Listen to the conversation, newspapers advised
As the newspaper industry continues to grapple with the challenges brought on by the advent and growth of new media, proponents and practitioners of social networking have a word of advice for their print cousins: listen.
New media should not only be considered competition to traditional media, it should be seen as an opportunity, say digital enthusiasts such as Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at GigaOM.com, a leading technology blog network, and until recently, communities editor at The Globe and Mail, where he strove to improve, and build, interaction between the newspaper and its readers.
“Typically, newspapers get feedback because someone writes a letter, or maybe someone calls the switchboard and asks to speak to the publisher, or whatever,” says Ingram, who adds that not many readers actually do this, and often this type of feedback gets lost.
“Using the kind of tools that the term ‘social media’ covers, whether it’s Twitter, or blogs, or Facebook … you can expand the number of people that you hear from, and the potential of feedback from your readers, and then use that to help you do your job.”
Marc Hill, a social media specialist based in Barrie, Ontario, says social media gives newspapers the ability to join a conversation, and help shape and direct it, rather than trying to lead it.
“The (conversation) is socially driven as to what is important to the community. Social media can help tell stories, create and maintain connections, and involve readers in ongoing stories.”
Literally everything from the trivial and mundane to the profound and fascinating is discussed on social media sites, says Hill, and newspapers can use this dialogue to discover what is important to communities, establish content strategies from that information, and build readership.
“Social media allows a story to evolve, and newspapers to reach a market they might not have covered before,” says Hill, who has developed a presentation, “Social Media and the Local Paper,” to help newspapers understand social media and how to use it for content and readership goals.
Even though social media has been with us for some time, and many newspapers are using it, Ingram believes the majority of newspapers have some distance to travel before they are taking full advantage of these tools.
“I would say it’s still a pretty small minority … still a relatively small number in terms of newspapers and individuals, who are really making use of it.”
Changing the culture of a newsroom from one that can’t or won’t get it, as far as social media is concerned, to one that can and will, is key to developing the effective use of online interactive tools, says Ingram, adding that change can happen from within.
“In any organization there is going to be at least one person, or maybe a few people, who have an aptitude, or an interest or a passion, or who are already involved in social media in some way.
“Find someone who is already there, and is already passionate and knowledgeable about it, and then make (that person) a kind of evangelist within your newsroom.”
Joyce Carlson, publisher of the Powell River Peak, in British Columbia, is a strong proponent of newspapers having a presence on social networks. Her weekly paper started Twittering in 2008, using the network to its full potential during the municipal election.
“We don’t have local radio or television coverage in our community so we took advantage of Twitter to provide live coverage from City Hall,” she recalls. “When the returning officer made the election announcements, which in our case included two referendum votes, we could send the news (through Twitter tweets) right away. It made us ‘The Media’ of the night.”
The paper also incorporates the community’s information and blog site, Peak Live, on its website, and often uses information posted on this site for story ideas.
“We use it in the same way we do the Peak message board. It’s important that we know what’s going on and how we can make that work for our paper.”
The Brandon Sun, in Manitoba, is currently designing a new website, and publisher Ewan Pow says it is expected to have both a Twitter and Facebook identity.
“I realize it is a way to attract those people we can’t get to through the printed word. It seems the best way to reach the young, computer-literate group that prefer to get their news electronically.”
Online interaction with readers is also effective in building website content, and traffic. The Black Press tourism site, getawaybc.com, has more than 3,000 articles written and submitted by B.C. residents, writing about all areas and activities of the province, while Transcontinental’s weblocal.ca, lets users find, share and rate information on the site.
Social media not only gives newspapers the tools to listen, but it also helps journalists do their job, and they are easy to use, and cheap, if not free, says Ingram.
“You still have to do the things you traditionally do as a journalist – call people and go out to things and do interviews. But (social media) tools can add a layer to what you do, and allow you to reach people (including potential sources) you might not otherwise have been able to reach.”
It all makes for better journalism, and better newspapers, he says.
“The more you can give your readers (a way) to provide feedback to you, about what you are doing right, or what you are doing wrong, or what you are missing or what you need to know, I think the better off you are as a journalist and a newspaper.”
