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The Survival of Newspapers Depends on Embracing Social Media – Pew Study Shows This Isn’t Happening

November 16, 2011 2 comments

The MSM 9000 - Turning Twitter Into a Glorified RSS Feed

The Pew Center Project for Excellence in Journalism recently published a study (“How Mainstream Media Outlets Use Twitter; Content Analysis Shows an Evolving Relationship“) showing that, despite its myriad applications, most newspapers just use Twitter as a way of regurgitating the content they’re already publishing on pulp or on their websites.  Megan Garber at the Nieman Journalism Lab rightly points out that this turns Twitter into “a glorified RSS feed.”

Pew Newspaper Twitter Use Study - Tweets During a Week

The results of the study are a good insight into why the newspaper industry has suffered such a decline in recent years; they still haven’t embraced social media in a meaningful way.  The particularly telling statistic was that during the one-week period when the Twitter accounts were observed, 93 percent of the tweets linked back to a story on the news organization’s website.

In fairness to the newspapers observed, most of them likely have a strategy that divides up the content and engagement among various different Twitter accounts.  For example, the Arizona Republic notes that @azcentral is the site they use for news and opinion (they reserve @arizonarepublic for interactions with the newsroom) and fortunately the Pew study methodology noted this.  The Pew study took this into account to an extent by measuring what was published by reporters that work for each paper.

One measure of an organization’s level of social media engagement (though admittedly it’s riddled with problems and much-derided by many social media experts) is Klout.  For what it’s worth, here are the Klout scores of the 13 news organizations measured (as of November 15, 2011).  By comparison, I’m not terribly influential and my Klout score is 54 – the highest Klout score currently is Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) at 100:

  • The Huffington Post (@huffingtonpost): 86
  • The New York Times (@nytimes): 86
  • ABC News (@abc): 83
  • The Wall Street Journal (@wsj): 83
  • The Washington Post (@washingtonpost): 82
  • Fox News (@foxnews): 82
  • CNN (@cnn): 81
  • MSNBC (@msnbc): 77
  • USA Today (@usatoday): 77
  • NPR (@nprnews): 76
  • The Arizona Republic (@azcentral): 63
  • The Daily Caller (@dailycaller): 61
  • The Toledo Blade (@toledonews): 46

Replicability?

I was curious to see if some of the non-traditional major newspapers also succumbed to this non-engaging practice of using Twitter so I took a look at the accounts of the St. Petersburg Times (run by the Poynter Institute) and a few of thedaily papers operated by the McClatchy Company, as well as the Grand Rapids Press.  My hypothesis was that they would have embraced social media (in this case Twitter) in a more meaningful way than the traditional for-profit newspapers which would show up in a higher volume of tweets and more engagement with individual Twitter users.

During the one-week period between November 8-14, 2011, these were the results:

Tweets Links to Own Stories / Others / Pct Klout Score
The St. Petersburg Times (@tampabaycom) 51 48 / 0 (100%) 47
McClatchy – Anchorage Daily News (@adndotcom) 100 65 / 15 (81%) 10
McClatchy – The Kansas City Star (@kcstar) 213 169 / 20 (89%) 58
Grand Rapids Press (@grpress) 50 49 / 1 (98%) 49
 Total 331 / 36 (90%)

As you can see, they were pretty much the same as the rest of the newspapers observed in the Pew Study; an average of 90 percent of the links provided were back to their own content.

What was interesting was that the period of time observed for the Anchorage Daily News was during a massive storm which dramatically changed the way the paper used Twitter. It was far more likely to retweet breaking news from other Twitter users, as well as link to other sites (such as the National Oceanographic and Aeronautic Administration – NOAA). This change begs the question; if it’s important to martial all information regardless of source during an emergency, why isn’t that the case during the regular news day?

Recommendations

Here’s some advice for the newspapers (for what it’s worth):

1. Acknowledge and Engage Followers:

While it’s certainly reasonable for any given news organization to tweet links back to its content, that shouldn’t make up the bulk of the tweets.  Twitter offers a unique opportunity to interact one-on-one with readers in a very timely fashion.  The organizations that use Twitter well participate in the online community and acknowledge their customers/constituents – speaking personally to them and sharing what they publish(by re-tweeting “RT-ing” them).

