent). And when they get their news from social media, 70 percent of them are getting it on mobile devices. Contrasted with how many of them are even visiting newspaper websites, much less reading print newspapers, it’s clear that social networks are the newsstand for the next generations. How quickly legacy news media can adapt to this reality will determine whether millennials and Generation Z have a functioning news media.

You think you already know this

This data is not unknown to the news media, but right now it seems poorly understood by the industry and society at large. I’ve read different versions of it ever since the internet killed the classifieds. We’ve seen newspapers migrate online and then go behind paywalls in an endless strategic retreat away from paper and toward an online promised land. Those who have succeeded stand apart from an industry that can’t find its footing after a generation. Journalists are encouraged to build their own social media followers, and TV stations are investing in hopes that their online followers migrate to the new digital homes of the newspaper and local stations. Consultants are brought in to devise new ways to expand local TV news audiences beyond suburban moms to include the digital natives who now comprise the two largest generations in human history.

The fact that old media is now online misses what millennial and Generation Z are trying to tell us with their behavior: They’re not just reading the news online but on social networks and sharing news in group chats and private messaging. That’s a distinction without an obvious difference to Generation X and baby boomers to whom social networking, software, apps and icons can all sometimes all get lumped together in our heads as The Internet. And you can see the failure to make this distinction in how the news media has adapted to the internet – iterating endless online versions of newspapers and televisions stations. But because they are doing so without incorporating the characteristics of social networks, the news media is missing the forest for the tweets.

We’re already seeing the changes

Understanding what this means to the future of the news industry does not require one to be a futurist, just observant. The implications of a social networking-based news industry would suggest changes that we’re already seeing.

Let’s return to Meredith’s faith in a co-worker’s news judgment, which only sounds odd out of context. At first, I admit, I judged her and silently told myself I was different – I’m not. Well, I am significantly older, but I am at least as likely to read an article that my friends are posting on Facebook as I am anything on the Washington Post app, and that’s only apples to apples. When it comes to publications I do not subscribe to, my friends are my main source of news. Yesterday Jeff, my friend who worked in senior staff in the White House, texted me an analysis of the Barr letter published on the Lawfare blog. In my entire life I would never go to that site, but one text from a friend whose judgment I trust was enough.

Acting upon a recommendation on social media often includes contextualization much in the same way that old people – that is, my contemporaries – used to recommend stories with an outmoded peer-to-peer communications technology we called talking. “Did you read the piece in The New Yorker?” was such a commonly used phrased back in the ‘90s that it became a trope on Portlandia. Yes, we really did talk that way, yes, it was usually about The New Yorker, and yes, that is how we really got recommendations on what to read.

Influencers replacing editors

I have to think back a ways to understand why this is good news. When I was a kid, my friend Gary had the paper route in our neighborhood. We lived in a small city with a daily newspaper, so every morning before the sun came up Gary would ride around on his BMX bike and put newspapers in the plastic container attached to a pole by our mailbox. And every day after school, I would go outside and fetch it so I could find out who won baseball games the previous day. As I got older, I’d end up reading the news, too, never questioning the editorial judgment to cover these stories, putting certain ones on the front page and others back in the classifieds with the politically suspect Doonesbury. This, plus the outdated World Book encyclopedias upstairs, the downtown library, and the record albums mom and her second husband had, was my information superhighway.

Now we have the internet and determining what I should read requires heuristics we have developed on the fly without being fully conscious of it. Think back to the ‘90s cliché of telling each other about articles in The New Yorker – that’s not what we were really talking about. Generation X was the first group of humans on this planet to have access to everything. Want to read your local paper? Cool, but have you read all the papers? And why would you wait for the paper to write up the baseball game if you could find out the results pitch by pitch? How, then, with a library card for the entirety of human knowledge, does one know what to read?

That’s the question we were trying to answer at brunch, telling each other about handholds we had found in the digital flow that was carrying us away from everything that was familiar into a future we could not imagine. Back then, here’s how we would describe a crazy potential future: Someday every business is going to need its own website. We could not comprehend a future in which we could make an appointment for a haircut with a specific barber at the time of our choosing and then confirm it later – all on our telephones. Are you serious? Back then we couldn’t imagine screens on the telephones. We thought we might be able to go to the website to find the phone number so we could make an appointment via landline since using the cellphone was so expensive they would charge in increments of portions of minutes. People would actually pay attention to how long a call would take, noting as the seconds clicked toward 40 and hurrying their goodbyes so they wouldn’t have to pay for a full minute. To hell with jetpacks. I’m still getting used to unlimited calling and no long-distance charges.

So yes, if my friends Michael and Diane thought I should read this new essayist named David Sedaris, I would absolutely pick up a copy. It was either that or silently screaming in existential terror into the void of infinity.

