Reinventing the Newsroom

Social Media and the New Distributors

Posted in Creating Context, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on August 5, 2009

I spent yesterday in Boston at Reinventing Journalism and Yourself: One Tweet, One Friend at a Time, a pre-conference to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications‘ annual convention. (Sadly, I couldn’t stick around for the whole thing.)

I came back with a lot to think about concerning the journalism and social media, from educators’ struggles to keep up with students who are steeped in social media (and sometimes vice versa) to the warning that great social-media skills can’t be a substitute for a basic grounding in journalism. And there was a basic but firm reminder that social media is no longer an interesting little experiment: Nieman Journalism Lab‘s Joshua Benton noted that Twitter drives more than 20% of Nieman’s traffic, more than Google.

I’ve been thinking about social media a lot recently, with an eye towards how EidosMedia can improve our software to help publishers meet social media’s challenges and take advantage of its opportunities. But of course that’s not something a software maker can do alone: Publishers have to be interested in those challenges and opportunities too — and they have to see them clearly.

And that’s the part that worries me a bit.

When publishers’ initial approach to social media is telling their employees what they shouldn’t do, I worry that’s not the right starting point. (So what is it? Glad you asked.)

Ditto for publishers that are gung-ho for social media, but approach it by drawing up plans for their own social networks. (Are you really going to do as good a job as Facebook? And even if you are, will all your readers who are already on Facebook really set up a new social identity?)

Even when publishers embrace social media, I worry that they may see it primarily as a way for readers to talk among themselves. That drives up time spent on a site and increases reader loyalty, both of which are great, but it misses the larger point, which was brought home to me by something Dan Gillmor said up in Boston.

Gillmor noted that newspaper distribution is changing from putting stuff on trucks to telling people that stuff is out and they can come and get it. Social media, he said, is distribution.

That’s the game-changer, and I’d take it a step further: Social media isn’t just a new way to push a message to potential readers via a paper’s Facebook pages or Twitter feeds — a virtual dinner bell calling readers in for informational nourishment. It’s also a means by which readers themselves act as distributors — they’re the equivalent of the print era’s truck drivers, delivering news to the countless little (and big!) newsstands of personal pages, Twitter feeds and other outlets.

I’d bet that most publishers worry far more about SEO than they do about sharing, when sharing may be more important to their bottom lines. And social media means a lot more than having a Share link next to Email This on stories. Few publishers have given serious thought to the fact that (like search) social media makes every single article a gateway into the rest of the paper. Different readers will arrive at that gateway via different paths and with different expectations, yet readers rarely see any context for an article except a newspaper’s Web navigation. New contexts are desperately needed if readers are going to be enticed into reading more, staying longer and becoming loyal. (Further thoughts here.)

Readers are the new distributors, and social media is the truck. And, as Nieman’s experience shows, they’re already driving it. Publishers can’t control that, but they should be doing everything in their power to take advantage of it.

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