I took this picture.

Image via Wikipedia

Everywhere you look, traditional media outlets are dying off. Okay, not dying, but laying off staff, being devalued at sale, cutting budgets, trimming corners and falling all over themselves trying to figure out web strategies to save their collective asses. There’s even a new website to track layoffs in the newspaper business. Subscription rates are falling. Advertising sales are sinking as well. The American consumer has moved online and the only news she’s getting via ink and paper is the row and seat number of her next flight, which she prints out herself.

I recently chronicled what I view as a largely failed attempt by my local daily, the Courier-Journal, which is a Gannett property, to incorporate social media tools into their website redesign. They did a great job of offering the tools, but a lousy one of giving the users a reason to use them. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to speak with the C-J’s president and publisher, Denise Ivey, a week or so after that post in an unrelated meeting. I shared my criticisms of the site redesign, but also offered up suggestions and questions about the future of newspapers that seemed to disturb her.

Ms. Ivey was inordinately polite and pleasant despite the fact I actually said I have little reason to read her paper. But she seemed perplexed I would suggest elevating citizen blog material to the same status as news reports and use the Courier-Journal’s audience as news gatherers. She threw fact checking and accuracy at me as if I’d never heard of professional standards or journalistic ethics before. I also suggested allowing the online voting and polling of stories to help determine which were positioned above the fold – sort of crowdsourcing the story priority. She scoffed, saying that the section editors and other editorial staff members are trained experts at doing that. True, and I would take nothing away from their expertise, but she may as well as said, “We don’t care what our audience thinks is important … we’re juuuuhhhhhnalists!”

Add to that an interesting statistic from Zogby International’s World Editors Forum and Reuters survey that says one quarter of newspaper editors globally think the quality of journalism over the next 10 years will be worse than it is now and you start to see a theme.

To the old guard newspaper elite out there, have some lovely scones and tea as you pity your own readership. Hide behind your journalistic ethics and training all you want. No one is reading your papers and your websites suck. And letting people have blogs there won’t fix it.

Fortunately, there are some papers that do get it. I had the pleasure of meeting Mandy Jenkins, a social networking maven for the Cincinnati Enquirer, shockingly enough, also a Gannett paper. Not knowing the full story of what the Enquirer is doing, but getting the indication from her and conversations with others since, I looked at their site while writing this post. Guess what I found in the community news sections? A by-line that said the following:

“USER SUBMITTED”

Thank goodness vision, innovation and bravery still have a place in today’s newsrooms.

The Enquirer isn’t the only paper out there doing good things. The Dallas Morning News is, in many ways, pioneering the local relevancy and engagement through its website and NeighborsGo community. There are others. If you know of one, tell us about it in the comments.

So what can traditional newsrooms do to offset their off-line losses and make their on-line assets work for them? First, a quick scan of some of my Twitterati (multiples rearranged for chronological clarity):

pitchengine Utilizing Twitter internally can be a benefit. Perhaps a Twitterfone-like program that turns scanner transmissions in to tweets?

pitchengine Start a network of “coorespondeant” from around the community that can post and discuss news on a site (maybe Ning).

SteMaTo when I was in Savannah I can remember some great message boards talking about local events on the newspapers website.

mozhet Wd be great if fab infographics like this were to allow users to tag data with relevant links http://tiny.cc/eP6uw

joegerstandt they can more authentically engage their customer in the feedback process in the development and guidelines of reporting

joegerstandt but they must understand what an authentic, organic relationship is…or the new tools will be of no real value

dedmond29 How about this? Add new/fresh perspectives to their stories and information

davefleet I wouldn’t mind seeing a digg-style feature on newspaper homepages to let readers decide what’s the most important.

Here are the things I’d recommend to old guard executives to help them become relevant to the American consumer again. These are strategic and philosophical in nature and not meant to give tactical specifics. Those are hinted at above and around the web in various places.

  1. Get over yourself
    Journalistic standards and ethics will continue to be relevant, differentiating factors in the era of new media. But there is relatively no entry barrier for self-publishing anymore. Random fan/freaks can claim to be an expert on Major League Baseball and have just as many readers as your beat guy if they work at it. Your training sets you apart, but doesn’t entitle you. Stop acting like someone who didn’t graduate from Columbia and work at the New York Times can’t get the inverted pyramid.
  2. Listen
    You learned this skill in the Art of the Interview class, first semester, sophomore year. Unfortunately, it was about your interview subject and not your audience. They have a voice, too, and they’re expressing it elsewhere. Stop giving them irrelevant website features and ask them what will make your website relevant to them. I’d bet they’ll say, “Better local coverage and use my submissions.” This ain’t rocket surgery, gang.
  3. Stop hiding behind accuracy
    If you follow step number two above, you’ll learn that immediacy trumps accuracy to most people. As a result, corrections and clarifications are okay in today’s web environment. (It’s not like you guys and gals are exactly perfect, anyway.) If CNN had been paying attention to Twitter on April 18, they could have published a banner newsflash, “Reports of Earthquake in Midwest” either on Twitter or their website, then followed that up with a link to details as they were gathered. Confirmations and fact checking could be done throughout the following hours, making the information resource dynamic, until an ultimate print edition was manifested. Instead, they sat around for 37 minutes letting random people break the news across the country. For a nice look at the balance of immediacy and accuracy in what could be a model for a new newsroom, checkout this post from the Online Journalism Blog.
  4. Know Your Role
    Online readers gather their news from a variety of sources. There’s a good chance they don’t get national or international news from you, yet upwards of 60 percent of most daily newspapers today is wire copy stories from unrelated towns, people and events. Focus on the news that only you, or your readers, can provide. They won’t be able to get it anywhere else and that will set you apart.

