Louisville’s daily newspaper, the Courier-Journal, is readying the launch of a new website. I was invited to preview the beta site and offer some feedback. While what follows is much of that reaction, the mistaken strategies behind the social media elements of the Courier’s new site are a common mistake made by newly designed “social” websites everywhere, including media sites, brand websites and more.

Courier-Journal beta site screen captureThe C-J, as we call it, is one of the Gannett chain. So, any compliments or criticisms I have probably should be directed there. When you log in and create a profile on the new site, your information should be applicable on papers like the Indianapolis Star, the Nashville Tennessean and so on. (Though it appears to not yet be fully functional.) That’s pretty cool, even if I’m never really on those sites. The site is less cluttered and confusing than the old site but they are still using pop-up ads which make most people want to ram their fist through the screen, along the fiber optic metaverse, out the screen of the online sales staff and strangle them. Overall, though, it looks nicer.

The big selling point, or so they think, of the new site is its social media elements. Gannett’s online efforts are all centered around “mojo” – mobile journalism, not to be confused with Louisville’s ground-breaking dating site turned localized online community, LouisvilleMojo – and plugging users in to a network of readers, reactors and content-generators who make the newspaper’s website their first and frequent stop on the web. In addition to logging in and plugging in profile information, an avatar and more, each user has a blog, is encouraged to upload pictures and videos, can “recommend” or vote on stories, bookmark them on various sites and comment on both stories and other people’s blogs. Without question, Gannett has done a good job of providing the users with social media tools.

But social media tools are just a means to an end. And the problem with most newspaper websites who implement these tools is that their focus is on the tools and not the audience. The means are there. The end is unclear. What do you want us to do with these tools?

“Look at us! We’ve given you a blog! We’ve made it possible for you to upload pictures and videos! You can recommend stories – not directly to other people who are your friends here other than checking it as “recommended” – but you can recommend stories! You can comment! WE HAVE SOCIAL MEDIA! YAY!”

No you don’t have social media. You have social media tools that seem to serve no purpose. You don’t have a community. You have a bunch of disconnected users who still will only engage by trading insults on the comment and forum sections of stories.

My challenge to the Courier-Journal, Gannett and other media outlets trying to be more socially-driven is to connect these tools to a greater purpose for the website. Great! I’ve got a blog. But how do the user blogs ladder up to the purpose of the website or the newspaper? What can user blogs do to further engage, connect and offer depth of insight to the news we’re reading? All those recommendations you want us to make don’t seem to equal anything other than a number associated with the story. Yes, you have a list of the top 10 most recommended stories, but it’s shuffled down the page under most commented stories. Why not use that intelligence to reorganize the placement of stories on each section’s page and truly make the site powered by “You and the Courier-Journal?”

You want me to upload pictures? Cool. I’ve got a great shot of my dog pissing on the neighbor’s bushes. What does that have to do with covering the happenings in my community? And you want mobile journalists but don’t let me upload my own videos? Why not empower your readers to cover happenings in and around their community, thus eliminating your excuse of not enough staffing to cover all the interesting local events that are left out of your paper so you can drop 25 pages of AP wire copy on stories about crap happening in Seattle or Dallas or Washington no one here cares about? (While this isn’t directed at one section, I have a thing about local sports … namely that outside the big universities or major professional sports franchises, local sports coverage seldom exists … please forgive me.)

In terms of building a community of users, yes, the site makes enhancements to allow me to make technical connections — wire-to-wire connections — to other Courier-Journal users, but how do I make a human connection to these people? That’s where social networking blossoms. Find a way for the blog content, message boards and story recommendations to connect like-minded members of the readership who then contribute meaningfully to color the coverage your paid journalists are providing and you’ll have done something no other media outlet has figured out.

Please don’t think I purport to hold all the answers to this. But the thinking behind what Gannett is providing in terms of social media tools is centered around the tools, not the mission of the paper or the audience it serves. Yes, bells and whistles are cool, but if there’s no symphony to which you contribute to by using them, at the end of the day you have a bell, a whistle and a reader typing in a different URL.

Check out the beta for yourself at beta.courier-journal.com and tell me what you think. Did they miss the boat or am I mistaken? The comments are yours.

Other Posts You’ll Find Interesting:

  1. Checking Out The C-J’s New Look
  2. Can Newspapers Be Social Networks?
  3. New Media Meets Old: A Look At Redesigned Mainstream News Sites
  4. Tribune Debuts New Design
  5. A Newsroom Is Not A Newsroom: Changing Editorial Realities & Media Relations

[tags]Courier-Journal, Louisville, Gannett, journalism, media, newspaper, social media, site redesign, online community[/tags]

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls 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 Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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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://www.leapfroginteractive.com KatFrench

    I’m much in agreement with you, but I do see some powerful potential in hooking up MSM with Social Media.

    I think a big key is if they’ll dedicate the people-resources to developing the community aspect of the new site. To thoughtful moderation of UGC, and to figuring out ways to appropriately mashup the best and most relevant local UGC content with the best and most relevant MSM content.

    How cool would it be if the Community page for each neighborhood actually became a community page for the neighborhood, with the best of both the traditional news and the best voices from that community all in one place?

  • http://www.my-creativeteam.com/blog/?p=584 Harry Hoover

    Amen, my brother. Typical of the newspaper dinosaur to focus on the wrong theings. This is a great example of why 67 percent of Americans feel traditional journalists are “out of touch” as reported by a new Zogby poll.

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

    Kat — Well said. I’d love it if a community page were truly built by the community.

    Double-H — I hear ya. Some folks inside Gannett papers emailed and direct Twittered me today saying, “Thank God someone said it.” Funny. The thinking is there, just being done by the wrong people.

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  • http://www.websocialarchitecture.com Ryan Turner

    Nice post, Jason. This is the very gospel I’m preaching to clients on a near-daily basis. There’s clearly a very strong sense out there in corporate land of the importance of social media, and not a very strong sense at all about how to think of using social media–so your comment about alignment with overall goals is key.

    I hear a lot of railing against social media for its own sake, but not a lot of constructive input about how to actually get it right. More!

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  • http://www.baylinercovers.net/ bayliner_covers

    That's the great article! I just pass 'n read it, two thumbs up! ;)

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Thanks a bunch!

  • http://www.baylinercovers.net/ bayliner_covers

    That's the great article! I just pass 'n read it, two thumbs up! ;)

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Thanks a bunch!

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