Nuts and bolts: How newspapers can optimize use of social media

In my previous post (Tipping point: Online news overtakes print), I posed this question: How can newspapers raise the level of their online presence from being a simple, one-way content delivery medium, and have their sites become full-fledged “means of collaboration, creation and curation” (Jeff Jarvis’s characterization of the internet)?

In other words, how can newspapers (after making sure they’ve built a truly online-first newsroom) leverage the social networking power of the internet? And why is that important?

Well, how are they doing, first of all? Last week I discussed the Bivings group report called “The Use of the Internet by America’s Largest Newspapers.” This graph summarizes what Bivings found about the use of social media by America’s top 100 newspapers:


(Click graph for expanded view.)

Looks good, doesn’t it? The trends are heading for 100 percent adoption of RSS, video, blogs, commenting and bookmarking. Terrific.

But the big problem, noted by Bivings themselves in their final conclusions, is that “the sites are being improved incrementally on the margins. Newspapers are focused on improving what they already have, when reinvention may be what is necessary in order for the industry to come out of the current crisis on the other side.

I agree. These various social media techniques are being applied experimentally and randomly. With a few possible exceptions, they are not applied as part of a unified concept that’s clear to the site visitor. Installing a collection of social media tools on a site does not create a community. It does not leverage the power of a social network. It does not encourage or enable readers to “collaborate, create and curate.” Some of the obvious ways newspapers could enables readers to do that, such as local news wikis, are non-existent. And tools like tags, RSS and bookmarking are not very useful in the absence of a community sharing content.

Why is it important for newspapers to get into social networking? Basically, because of Metcalfe’s Law, which says that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes, or users, on it. (See also.) A news site that just delivers news to readers, uni-directionally, is not a network. Once you do build a network with good interactivity, the amount of traffic on it grows exponentially, much faster than the number of users does. To readers, the value of this lies in the connections made, the content shared, the community created. To the owner of the network, in turn, it will leverage much greater revenue potential.

Newspapers have always had a social product—they rely on readers and retailers to participate and interact via press releases, letters, display and classified ads, pass-alongs of the physical paper, crosswords, generation of buzz and gossip, purchases made, you name it. This interactivity historically has made newspapers builders of actual communities (and a lot of fun to work for until not long ago)—but newspapers have been very slow, and well behind other industries, in building online communities through social networking, as distinct from simply employing various individual social media. This failure also threatens to leave newspapers truly left behind when the web progresses from to social-networking “Web 2.0” stage into the “Semantic Web” or “Web 3.0,” which will add a further dimension of networks among facts, ideas and concepts.

So, what should a truly socially-networked news site look like? Let’s look at a few sites to collect the ingredients:

Here’s a New York Times movie review. On or via this single page, I can: (a) read the review, within which I can (b) follow a slew of hyperlinks to related other NYTimes.com pages. I can participate myself by (c) rating the movie, and (d) writing a review (or reading reviews by other readers). I can also (e) watch a clip, (f) find a full listing of credits, (g) find theatre and showtime listings, and in some cases (h) buy tickets via MovieTickets.com. So far, so good—lots of interactivity, including at least some with other readers.

Moreover, in a 5-month old Times project still in beta, I can register to become a “TimesPerson” on the “TimesPeople” social network, through which I can share and recommend Times content, RSS feeds and the like with “followers,” and I can “follow” the recommendations of others. It sounds like a social network, but it’s really just social bookmarking. Meanwhile, the Times has run a brief campaign on Facebook that has resulted in nearly 200,000 “fans” signing on to its Facebook presence—but on its Facebook page, the Times so far doesn’t offer TimesPeople functionality, or much of anything else to draw its fans deeper into its content, or into a real network. All in all, despite the enormous depth and scope of its content, despite almost weekly announcements of site enhancements, the Times seems to be, in Bivings’ words, timidly experimenting “incrementally on the edges,” not jumping into the deep end of social networking, not fully embracing Web 2.0.

Another approach, in a much smaller market: the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette, which flew below Bivings’ radar with print circulation of 61,000 weekdays, 75,000 Sundays (ABC audit), logging 3.48 million pageviews from about 132,000 unique visitors monthly (via Compete.com).

The Gazette has plenty of social media features, plus a semi-wiki in its Data Central section, interactive maps, and about three dozen staff blogs, on some of which you can follow the Gazette’s evolving philosophy on web publishing and networking. One of those is the blog of CEO Chuck Peters: C3: Complete Community Connection, in which he publicly talks to his staff and the community about his vision for a community networked by the Gazette’s news enterprises:

We have acknowledged that we need a new model, mindset, tasks and organization to move from the franchise megaphones of newspaper and television to an interconnected ecosystem of local information, available on all platforms, created “with and by” the communities we serve. We know that we have to separate content creation from product creation. We know that we need to develop a network of people creating blogs and wikis on key topics and communities. We know that we need to develop a common technical framework for that creation of content. Commercial content likewise must created in a more atomized and fluid way.

