Strange Bedfellows: Social Media and Journalism

I, like many people in their mid-20’s, am addicted to Facebook and Twitter, using the sites daily for entertainment, to access information, and stay in touch with friends.

I view Facebook and Twitter in different lights. Facebook is the site I visit to see pictures of a friend’s party or learn about their day. Twitter is the site I visit to learn about the world around me from strangers (i.e., newsmakers and news gatherers.)

My longstanding perceptions and biases surrounding the two sites are starting to change slightly as more news organizations and personalities shift focus to posting updates on Facebook. Before many focused most of their energy on distributing links and brief analysis on Twitter, which allows users to post 140 characters at a time.

The concept of how social media can benefit journalism is one I am keenly interested in because a) I am a journalist by trade, b) I view traditional journalism as a sinking ship, and c) As I mentioned earlier, I am addicted to social media.

Social media is relatively new and evolving every minute. Print journalism is centuries old and reluctant to change, even in the face of extinction. Strange bedfellows, right?

Some people still value reading their morning paper while sitting in their recliner, but increasingly more people would rather consume news online, whether from their desktop, their phone, their iPad, etc. If your newspaper has an iPhone app that’s even better.

The more people live in a virtual world, where their social constructs and communities are on a computer screen, the more newspapers will have to cater to these virtual worlds.

That doesn’t mean this transition will be easy. It’s hard to gauge, in some ways, how Facebook and Twitter activity translate to money for newspapers. The proliferation of sites like bit.ly, which keep track of where people who click links are from, will make it easier to judge how much social media sites benefit newspapers’ bottom line.

The growing number of people who prefer online news to traditional newspapers is hardly a new phenomenon. This seachange pre-dates the rise over the past five years of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter.

However, these sites have led to new questions being asked across American newsrooms. Journalists and editors asking questions, after all.

For instance, does an increased focus on Facebook and Twitter and other social media sites actually lead to an enhanced awareness about a newspaper’s product — i.e., more page views on the newspaper’s web site or more paper subscriptions?

And if it leads to more clicks on said newspaper’s web site, assuming that newspaper doesn’t charge for its online content, how does it capitalize financially on this interest? Sure, you can charge more for ads as page views increase, but online ad revenue has not stemmed the tidal wave of layoffs at newspapers across the country.

These are not easy questions to answer. My thoughts on these matters come from my experience working for three newspapers across two states and my rabid use of Facebook and Twitter and observations about those sites.

Newspapers that ignore social media because they view it as unimportant to their bottom line or through sheer ignorance are making a critical lapse in judgment.

The news industry’s purpose is to provide information to people about the world around them, whether that be a hyperlocal focus or a literal focus on world events. From that starting point, it is then news organization’s duty to provide information to people where they are.

If this means posting a link on Twitter or Facebook then so be it. Our 21st century reality is that people want to pick and choose what news they consume. It makes sense for news outlets to ally themselves with social media sites, in that respect.

Newspapers continuing to focus all their resources into traditional print products are like a parent telling their teenage child to eat a salad when the child has the option of walking/driving to McDonald’s or a dozen other fast food restaurants within a few blocks.

This then leads to the question of how much resources a newspaper should pour into social media. Obviously each newspaper’s focus will be different. For instance, a small daily would not have the same resources as the New York Times.

Larger newspapers have social media employees devoted to managing Facebook and Twitter accounts. Smaller newspapers often don’t.

Increasingly, reporters are starting work Twitter pages. It is a great way to connect with readers and answer questions they have when breaking news hits.

But it raises questions about quotas and other policies, particularly about what is appropriate back-and-forth between reporters and their Twitter followers.

I mention quotas because in today’s journalism climate, where fewer reporters are expected to do more work, anything that requires them to do more is viewed with suspicion or outright disgust. So is anything that could potentially cost them their job, which in many cases is already on shaky footing due to decreasing profits.

Newsroom Twitter advocates would respond that tweeting takes 30 seconds, per the quote dilemma, and to avoid typing anything you believe could put you in hot water, per the job security dilemma.

I have experienced Twitter’s benefits first hand while covering major news events (i.e., a death penalty trial and a school shooting). Readers flocked to the account to get breaking news while I was on those scenes. I obviously could not write an article from the courthouse, but I could send out five or six tweets during a 10-minute recess. I also reminded people to visit the paper’s web site later for a complete story.

I am more skeptical about Twitter, though, as a day-to-day service. Interest waned dramatically among my followers when the major events ended. That’s to be expected, but what is the answer … I would guess you have to keep tweeting, as opposed to letting your account go dormant, until that next big event occurs.

With Facebook, it’s a little different. My contention that Facebook is more of an infotainment site than Twitter makes me less inclined to believe people go there to find traditional news, as opposed to keeping up with friends.

But considering that millions of Americans have Facebook pages, and it is free for newspapers to solicit fans on the page, I see no harm in trying to entice people to click on links to stories.

This leads me to another thought: Is it more or less beneficial to have readers discuss a story on Facebook as opposed to doing so on the newspaper’s web site?

My guess is that it is better to have the discussion on the paper’s web site. More discussion on the source site makes people return to the original link, and thus drives up page views.

But at the same time, people who find out about an interesting link on a newspaper’s Facebook site will likely tell friends about that link. From there, the second person might feel inclined to visit the site and result in more page views.

A newspaper-driven discussion on Facebook creates a buzz but it does not directly generate money for the newspaper. Maybe the buzz will lead to more page views down the road. That’s hypothetical, of course.

Questions about how to best wed social media and journalism won’t be answered until more newspapers, particularly editors, view these sites as opportunities to grow their brand, and begin to experiment with them.

Social media is not the elixir that will heal the dying print journalism industry. At least I don’t think it is. Social media might drive people farther away from the news. They might discard news faster, and therefore miss the importance and context of events.

That’s a risk that needs to be taken. The alternative is people not reading at all. And at that point the Titanic has capsized and can’t be raised.

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