The job, he says, regardless of how the information is delivered or gathered, is fundamentally the same.
“I actually don’t think that what we are talking about is any different than what journalists have always done. There may be more ways to do it now, more ways to listen to your readers or your community … but the fundamental thing that we’re doing isn’t that different.”
While it’s obvious the industry is going through a significant transition, with many newspapers buckling under the pressures, Ingram is optimistic the ‘old media’ can evolve and be saved.
“There are fundamentally positive things that (traditional media) contribute to society. They find information even when people in control of that information don’t want it to be found. They verify it, put it into context, make sense of things, and tell people things they need to know. I think all of those things are valuable.”
Reader interaction, he says, is vital to helping traditional newspapers evolve and succeed.
“Good media entities of any kind … have always understood their audience, who their audience is, and served that audience religiously. To the extent you don’t do that, you raise the risk of failure.”
With social media tools, journalists get a lot more real-time feedback on what they are doing, and Ingram says that’s fundamentally a positive development.
“The more ways that you can … listen to your readers and pay attention to what they are saying, and then take that into account when you are doing what you are doing, the more chances of success you have, and the better journalism you produce.”
Seed the story and let the ‘buzz’ grow
So, how does one wade through the vast amount of social media chatter to find relevant information about a community, an issue, an individual, or other specific content?
One way, says Marc Hill, a social media specialist, is through tools like Twitter Search. Another is to ‘seed’ a conversation through posts, and follow its development.
Using social media links on its site, a newspaper would post content, or links to stories, and then would wait for the conversation about the story to evolve, says Hill.
By ‘listening’ to the ensuing conversation, the newspaper gets insight into community issues, resulting in possible content strategies.
“It’s what happens after the story is posted,” says Hill, who adds the story can now take on a life of its own, growing organically. If a site has the capacity, readers can comment on the story, and post related video and photos.
Social media tools, he says, don’t determine strategy.
“Organizations need to listen and observe their readers to find out where they spend time online and which tools they use, then develop a strategy and reach out to readers using those tools.”
Facebook and Twitter are two of the more familiar social media platforms, but there are many others, including:
• Flickr, www.flickr.com, is a photo-sharing site that’s particularly useful for newspapers. Search the name of a community and see what comes up for user-generated content.
• LinkedIn, www.linkedin.com, is a network that connects experienced professionals, and builds business relationships, from around the world. There are more than 55 million members from over 200 countries.
• FriendFeed, at www.friendfeed.com, enables you to share and discuss with your friends the interesting stuff you find on the web.
• StumbleUpon, at www.stumbleupon.com, helps you to find and share interesting websites and news stories.
• Tumblr, www.tumblr.com, and Posterous, www.posterous.com, are simple blogging sites that let you share anything quickly using email.
These, and other links, can be added to a newspaper’s site, creating a buzz as the ‘go to’ local site for social media connections.
The ‘digital revolution,’ of which social media is a part, has been around for some time, but the passage of time has not lessened its impact.
The numbers tell the tale of not only a revolutionary change, but also one that continues to evolve.
• From 2008 to 2009, the use of social media increased dramatically, with global users spending five hours a month, on average, on social media sites. That was up three hours from the same time (December) 2008, an increase of 82 per cent.
• Analysis shows that social networking sites are the most popular online destinations, globally; gaming and instant messaging are second and third, respectively.
• Facebook is the most popular social networking site, in the world, with 67 per cent of social media enthusiasts logging in, at the time of the study, which also found that people are on Facebook an average of six hours a month.
• Facebook and Twitter are the networks of choice; individually, both grew faster than other sites.
• Twitter was identified as the fastest-growing social networking site; during the study’s timeframe, it had 18.1 million unique visitors, up from 2.7 million the same time the year before.
These numbers (from Nielsen’s April 2009 analysis) are already outdated, says Hill, but clearly indicate the growing impact of social media on everyday life.
• Find Mathew Ingram at www.mathewingram.com/work/; follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mathewi
• Find Marc Hill at www.mhconnect.com/; follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mhill