2. Embrace Social Media Conventions:

There’s an interesting phenomenon going on right now where news organizations are worried about re-tweeting content from other users because they fear it is perceived as an “endorsement” of the person (some go so far as to expressly mention in their Twitter descriptions that RTs are not an endorsement).  Be not afraid, journos!  RTs are only sometimes an endorsement, and if some of your readers are too stupid to note the difference – you probably don’t need them anyway.

Pew Newspaper Twitter Use Study - Use of Hashtags

What was particularly shameful was the lack of use of hashtags in tweets.  NPR didn’t use a single hashtag during the entire period they were observed.  That’s shameful.  Hashtags are signposts that allow people (and algorithms) to identify relevant content, and they facilitate discussion around a topic.  They should be a priority for any Twitter user to include whenever the 140 character limit permits.

3. Give Your Social Media Presence a Face:

By this I mean an actual face.  Of a person.  Not a logo, but a person.  Everyone knows that there’s a person behind every social media presence, yet most organizations conduct themselves on social media as though a giant machine is adding copy and triggering the “send” button.  Of the Twitter accounts measured, only five readily identified who was tweeting on behalf of the organization (The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Arizona Republic, The Daily Caller, and the Toledo Blade).

4. Learn From Your Reporters:

In my experience, I’ve found journalists are frequently adept at using social media – Twitter in particular.  They’re personal, timely, and engaging.  They get social media conventions, and they’re not afraid to participate (even using Twitter to gather news and find interview subjects).  That’s one of the reasons why #JournChat (a weekly dialog involving reporters and public relations pros) is my favorite Tweet Chat

What are the Ramifications of West Michigan Newspaper Cutbacks and the new Mlive Media Group?

November 2, 2011 5 comments

[Updated] Earlier this morning, Dan Gaydou (President of the newly-minted Mlive Media Group) announced that the Booth papers: Grand Rapids Press, Kalamazoo Gazette, Flint Journal, Jackson Citizen-Patriot and Muskegon Chronicle will be cutting distribution down to three days a week – Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.  The announcements characterize the new venture as a “digital-first company.”  Another big announcement was that MLive Media Group will merge with Advance Central Services Michigan.

What does it mean for the citizens of Michigan?  I’m afraid it will be less detail and less of a local focus in their news coverage.

Even in the announcement of the move was somewhat disconcerting (and even incestuous): Read more…

What Newspapers can Learn From the Music Industry

December 15, 2009 Leave a comment

Large, conglomerated titans ruling over a highly influential communication medium suddenly thrown into flux (replete with plummeting revenues) by the advent of technology.  Sound familiar?

It’s what is happening to the print news industry right now – but it happened to the music industry nearly a decade ago.  I’ve been thinking about the parallels between the way the music industry responded to the challenge to its business model and how the newspapers are reacting now and it’s eerie to see the similarities.

  • Resting on Their Laurels:  As the newspapers built their profits to soaring heights relying on classified ad sales and increasing the share of their profits that came from advertising, so too the music industry reached its zenith with over-produced pop schlock.  Increased profits moved the leadership of both music and news away from serving consumers and focusing on the quality of the product and increased the temptation to cut corners and aim for the middle.  (This cannibalizing strategy tends to go into overdrive when revenues begin to fall – and it hastened the decline in both cases).
  • Neglecting to Innovate: The record labels sat around for years ignoring the growing demand for the .mp3 format (which held obvious advantages over CDs).  As a result, consumers were left up to create their own world; and create they did – completely leaving the industry out of the loop.  My first Diamond Rio 300 player held only 8 songs, but it played without skipping, weighed almost nothing, and lasted FOREVER on a single AA battery.  It was worth having to rip my own CDs to access those advantages and be able to make my own “mixtape” quickly and easily on my computer.  What has the newspaper industry innovated in the last 10 years?  (Seriously – I’m not trying to be a dick, but if you can think of something – let me know).
  • Trying to Stifle Development With Brute Force:  Rupert Murdoch’s proposal to lock Newscorp’s content behind paywalls and the Associated Press’ efforts to sue aggregators into compliance smack of the draconian efforts by the music industry to fix prices, sue file-sharing platforms into bankruptcy, and lock music away from consumers with Digital Rights Management software.  I anticipate they’ll be just as (in)effective.

