Willie Sutton’s Newspaper Tips
Willie Sutton, it’s said, robbed banks because that’s where the money was.
Which is the way newspapers ought to look at Facebook and Twitter: You need to set up shop there because they’re where the readers are.
For newspapers, wading into social media can feel like a bigger cultural change than going Web-first, or interacting with readers in discussion forums and comments. There are a lot of reasons for this reluctance. First of all, papers are struggling just to survive day-to-day amid a drumbeat of bad news. Culturally, there’s still some reluctance to come down from the mountain, to borrow yesterday’s metaphor. Strategically, there’s a worry that engaging social media will force overburdened papers to chase fads — after all, Friendster’s rule was usurped by MySpace, which was in turn thrown down by Facebook, and so it’s logical to assume that uneasy rests the social-media crown. (And what the heck’s Twitter?)
And there’s a problem of focus: Facebook and Twitter are for individuals, not entities, so what’s a paper to do? If individual reporters and editors reach out on Facebook and tweet, the outreach and the brand are fragmented. (And central control is lost.) On the other hand, it’s hard to convey any personality if the paper reaches out as a collective entity. Hard, but not impossible — look at what the Chicago Tribune has done with Colonel Tribune. Their “digital front man” has more than 9,500 Twitter followers and a cult following in the city. (At Mashable, Stuart Foster interviews Daniel Honigman, Tribune Interactive’s social-media strategist, about the project. All those Chicagoans wearing Colonel Tribune-style paper hats at a meetup? Clear evidence that the Tribune has a hit on its hands.)
One way or another, papers need to reach out. They need to experiment, and accept that that will mean some failures. Because social media is where the readers are — and where they’re already primed for a conversation. Joining that conversation will create relationships and help papers rebuild their communities of readers — which is the way forward for journalism in the digital age.
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