Entrepreneurial journalists will lead the way. Without them, we have nothing to offer. We need to create the systems to support them. In order to do so, we need to focus not only on the tasks at hand, but why we do them, in order to have the energy and patience to persevere through this great change.

Now, let’s jump to Bakersfield, California, home of the independently-owned Bakersfield Californian, circulation 132,000 weekdays and 156,000 Sundays, and logging 2.05 million page views from 158,000 unique visitors monthly (Bakersfield.com only, via Compete.com.)

Note that relative to its print circulation level, the Californian lags the Cedar Rapids Gazette, perhaps an indication of the value of the Gazette’s slicker, more up-to-date site design. Indeed,
Bakersfield.com won’t win design prizes. But it has a real social network. Its members aren’t “CalifornianPeople,” they’re just people.

Simply by registering on the Californian’s site, here’s what the paper’s 20,000-odd actively registered “people” can do:

  • Post a detailed profile with photos, interests, links, friend thumbnails, a guestbook, and their choice of various apps
  • Start a blog—the site boasts an astounding 2,000 active bloggers
  • Comment on stories and blogs
  • Post reviews of restaurants
  • Report by posting stories, listing events, posting photos and video.
  • Participate in forums
  • Share social milestones
  • Find and connect with “friends”, including via a cloud of interest tags
  • Post comments on guestbooks of friends

Jeepers. Looks like a real social network. Not only that, but various components including blog updates, reader-submitted photos and videos, and reader reports are posted on the site’s home page, while “today’s paper” is an inside page. And check out the company’s youth-oriented network site—it’s called Bakotopia, which functions also as a classified platform to stave off Craigslist—and its suburban citizen-journalism platform called Northwest Voice. The company has nine sites in all. And it looks like it’s “monetizing” nicely, with both local display and contextual advertising all over the place.* It’s not even terribly new—most of this has been in place since 2006.

Wanna just duplicate what they’re doing in Bakersfield? You can—they’re offering the whole platform as “reskinnable and redeployable”at Bakomatic. So far as I can tell, though, only the Arizona Republic and the Idaho State Journal have done so.

As I said, what the Californian’s doing is not pretty (which may be why their approach has not been influential), but it’s real social networking. It’s gutsy, and it’s working. (Although it may be somewhat frozen in time. Oddly, for example, the Californian’s presence on Facebook is minimal.)
But now imagine what would happen if the Times expanded TimesPeople into a real social network: register once and you can blog, comment, bookmark, connect, post reports, events, pictures and video, and all the rest. Imagine, further, if newspapers decided to abandon their walled-garden approaches, and started connecting their individual networks, allowing TimesPeople to befriend CalifornianPeople and WaPoPeople. And FacebookPeople. Imagine expanding this concept to include a rewards system for users based on Charlene Li’s “personal CPM” concept. Imagine if newspapers did all this transparently, operating in a public fishbowl like Chuck Peters and his staff, letting the public talk back to them about what they like and don’t like.

Unfortunately, there’s not much momentum in this direction. And at most of the “other 1300” newspapers, with circulations under 95,000, not examined by Bivings, social networking is as distant as a manned Mars mission. I promised a few posts ago to explore that territory, but my initial forays have been discouraging. For example, I visited the site of the nearby (to me) Northampton, (Mass.) Gazette, which I’ve always regarded as a fine newspaper, only to discover that (a) to comment on a story, I need to register (fair enough, I thought), but, to register, I need to be a print subscriber. Not only that, some of the news content is totally off limits except to registered subscribers. Newsstand buyers and casual site visitors: chopped liver—you can’t read the good stuff on the site, and you can’t comment, except with a special online-only subscription. So, I was off to a discouraging start on that quest, but I’ll keep looking.
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*It should be noted, however, that the Californian has not been immune to the recession, having announced 25 layoffs this month. There have been none at Cedar Rapids, as far as I can tell. The Times has made cuts in its newsroom and other departments.

One Comment

  1. Gina Chen said:

    This is a fabulous post. I think you really sum up the crisis in journalism — just wish more people would listen.

    I think you have it exactly write when you say that social media techniques are “being applied experimentally and randomly.”

    It’s like newspapers are testing the waters a little but don’t want to even wade in. It’s frustrating because I’m not sure readers can notice these random experimental changes.

    It’s like when a newspaper gets a redesign and changes the pica width of rules between columns and thinks that’s real change. (But the public — except the most observant and anal — really don’t notice it.

    Newspapers need real change and real connecting and need to stop making those who want that feel like they’re from Mars.

    December 29, 2008

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