Journalism At The Crossroads – To Evolve Or Not

August 18, 2008 at 6:56 am | Posted in Blogging, Business, Communication, Marketing, Online marketing, Public Relations, Social Media, Twitter, Web 2.0 | 9 Comments
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Courtesy of jbhill via Flickr

Courtesy of jbhill via Flickr

Journalism is at a crossroads, with two distinct groups voicing their opinions.

On one side, many journalists don’t buy the trend toward social media and have their heads firmly entrenched in the sand. They believe in their readership’s loyalty and claim that social media is a passing fad.

One the other side, other journalists have fully embraced the social media tools at their disposal and go so far as to trumpet the death of journalism. They expect newspapers to close up shop; the death knell of print news is a symphony of tweets.

Aren’t the two views mutually exclusive? Which one is correct?

Personally, I believe they are both wrong. Some newspapers will outlast social media and some have already been taken down by it. The basic truth is that some people love getting their news from social media like Facebook, Twitter, and FriendFeed, while others will never replace their tangible newspaper-with-coffee routine.

This post will explain, however, that newspapers and journalists who use social media – in effect integrate these two seemingly opposing ideas – will likely be the long-term winners. There is no doubt that the old ways are changing. Journalists who refuse to accept that should begin cleaning up their resumes.

But major news networks need not shutter the windows quite yet. Embracing this change could be the key to stopping the newspaper industry’s slow (and recently not so slow) slide into irrelevance.

An Industry In Turmoil

You don’t have to look far for evidence that the newspaper industry is in trouble, and this has been a trend for several years. The New York Times reported that 2006 saw one of the steepest declines in the newspaper industry ever. In 2007, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported a continued 3% decline across the board. This pattern involves not only newspaper sales, but the related topics of ad sales and job cuts.

So where have all the readers gone? You guess it – the internet. The NYT title says it all: “More Readers Trading Newspapers For Web Sites.” Or how about “Newspaper Circulation In Steep Slide Across Nation.” Get the picture?

A (Social) World Of Solutions

So, in these tough times, what if there was a way for newspapers to:

  • Create a sense of loyalty to a particular magazine
  • Develop brand advocates (word of mouth ambassadors)
  • Provide more relevant news
  • Link into a network of concerned citizens
  • Increase pageviews and (connected to increased traffic) increase revenue

A recent article by Todd Andrlik about The Chicago Tribune’s recent forays into the social media space illustrates a newspaper who has done just that. Here’s a quick run-down of the results of their efforts:

  • Traffic: Social media efforts are responsible for an 8% increase in pageviews.
  • Market research: “‘Essentially, social media gives us a year-round, real-time focus group to monitor conversations and keep us in tune with what consumers are thinking,’ said Bill Adee, associate managing editor for innovation and head of the Tribune’s social media task force.”
  • More relevant content: The Tribune created a special section on the website about Chicago’s O’Hare airport directly based on the conversation they heard on Twitter.
  • A network of citizen journalists: The newspaper recently broke a story about a bomb scare at the Daley Building after being tipped off my concerned followers on Twitter.
  • Positive local and national PR: Serving as a example (and occasionally picking up the tab at tweet-ups) has the tangential benefit of blog posts just like this one and hundreds more online.

Flash In The Pan Or Gem Of A Strategy?

Maybe the successful efforts are a momentary success. After all, despite the success found through social media, I’m sure things are still tight over at The Tribune.

And yet, more and more smart people are figuring out that social media enhances the journalistic work they do. For instance, marketer and author Peter Shankman’s “Help A Reporter Out” connects journalists with possible sources. Formerly journalists had to pay for such a service, but Shankman does it all for free. He gets notoriety out of the deal and a little advertising, but the more than 20,000 subscribers seem to think it’s worthwhile.

Likewise, MyCreativeTeam introduced a wiki list of journalists who use Twitter to connect PR people with journalists and media outlets. The list has grown exponentially since it first began and you can read more about it here.

One can only assume that the hundreds or thousands of journalists using these services are getting something out of them. Staying connected, developing sources, staying in touch with your community readership, providing more value – don’t these sound like smart business goals for newspapers and the journalists who run them?