The function of recommending stories has evolved since then from mere notification to contextualization. Now, if my friends who are experts in technology are all posting an article on this thing called Net Neutrality – a moniker genetically engineered to get me to tune out – I figure I better pay attention. If my journalist friend who seems immune to conventional wisdom highlights a colleague’s take on the story of the day, I know not only is it worth my time but can infer some meaning from this particular friend’s recommendation. If so-and-so recommends this article (with a short analysis or takeaway on top, no less), then I have much more context about an article before I’ve even read the lead than if I’d merely seen that an editor I’ve never met chose to place it above the fold on the front page.

How legacy news media can’t do this

I know most of the editors and news directors in Austin, where I’ve lived and worked since 1993. What I’ve come to appreciate about legacy journalism is the similarities it has to any discipline, such as religion, the law, or rooting for a college football team. You have to believe that the fundamentals are valid and true and act accordingly. In the case of football, you have to give yourself over to an emotional connection to a revolving set of hyper-athletic teenagers. Otherwise everyone ends up wearing matching clothes for no reason and feeling stupid.

In the case of journalism, you have to practice objectivity. What that means is open to interpretation and reaction, much like religion, but at its core I believe that journalism requires the practitioner to hold him or herself apart from the action you describe. This is even in extreme cases as when George Plimpton wrote about his experience trying out for the 1963 Detroit Lions. Had he been an actual player, it would have been a memoir. He was a writer, so it was journalism. For a journalist to personally attach to a story – to have a rooting interest – disqualifies it as journalism.

This is the problem legacy news media run into in this new environment, especially on Twitter. Consultants note that social media engagement drives clicks on stories which increases advertising revenue, so, hey presto, editors and news directors encourage journalists to build their social media followings. Those who do this well provide added perspective and context to their own stories and beats and lift up their colleagues’ work – much like your investment banker pal Tom who posted that article on Facebook about Obamacare.

But even when this works well, it doesn’t work all that well. Self-promotion is antithetical to the “It’s not about you” ethos of journalism. “I wrote a thing” will never be as powerful as a good journalist recommending the work of a colleague from a competing paper.

Too many journalists, though, do this wrong, confusing personal opinions with perspective, arguing for outcomes, and criticizing motivations they can only imagine. I have no interest in listing examples of those who are doing this badly, nor do I have the time. Like pornography, you know it when you see it. Also, like pornography, it’s addictive and vulgar.

The new paperboys

A generation or more since the squawk of dial-up modems first heralded the eventual demise of paper newspapers, the news industry still appears to be fumbling through attempts to pixelate outmoded formats, putting local news broadcasts online and replicating the front pages of newspapers on websites. And yes, there are industry-wide attempts to get these stories shared on social networks, but that is just the latest iteration of an attempt to drive traffic back to static websites. Bless their hearts.

At a macro level, influencers posting news articles aggregates in trending articles. Trending pieces are exhibited in different ways on different social networks, but, in each case, they function largely as equivalents of breaking news, in effect crowdsourcing news judgment with more credibility, in my view, than many of the alerts from legacy news organizations. The last three news alerts I’ve received from the Washington Post are about an immigration surge at the border in El Paso (which has been written about plenty in recent days), an admittedly great article about butterflies by Dan Zak that first ran weeks ago, and the House’s failed vote to override a veto. Only one of those was breaking news. Meanwhile, right now on LinkedIn, an article about smart cities facing backlash is trending. I live in Austin, and I wasn’t even aware of this article. Score one for trending news over breaking news.

It’s time for the news industry to start using what is already working. My Uncle Jim is recommending articles every day. In the parlance of the tech world, he’s an early adopter of journalism in the social networking age, evangelizing stories to his own network on a scale bigger and more effectively that we could imagine back when we were recommending New Yorker articles in the ‘90s. In marketing, my Uncle Jim is called an influencer, a term that conjures abhorrent visions of online narcissism but in the case of journalism is much more similar to my childhood friend Gary who brought us the paper every day. When I’m spending an average of cough, cough hours every day on social networks, our social contacts who post news articles are the new paper boys.

If I were selling a service and could identify early adopters, I would adjust my marketing plans to them. The news industry does not do this. Local papers share articles on social networks, hoping people will like them on Facebook and Twitter. They target entire metropolitan areas while ignoring all these paper boys out there working for free. Every news story is new, a startup for an idea that needs an early adopter to spread. Focusing on these virtual paper boys might be a good idea.

Focusing on these influencers would open up ways of conferring special social status on them, which Eugene Wei recently argued was the service that social networks provide. Newspapers could start treating those who distribute stories to big audiences like they’re special. People might start associating reading the paper with exclusive social status and seek it out.

The best part of the news industry adopting the characteristics of social networks is that doing so preserves the essential functions and characteristics of good journalism. By letting influencers “deliver the morning paper,” journalists won’t have to demean themselves by having slap fights on Twitter to get clicks. I’m sure there are other ways to adopt the tenants of social networking to confer status on the consumption and distribution of news – not to mention unforeseen problems involving paywalls, subscriptions, and licensing.

But networking the news socially and not in the broadcast model brings news back to its original function, when the member of one village encountered someone from another village on a trail and asked, “What’s new?” Sharing the news has always been a social function. It’s time for the news industry to figure this out.