To be fair, I’m painting with a broad brush.  There are certainly exceptions to these generalizations – but not many.  These are the dangers of refusing to accept the new scale businesses can effectively operate at, under-prioritizing creativity and treating one’s audiences as dollar signs.

Idea for the Evolution of the Newsmedia: Get People to Take Their Medicine

December 8, 2009 Leave a comment

The newsmedia has become an incestuous, sensationalism-obsessed mess.  Everyone reports endlessly on the same [trivial] events.

Even the local news feels compelled to cover the same substance-bereft stories airing ad nauseum on cable (though they make a superficial attempt to “localize” them).  Why?  To siphon off the dregs of the audience that hasn’t heard about them yet?  No wonder readers/viewers are leaving in droves.

What newspapers need to realize is that they’re in the business of providing an information service, not a product (absent our sentimental attachment, a physical newspaper is no more consequential than the wrapper my Spicy Chickencrisp Sandwich came in).  Their focus should be making that service more attractive (not trying to commit mass suicide by walling the public off from that service).

Years ago Palm’s epiphany was realizing that they weren’t competing with other gadgets, but instead with the pen and paper.  Today, newspapers need to realize that their competition isn’t the Internet – it’s the authorities people go to for info/advice.

Where journalists might better provide value to customers  is in providing life guidance (for lack of a better term) to the average person more efficiently than other resources.  As this scary Wired Magazine article shows – we need it.  Badly.

Scanning one’s environment for relevant information is a daunting task, even with some of the amazing tools available.  What if the information-gathering abilities could be invested not only in digging up news – but in indexing/categorizing that news so that it can be pushed in front of the people who aren’t looking for it (but who nevertheless need to know about it)?  In that context – American ignorance suddenly becomes a market waiting to be conquered.

What if newspapers analyzed raw data about you using algorithms similar to those developed by Amazon.com and Netflix for their recommendation engines and combined it with their coverage?  What if they could turn that analysis into a daily “to do” list, make suggestions in scheduling your calendar, or populate your address book?

I envision it working like this (three scenarios):

1. Say you’re a homeowner.  You know how much you pay in property taxes every year, but there’s no way you have time to follow all of the public notices and legal happenings that may affect your life.  Would you pay for a service that could:

  • … scan public notices and the minutes of local government entities for developments that affect you, record your support/opposition in a tweet, and recommend a donation to a local political action group that represents your views …
  • … crunch crime data and use it to reschedule locations/times of meetings for you to keep you out of harm’s way …
  • … keep tabs on the real estate market and recommend changes to your insurance policy in real-time based on local housing values, the weather, and a background check of your new neighbors …

2. Say you’re interested in video gaming.  You may follow the latest release details on hot properties like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, but beyond that it’s unlikely you’ll see other stories of direct relevance to your life and efficiently make use of that information.  What if if this service could:

  • …make you aware of a recent report on a scientific study about the health effects of playing first-person shooters, and automatically scaled back the time on your calendar that you plan to play during the week…
  • …tell you about a business story about a large national chain threatening to remove the game from its shelves over complaints about the content, then change your shopping list so you can boycott that chain, and inform your broker to divest any of your holdings in that company…

3. Say you have diabetes. You may be able to follow your doctor’s recommendations, but how easy is it for you to keep up on the latest relevant information about your condition?  What if a service could:

  • watch the federal register and automatically send you the paperwork when changes to health care insurance laws affect you …
  • … study consumer reviews about blood glucose testing equipment and send you real-time reviews as you’re browsing in a store …
  • … compare your social calendar to the available menus and reviews of the restaurants you’re going to visit and recommend the best options for you …

Newspapers have access to a lot of this information – but it’s buried within the arcane methods we have for organizing data.  If they spent less time trying to dig up locals with a connection to the latest national scandal or tragedy and more time creating and organizing hyperlocal content, they might survive.

Suddenly a degree in Library Science is pretty relevant.