Journalism At The Crossroads - To Evolve Or Not

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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