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?


  1. With the New York Times and the London Times soon to charge for online use, I would think it's only a matter of time before the industry as a whole follows suit.

  2. I think we're going to look back on this time and marvel at how much information we used to get for free. The same as iTunes users looking back at Napster.

    The content provided in newspapers takes money to produce. As a former full-time journalist, I wasn't volunteering my time at the newspaper --it only seemed that way on pay days. :-D

    There are bloggers willing to step up and fill the void, but how many of them will dedicate the necessary time to unravel the intricacies of a city budget?

    I think using Facebook and Twitter as a teaser to stories hidden behind paywalls is a route worth pursuing. The current "plan" doesn't seem to be working, does it?

  3. Bottled water: Of course we'll pay for news, when somebody makes us, that is. In my opinion, it's no longer a fearful question. What's scary is how long it's taking the industry to get it's collective act together. Is it because there's not an organization, one powerful enough, to call a summitt and encourage/demand/vote on change? Is it because we don't believe in our product? Is it because we don't how to do it? Or is because the wrong people are in charge?

  4. Brad - the same questions go through my head. But Mike's probably right - it seems everyone is waiting for the big guys to do it, and stick to the plan. Wouldn't that be incredible though - a big Newspaper Summit in which journalists from across the country gather together and say SHOW US THE MONEY?! :-)
    Paul, I love the iTunes/Napster analogy. Maybe we just need the Metallica of newspapers to file a lawsuit.