These guidelines are a start. There are dozens of tactical executions using social media tools just waiting to be had for newspapers, and even electronic media outlets, that can put meat behind each of those four principles. And I bet you can think of one. So tell us about it in the comments and help us brainstorm a list of ideas the old guard can use to put a little relevancy pep back in their step.

Other Posts You’ll Find Interesting:

  1. Newspapers Missing The Benefits Of Social Media
  2. Can Newspapers Be Saved?
  3. NY Times To Test Crowdsourcing Its Data
  4. How To Use RSS And Social Media For News Gathering
Did you enjoy this blog post? If so, then why not:Leave Comment Below | Subscribe To This Blog | Sign Up For Our Newsletter |

About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog and signature Explore events. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

Other posts by

Comments & Reactions

Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://campus.murraystate.edu/academic/faculty/glynn.mangold/hmpg.html Glynn Mangold

    Great ideas, Jason. Now, let’s see if anyone in the newsroom is listening … and willing to break with tradition.

  • http://pointlessbanter.net kevin

    The problems with the newsroom go far beyond their reluctance to change media wise.

    Mark Dueze’s book “Media Work” really explores the issues that media companies face and how exploitative the industry is to a lot of the workers.

    These companies need to change their business models in more than one way.

  • http://www.unjournalism.com Mike Keliher

    I’m with you — not completely agreeing, but at least hanging with you — up until “stop hiding behind accuracy.”

    “If you follow step number two above, you’ll learn that immediacy trumps accuracy to most people.” That’s one hell of a generalization, one I wouldn’t dare agree with.

    “As a result, corrections and clarifications are okay in today’s web environment.” OK, sure. But creating an environment in which they are the norm rather than the exception — especially when that sacrifice is made solely for the sake of expediency — is misguided.

    And yes, if CNN had a connection with Twitter, we might have simply *known* that an earthquake happened, but when I turn to CNN, it’s because I heard an earthquake had happened, and I want to know when, where, how, what damage has occurred, etc.

    Josh Catone from ReadWriteWeb has a great piece questioning this whole premise of the mainstream media being outshined by Twitter on breaking news: http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/did_twitter_really_outshine_th.php

    Just no one Web application can be all things to all people, no one media outlet should strive to serve the people who want editor-managed headlines and story selection AND the people who want Digg-style story prioritization. No one media outlet should try to be “fast for the sake of fast and break every story first” AND “we’re going to give you analysis that makes news mean something to you.”

    Certainly, plenty of news organizations have plenty of growing up to do, and that’ll come with growing pains. But you lost me pretty quickly on this one.

  • http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com Jason Falls

    Professor M – Thank you sir. We’ll see.

    Kevin – You’re right and these are meant to be directional pointers as you know. There’s a lot of changing that needs to happen in more ways that just the newsroom’s embracing of social media.

    Mike – Very well stated and valid points all. The balance of accuracy and immediacy will always need management, but where traditional media outlets are getting killed these days centers around their lack of connection to their audience and their better-safe-than-sorry attitude toward breaking news. I don’t want my news outlets to be less accurate, but I want them to embrace the here and now more urgently. I’ll follow your stream of information until you have had the time to polish it all. But right now, you’re not giving me a stream of information. Random people who I have no reason to trust or believe are. There should be a marriage of those ideas somewhere that makes legit news outlets both fast and legit again.

    I love when readers keep me honest, though. Thank you for disagreeing and calling it out.

  • http://EdRoberts.TV Ed Roberts

    Having been in both worlds, I’m glad others have made mention of disagreements with some of your points. I was having problems properly putting it into words.

    I actually had a conversation about this very kind of thing with a friend and former co-worker of mine who is in television news last week. He does a great job at maintaining blog that gets a ton of engagement and interaction from the community. It’s a great example of traditional media doing it right. BUT it’s essentially a second job for him.

