Last month, there was all kinds of excitement about the recovery of American newspapers. Share prices were up and both the Atlantic and the Economist wrote fluffy, happy pieces about the state of the industry and its future.
But print executives know otherwise. They know because in Q1 they were still looking at a 10% decline in advertising revenue as the rest of the media are showing rosy Q1 improvements of 6% to 10% and more. As Alan Mutter put it in a recent Newsosaur post: “Make no mistake: Newspapers are still in trouble.”
I often suspect that there is a creeping defeatism among news executives – almost an acceptance of the inevitability of the end of their industry. How else could one explain their refusal to focus on the real factors that will make or break their businesses?
It’s not about bloggers vs. journalists, websites vs. apps, advertising revenue vs. pay walls, Google News vs. copyright laws. Those issues are merely distractions and continued focus on them is preventing the real issues from being addressed.
If news organizations cease to be, there will be two causes of death:
Cause of Death #1: Failure to recognize the necessity of Community
Ask someone under 30 what websites they visit first thing in the morning. They’ll list a number of social networking and aggregation sites. Most of them don’t actually visit media sites at all. Rather, they’ve come to know that “If the news is important, it will find me”. And, they’re unlikely to outgrow this behaviour. That’s why according to Compete, Facebook now beats Google as a referral site to large portals such as AOL, Yahoo and MSN.
Social media is a media site’s new best friend. In fact, a recent Hitwise study revealed that over 75% of Facebook referrals will return to print and broadcast media sites in the same week. Twitter is the fastest growing video referrer and it’s users watch a stream for 63% longer than a Google user.
65 million Facebook users “like” something everyday. Typepad bloggers who installed the Facebook “like” button have experienced a 50% increase in referral traffic. (Just installed mine, I’ll let you know how it goes)
Why is social media so powerful?
Two reasons. Trust: we don’t send our friends crap to read. Relevance: we’re more likely to have common interests with our social network and therefore our links are more likely to be relevant.
Ah, trust and relevance. Sound familiar?
If a newspaper’s job is to reflect, affect and connect the community it serves, trust and relevance are what get the job done. It’s amazing to me how at this time, with more tools available than ever to fulfill these objectives, newspapers are turning away from what made them great brands in the first place. By refusing to listen to and engage their readers by ignoring social media, limiting comments and erecting pay walls, they are destroying trust and hastening their irrelevance.
They are destroying the core, not protecting it.
It’s time to embrace the community.
Every section, every beat and every neighbourhood should have a community manager. That’s a real human being, not an RSS Twitter feed with headlines.
Washington DC’s much anticipated and soon-to-launch local news site TBD.com already has 6 busy community managers. That’s more than 10% of the total editorial team.
Media companies need to do three things: listen, listen, listen. Who’s out there? What Facebook groups, Flickr groups, blogs and Twitter accounts already exist? What are people saying? Who’s leading the discussion? What are their concerns and passions?
Listening has never been easier. Start a TweetDeck to find all Tweets relevant to specific areas of interest. RetweetRank will help determine the impact of existing Twitter feeds. Twitrratr will reveal if events, people or topics are being mentioned negatively or positively. Backtweets will help find who’s linking to the main site.
Community managers can quickly become community leaders if they engage bloggers, commenters, tweeters and Facebookers. They need to follow influencers and people who frequently tweet on a particular topic, retweet them and then provide them with a rich mix of links (from the main site and from around the web), updates and commentary.
The Guardian isn’t wasting time worrying about whether or not bloggers are journalists or if they’re stealing content. They’re making full text articles available to them. That’s right, full text. The genius bit is that the articles have ads embedded in them. The Guardian is harnessing the power of social media to extend its reach for advertisers.
Besides distributing content, users can be drawn back to the main site with links, comments, graphics, photo galleries, polls, contests and invitations for user submissions. Smart and frequent commenters can be invited to write an editorial. Flickr galleries can be created for each neighbourhood and event.
Users should be encouraged to suggest stories and investigations and reporters should be assigned. This is the philosophy behind Toronto start-up Openfile.
And for God sake, when users talk to them, community managers need to talk back!
That’s how to become relevant. That’s how to build trust. Hell, it might even improve the core product.
And here’s the best part. Community drives engagement. Engagement drives ROI for advertisers.
Which brings me to Cause of Death #2: Failure to focus on ROI. I’ll cover that in my next post.