Sunday, March 28, 2010

Is social media the open door to a more profitable hyper-local newsroom?

Perhaps with newspapers' adoption of social media as a business tool, it's time to visit the debate over whether news organizations should start charging money for its Web site material.

I know, I know, such a discussion mostly leads to a deep hole in which sits a group of newspaper journalists more miserable than they were before the discussion began. So many differing opinions, but at the end of the day, our news is still free online, and it's up to the publishers of the world to change that. The overtime hours spent slaving over our computers day after day for very little compensation is still just a labor of love, and no matter how much or how little readers pay to read our work - we'll still be back at it the next morning.

With that in mind, I merely voice my opinion on the issue, and offer how social media's integration into the newsroom might change yours.

A newspaper's goal when embracing social media should be to engage and attract readers, bringing them to its Web site, and hopefully also lead them to a subscription to the print product. But does that really make sense? These readers, most of whom do not have a print subscription and have no intention of getting one, in this scenario are getting to interact with and enjoy their local newspaper for free.

It would be worth questioning whether social networking tools are becoming the new "free" form of getting news and other information, while the goods (i.e., the full Internet product) cost them money. For example, a newspaper could do the same as it is already doing now by linking to stories on its Web site from its Twitter and Facebook profiles. Sometimes the story's lede is included, offering the most important and relevant information up front. If the consumer wanted to know more, they would then go to the news Web site and log in under their paid account. The newspaper would also continue to use social networking as a platform to further engage readers, get to know their dynamic, promote coming features and find sources.

I'm not sure whether this would ever work for national and international news sources, as news of that spectrum can be found in so many places online today. But I do think it could work for local newspapers, particularly smaller publications that focus on small towns or suburbs. Those are the print publications that are strongest, in my opinion, mainly because:
  • Readers really can't get that basic, hyper-local information anywhere else.
  • Residents want to know about their schools, neighbors and where their local tax money is going.
  • One can find more loyalty to a local newspaper that has covered a particular town for decades. released this analysis of how newspapers that do charge for online content are faring. You'll notice the article points out that "the newspapers tend to be located in smaller, often rural markets; online-only subscriptions are typically priced at a substantial discount to the print edition." Some of the papers listed have experienced a drop in Web site traffic since implementing a pay wall - but Assistant Managing Editor Donn Friedman of the Albuquerque Journal pointed out, “We are still committed to the ... idea that our content has value.” What an important idea to hold onto.

If journalists would stand up for the hard work they put into bringing quality content to readers, I don't believe we would be in this debacle of trying to find a way to win the fight against online media. I understand that one newspaper doesn't want to take the plunge before its competitor, for fear that readers will flock to the free source. But why don't all businesses just take the plunge together? Our jobs are far too important and relevant, in an online society or not, to allow ourselves to have such weak confidence to believe that readers won't pay for the information they want and deserve.

I really feel that, while very important, social media is further enhancing readers' expectations that information should be at their fingertips for free any time they want it. This is the world we live in. But if news organizations did put up a pay wall for online content, perhaps it would once again put us in a higher classification of reliable sources, rather than mixing us in with the blogs, chat rooms, amateur Web sites and inaccurate tweets that are out there. It would make us THE relevant source again.

Do other journalists agree? Is the adoption of social media inside a newsroom what we've been waiting for - an arrow pointing down the path that will lead us toward a better, safer, more profitable future in the face of an increasingly paperless society? What about the average reader - would you pay to read your hyper-local news online, if you were also guaranteed free access to "on the surface" news via Facebook and Twitter?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

YouTube spreads word of social media's relevance

This week I thought I would share a few YouTube videos that really capture the essence of social media's stronghold on American society.

If you're a social media geek like me, you've probably seen this "Social Media Revolution" video. I love it! My favorite moment is at 3:29: "We no longer search for the news ... the news finds us." This is so important to remember when thinking about innovative ways to bring readers back to your news organization's Web site. We talk so much about flashy photo galleries, captivating blog topics, etc. - but to expect your readers to go looking on their own for those features is unrealistic. These days, you just have to bring it to them (just like we bring papers to their doorsteps), and the easiest and most results-oriented way to do so is to get it up on their Facebook or Twitter feed.

I really believe there are many print journalists who believe that social media is a fad. I've been seeing more and more of these print journalists jump onto the bandwagon, but I'm afraid I don't see the passion for it as often as I would hope. At 3:40, the above video makes a simple but excellent point: Social media isn't a fad; it's a fundamental way in which we communicate. Based on the statistics in this video, it's obvious that journalists need to be a part of this phenomenon - not so much because it's "a fad" or because we need to know what readers are talking about, but because it's a significant communications tool that can truly enhance our work, even in the days when news media is shifting to online.