    Where does traditional media fall short? For example: Other people in his news room have their own blogs as well, but they don’t have the drive to make it a “second job.” They don’t have the drive to maintain and interact to a level where they make an impact. As a result, zero interaction. The newscast is still primary importance (as it should be, it makes the money). To traditional media, all too often websites are designed to simply COMPLEMENT their primary distribution methods, not be a primary distribution. Until the attitude changes to where they treat online media on at least a level playing field with their current distribution, they’ll continue to fall behind.

    Here is some food for thought. Traditional news organizations continue to be the PRIMARY SOURCES for news gathering. New media is tends to be more of a news INTERPRETER than an actual source (earthquake example aside). Is this a good or bad thing? Are we moving to the point where traditional organizations are going to become more like the AP wire if they fail to interact? Old media gathers news information. New media sources report with their interpretation? Thoughts?

  • http://www.consumerpassion.com Jeff Crites

    Nice post and analysis. One suggestion I offered recently via my blog, aimed at radio and newspapers, was to foster online community by offering a collection and discussion portal for ‘ideas and suggestions’, mainly aimed at improving the local community, town, city. (Green ideas, crime, etc.). By integrating an online feedback platform (I offered SuggestionBox.com as a great choice), you could turn a newspaper website into an idea generator. And the citizen-generated ideas, in addition to giving people a good reason to interact with a newspaper website, could help generate more local news, as the cream of the idea crop get voted and commented on, and hopefully are embraced by local government, business, etc.

    Newspapers have an opportunity to be both the go-to hub for local-focused news AND the hub for ideas to improve the community. My post is here: http://tiny.cc/SuggestionBox

  • http://mariadkins.com Mari Adkins

    Well done.

  • http://mariadkins.com Mari Adkins

    re: the suggestion of SuggestionBox, I’ve been on several sites lately which use GetSatisfaction.com – it seems to work well.

  • http://doteduguru.com/ Kyle James

    I usually don’t leave a comment without actually having something meaningful to add, but this was a great thought provoking read. Thank you!

  • http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com Jason Falls

    Ed – You are never going to be looked down upon or scoffed at for disagreeing here. I encourage it. My personality is such that reining in from my readers needs to occur on a regular basis. So long as you have valid points (which you do) all opinions are welcome.

    You’re absolutely right that the level of commitment to new media tools is off-set from my ideal due to the financial priority structure. And you’re also right that a shortcoming traditional media outlets have is they consider the new media tools supplemental and not instrumental.

    My main point here, though, is not to encourage old guard media to treat engagement as a priority, but to use the new media tools to use their audiences to assist in their coverage. We’re in the era of community and the community is powerful. Newspapers, television stations, even radio stations aren’t recognizing this well and wondering why they aren’t relevant to their audiences anymore.

    To your final point and question, yes, new media is more analysis/opinion and traditional is more news gathering from an orientation and training perspective. But there’s no reason old media have to take a back seat. Credible pundits are better than random ones any day. If media outlets embrace new media, they can still rule the roost, business models notwithstanding.

    Jeff — Excellent ideas. Crowdsourcing ideas cannot be bad in today’s environment.

    Mari — I’ve heard good things about GetSatisfaction.com as well. Would love to know more about it.

    Kyle — Sound approach to commenting, sir, and I’m proud we motivated you to respond. Would love to know more about the thoughts it provoked, meaningful, I’m certain they are.

  • Pingback: THINKing » Mammals 1, Dinosaurs 0

  • Pingback: Saying no to clients, saying yes to 140 character resumes « PR Research

  • http://hannahesmith.blogspot.com/ Hannah

    I recently had the opportunity to talk to the editors of alternative weeklies. For them, their content has always been free so moving online actually saved them money in paper costs. I wonder if these alternative papers might have more of a shot of staying relevant as content moves online.

  • Pingback: Higher Education Internet Marketers Links of the Week May 16th, 2008 | .eduGuru

  • http://reichcomm.typepad.com David Reich my 2 cents

    An interesting post with some good ideas. I remain a bit concerned, though, about citizen journalism. I tend to agree with the C-J publisher regarding accuracy.

    I do like the idea of a paper running, in print, material from readers, identified as “user generated.” This way, a reader can look at it and understand it may not have the degree of accuracy and lack of bias that a story from a trained journalist is expected to produce.

    The Gannett paper where i live in Mount Vernon NY (Westchester County, just north of NY City) has been quite active with blogs on a wide variety of subjects. Some are good and others, especially the political blogs, have become a place where there’s been lots of personal attacks, unfounded allegations and, in a few cases, some offensive racist and anti-semetic rantings that the paper should have monitored and quickly deleted.

    Newspapers definitely face a challenging environment these days. I think where they can do best and thrive is by reporting local news and analysis.

    I’ve written about those challenges at
    http://reichcomm.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/04/taking-a-new-lo.html

  • Pingback: When Your Newspaper Is Written by Interns » The Buzz Bin