Final Assessment

Frankly, I don’t think newspaper will go away entirely. It’s difficult to imagine a Norman Rockwell-esque scene in which Father Dearest whips out his blackberry to connect to the Twitter stream rather than reading his paper by the fire.

However, the journalists and newspapers who deny the use of social media – for themselves or their audience – might as well have targets painted on their backs. Your days are numbered.

But, if you take the route of The Chicago Tribune, Shankman’s HARO, and MyCreativeTeam’s journalist Twitter wiki, you may reap rewards you never expected. Experiment, have fun, but also measure the results again your business goals and reassess accordingly. Journalists should not – heck, cannot – avoid social media. But if they get wise to the tool, it may become one of their greatest assets.


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  1. Stumbled it! As a journalism major and lover, I appreciate your post! I think the successful will find themselves somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. But it’s a fun and intersting conversation to follow isn’t it? =)

  2. Interesting views on a subject close to my own heart.
    My last full-time job on a newspaper was 2 years and there’s been massive change in the industry in that time.

    The problem journalism faces is:
    * trying to play catch up within an environment that keeps changing;
    * plus trying to figure out what all this stuff means and the opportunities it provides;
    * on top of working out its own place within this changing landscape.

    There is little doubt in my mind that the industry needs to change, but it shouldn’t just copy the models that have worked for others. Too often newspapers seem to be listening to established social media experts and saying: “Yes, we’ll have that one please.”

    But one size doesn’t fit all, especially within an industry with such deeply entrenched idiosyncracies.

    Social media can offer huge opportunities, but journalists need to learn how to adapt them to suit their own needs, rather than copy what has gone before.

    Journalism also needs to be a lot less precious about itself.
    These days I seem to be wearing many hats – reporter, writer, consultant, blogger – but if I’m asked what I do I give the same reply I’ve done for 20 years: “I’m a journalist”.
    That hasn’t changed, even if the way I work and the type of work I do has altered massively in the last few years.

  3. Thanks Butterfly and Paul for your insightful comments!

    Paul – You’re totally correct about not using social media as an “add on” or just copying someone else’s success.

    One thing I didn’t specifically point out is the large amount of resources the Chicago Tribune invested in this effort. Four staffer’s time is expensive! Of course, this would change depending on a lot of factors, but if you aren’t willing to invest whatever is necessary, you may do more harm than good.

  4. I really liked this post – and the follow-up comments. I’m also impressed with the Tribune’s social media strategy and HARO (I’ve been a member for a while and it is exciting to see how much it has grown!).

    However, I do agree with Paul Groves – I see a lot of old-school media types who realize that they need to get involved online and with social media, but they have not real strategy. They just scatter their content around the web and don’t take the time to understand how social media communities and platforms work. Or they just copy what worked for other journalists/newspapers without realizing their differences.

    That said, it is a really exciting time to be involved in the media, new or old (I think that the dividing line between new and old media is growing blurrier every day now, though, so perhaps soon we can all stop using those tired phrases). I can’t wait to see what other journalists/writers/media outlets do with all the tools available to them.

  5. Nice post.

    Here’s a quote that constantly comes to mind in discussions like this:

    “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
    – General Eric Shinseki.

  6. Resources is key. One of the biggest newspaper groups in this country has been investing quite a lot in revamping the websites of many of its main titles and adding new content through blogs and video, yet they’ve frozen their graduate training programme and general recruitment.
    It smacks of taking one step forward and two back (again).
    What’s the point of investing in new technology when you stop investing in the biggest asset – new talent?

  7. […] WMBN member DJ Francis gives his views on the future of journalism, suggesting the confusion and turmoil the industry is finding itself wrapped up in is largely of […]

  8. …and by spooky coincidence, my old newspaper has now announced a radical relaunch.
    A multi-million pound investment in new technology and a complete overhaul of the way it works – but with 65 people losing their jobs.
    The price of progress is never easy.

  9. […] OnlineMarketerBlog […]

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