'Social media = punk rock'
What's really amazing to me is when journalists don't believe in what they see unfold during high-profile breaking news, such as the 2009 events of Michael Jackson's death, the Balloon Boy farce, or more seriously, Iran's Twitter revolution. No matter the level of seriousness of the event, users jump onto social media by the masses in times of breaking news (See: Make most of social media during breaking news), not only to share information in seconds, but to also have a voice in the event. Even before "Balloon Boy" Falcon Heene was found, a trending topic of #saveballoonboy was created in minutes on Twitter, and T-shirts that said "Go, Falcon, Go!" had hit the Web within hours. News consumers have the ability, the voice, and the power to make a difference in how we as a society absorb change - let's be the journalists who help shape that voice to be as informed as possible. Take this video, "Social media is the new punk rock," to see what I mean. Rock on.

As much as I push for journalists to really embrace social media as a necessary part of the job, I promise I would never take it this far:

Have a great week!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Twitter can be platform for press releases that didn't make it to print

If you're a journalist, social or not, you are all too familiar with the words "write short." Those two simple words strike a chord with most writers - I mean, we have a lot to say. And people have a right to know what we have to say! Right? Of course they do - however, in the days of minimal advertising revenue and high printing costs, newspaper editors nationwide are forced to keep most stories 15 inches or less.

With that in mind, let's talk tweets. I often hear Twitter users and nonusers alike criticize the micro-blogging site for its concept of keeping tweets at 140 characters or less. The argument usually goes that if they can barely get a thought out under that restriction, what's the point? So with that length restriction, many journalists have taken the easy route on Twitter - tweeting only headlines with the stories' links behind, or a simple call-out for sources. It's fast, short, and easy.

But what if we think outside the box? What if we combine the facts that news space is lacking, Twitter is readily available, and between both mediums, hundreds if not thousands of people are still waiting for us to give them information?

Add to that the hundreds, or thousands, of press releases sitting in your newspaper's inbox, with each sender's expectation that his or her news is your priority, and they will no doubt call the newsroom by the end of next week demanding to know why it wasn't printed.

Enter a concept I have personally developed that can, as time permits, relieve some of our sorrows surrounding timely press releases and lack of newspaper space. I call it Release Tweeting.

In my job as associate editor for citizen journalism, I retype a lot of press releases. I compile brief rails and calendars and edit submitted copy on a regular basis. With restricted newspaper space, it is unrealistic to believe that I can get every single press release in the paper, even all those with a time element. It's always frustrating when I'm going through my e-mail press releases to get a few printed tomorrow, and finding an event that's happening tonight. I never got it in the paper. The person never called to complain (hooray), but this event does sound really cool. A lot of people would be interested. It's newsworthy. What do I do now?

In the days before social media and easy-to-update Web content management systems, the answer would be to throw it out. It's too late to do anything with it. But now, not only can we add the event to our organization's Web site calendars, we can get it out even more immeidately via Twitter.

The Release Tweet may not reach as many as it would in the paper - but it would reach a different dynamic that includes hundreds or thousands of readers or potential readers. All it takes is going back to the basics. In the Release Tweet, simply answer: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? And include a contact number or Web site behind the info, if you have it.

Voila. You've gotten the information out to somebody, so you can stop kicking yourself that you prioritized a longer story over more calendar items in yesterday's paper. And what's better, if the press release's sender does call you Monday morning demanding to know why his or her information didn't make it into the paper, you have a response with an anwer and some resolve: "Please understand we receive hundreds of press releases a day. I'm so sorry we could not get yours in the paper, as we agree that it is an important event, but you might be pleased to know that we did tweet it and add it to our online event calendar, so you can direct those who would like to know more to those resources."

Here's an example of two of my Release Tweets from last week on @Beacon_Readers:

Some extra Release Tweet tips that aren't exemplified above:

  • If a Release Tweet is related to a business, entertainer or organization, be sure to work that @ mention in the tweet if said subject has a Twitter account. It will likely garner a ReTweet, which can in turn bring you more followers.

  • Use hashtags as they are relevant. In the above example, a hashtag such as #AmericanIdol would have garnered more interest across the Twittersphere, again bringing in more followers and RTs.
Many social media experts strongly recommend that a business tweets about more than just its products. "Use Twitter to inform, educate and inspire action, not for blatant selling," say the experts at Lyris HQ E-mail Marketing in its 10 Twitter Tips. It's hard for a news organization to follow that advice because, well, we are an information source, period. Anything we tweet is our product - offering information is the nature of our business. And of course the obvious link to include in each tweet is one of our own.
But Release Tweeting is our chance to break away from promotional information that only brings followers back to our Web sites (which, in all respect, can get annoying to our followers). It gives followers something extra valuable that is not just related to us, which will only enhance appreciation, while saving our behinds in the process. I also see this as a way to really hone in on keeping your tweet quality high, rather than just tweeting for the sake of tweeting, which can become obvious over time.

The hardest part about Release Tweeting is narrowing down the press release to that 140 character limit. But, even at 140 characters, these tweets sure have a lot of punch.
What are other Social Journalists out there doing to take advantage of social media's accessibility? Please share in the comments below.
Happy tweeting!