Social media on newspaper sites: what the Bivings report tells (and doesn’t tell)

Mentions of the new 2008 edition of “The Use of the Internet by America’s Largest Newspapers,” published by the Bivings Group, keep popping up in my feed reader, usually with gushing headlines like that of David Kaplan at PaidContent: “Newspapers Suddenly Adapt to Socal [sic] Media: Nearly 60 Percent Offer User-Gen Content.”

The trouble is, Kaplan and other journobloggers (including Common Sense Journalism, Editors Weblog, and even Romenesko) ignore the word “largest” in there, and talk about the report’s findings as if they apply to all newspapers.

Actually, Bivings studied only the websites of the top 100 newspapers, ranked by ABC-reported circulation. So the finding cited by Kaplan applies actually only to “nearly 60 percent” (58, to be precise) of the top 100. In other words, 42 of America’s 100 largest newspaper sites still don’t have user-generated content (defined as photos, video and articles–commenting is a separate category), and lord knows how many of the 1,300-odd smaller dailies don’t.

Bivings could get a handle on the rest of the industry pretty easily by doing a random sampling of 100 of those smaller newspaper sites, but alas, they didn’t.

In any case, what’s the significance of the Bivings findings? In my mind, this chart, which summarizes the changes from 2007 to 2008, pretty much tells the story by illustrating what’s changed and what hasn’t:

  • Most of the top 100 already offered RSS, section RSS, reporter blogs, comments on reporter blogs, and video.
  • The big swings were in comments on stories (75 percent in 2008, up from 33 percent a year earlier); user-generated video, photos and text (58 percent, up from 24); and social bookmarking (92 percent, up from 44). Clearly this shows major moves into social media thinking in newsrooms.
  • Required registration dropped from 29 percent to 11 percent, indicating abandonment of that barrier, and pretty much sinking any prospects for a payment-based content delivery structure.
  • Bivings also found growth in mobile content from 53 percent to 64 percent, and shrinkage in podcasts from 49 percent to 40 percent. Neither of these may be terribly significant at this point

(See also this 3-year comparison chart for a bit more perspective.)

Some bits from elsewhere in the study: only 9 percent of the sites (meaning 9 of the top 100) use tags, and only 10 percent have an actual social network (with user profiles and interactivity) in place. These are new metrics for 2008, so there are no comparatives with prior years, but they may be a better indicator of how well (or poorly) newspaper sites are incorporating social media than long-established standards like RSS, blogs and commenting.

Bivings’ final conclusion, which few of the bloggers seem to have read through to (it’s on page 24 of the study) is worth reflecting upon (emphasis added): “Lastly, our study shows that newspapers are trying to improve their web programs and experimenting with a variety of new features. However, having actually reviewed all these newspaper websites it is hard not to be left with the impression 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’ve been saying that, too.

But it’s important to note, also, where Bivings did not go. Beyond the top 100 markets, in the nether regions of newspaper circulation (the cutoff was about 95,000), out there in East Outer Cupcake, social media adoption by newspapers is nowhere near what it is among the big boys. It’s not hard to find papers that put up only a few stories a day, and there are plenty of newspaper sites without RSS, commenting or blogs, let alone video, bookmarking and the rest.

Does this matter? Yes. The top 100 have about 74 percent of total circulation, which leaves a significant 26 percent unrepresented. That 26 percent is demographically very different from the top 74 percent, and those 1,300 newspapers are quite different from the top 100 in terms of technology adoption rates. And, by all accounts it’s the top 100 “metro” papers that are in the most financial trouble, while everything from “community” newspapers to small city dailies are the healthiest segment of the industry.

Is that because of, or despite their relatively unsocial attitudes toward social media? One prognosticator I mentioned in my previous post, Windchimes–an agency in India, apparently– might argue it’s the former. They suggest, in essence, that news media should focus on what they do best, and leave social networking to the social networks. They have a point, but the bottom line is that we’ve moved into Web 2.0 for good, and any site that doesn’t offer the right social connection points soon will be left behind, because social connectivity will be increasingly important in delivering a major share of site traffic.

So, enough for today. But I’m planning to go explore the territory Bivings left uncharted, not with a formal study but with an exploration of how newspapers in smaller markets are (and are not) using social media, and what elements should form part of their social media strategy. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, a few suggestions for Bivings for next year, in case they’re listening:

  • Metrics for the markets beyond the top 100 are needed–just a sampling will tell the tale.
  • Twitter has been invented–how many newsrooms use it?
  • How many papers embed a significant number of outbound hyperlinks to content sources and related news in their stories?
  • And, perhaps, how many have started a news topic wiki?