Reinventing the Newsroom

Facebook and the Future of Refrigerator Journalism

Posted in Communities, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on March 22, 2010

Last month I wrote about how finding information and choosing what to read makes the Web a more personal medium, an idea that came to me after reading a Q&A with Batavian publisher Howard Owens. In the comments, Roy Peter Clark raised a good point that’s nagged at me ever since:

I want to add one definition to the mix, what Michael Gartner once described as “refrigerator journalism.” I love that term because it describes how readers in real geographic communities respond to the newspaper. Just ask yourself this question: What, if anything, would I clip out of the newspaper, and attach to the refrigerator door? Usually, it is something very personal, perhaps a wedding photo, obituary, a feature about someone you know. In our case, it was soccer and theater stories and photos about the girls.

Emily, who is now 33, and eleven of her teammates from high school were just elected to that school’s Hall of Fame. When we arrived for the ceremony, many of the parents brought in newspaper clippings they had saved for 18 years. These were precious objects, almost sacramentals, that defined the lives of our family in this specific community.

I have not seen anything yet online that substitutes for this experience.

It’s a good point — and I love Gartner’s term “refrigerator journalism.” Let me consider it in two parts.

In one sense, I disagree with Roy. On Facebook, that high-school soccer story can immediately be shared. There’s no need to make copies and put them in the mail to faraway relatives or old friends, which is the kind of thing most of us wish we’d do but that generally gets lost in the tumble and churn of daily life. By taking the fuss and friction out of sharing and making it real-time, Facebook is in many ways a better refrigerator. As such, it’s enormously valuable in reinforcing real-world community, particularly now that it’s becoming fairly representative of more and more real-world communities. On Facebook, strong ties are naturally and easily reinforced, and weaker ties can be strengthened by posting photos and sharing articles and commenting and liking and just reading status updates.

In some ways, Facebook has taken away a chunk of news organizations’ old role as glue for their communities, just as Craiglist has snapped up classifieds, and various local blogs and now services such as Foursquare are taking a bite out of event listings. But that battle was lost long ago. Rather than mourning what could have been, news organizations should see Facebook as complementary to their role in the community: The news organization supplies raw material in terms of stories or events or photos (some of which may not be intended for the paper or the Web site — witness the Pocono Record’s side business), and the community distributes those stories, events and photos through social media. (How to preserve brand loyalty and pay the bills, of course, is another question, and a pretty crucial one.)

But while Facebook is wonderful for sharing, it’s lacking something: The sacramental aspect Roy talks about isn’t there. The things we share on Facebook are soon swept away by newer things and lost from view. They’re part of a rich stream of shared experience, but with the exception of photo albums, most of that shared experience is carried off into the realm of “older posts” and effectively lost. Our real-world fridge is like a lot of people’s — magnetic letters hold down a mess of to-do lists, old notes, amusing junk-mail misfires, cartoons, drawings by our son and of course photos, some of which date back to 1990. It’s a rich record of our family. So is Facebook, but there the richness can only be seen over time. It’s like everything gets cleared off the fridge and replaced every 18 hours.

Is this impermanence part and parcel of Facebook? I don’t think it has to be.

When I was at The Wall Street Journal, I had a lot of discussions with the site’s developers about how to make newsroom or business-side projects a reality. I was pretty realistic about what could or couldn’t be done, which is why I kept being involved in such conversations. But within those bounds, I became mildly notorious for assuming anything I could think of would be straightforward and quick to implement, which was simultaneously a compliment to our developers and a blithe assumption about their priorities. Eventually the developers would smile and say that whatever I wanted was “just a small matter of programming,” a bit of shorthand that served as a gentle but a still pointed warning.

Remembering that, I’ll still say that it seems like just a small matter of programming for Facebook to address the lack of the sacramental. Why not let readers tag items as keepers, items for a wall of fame, or whatever? They could even call it the digital fridge. Heck, Twitter is far more ephemeral and it lets you tag tweets as favorites. (It’s possible this already exists for Facebook — if so, please let me know in the comments.)

When Facebook began as a service for college students, the idea of saving something for years would have seemed bizarre — college kids don’t think that far backwards or forwards, for which they should be profoundly grateful. But now that Facebook is a Web front-end for college kids and teens and young professionals and parents and grandparents alike, its time horizons have changed, and it could fulfill all the functions of refrigerator journalism. My own family has a rich history on Facebook, one marked by favorite notes and links and pictures and comments and exchanges that I’d like to record for posterity. To do that, I could use Fridge 2.0.


6 Responses

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  1. Roy Peter Clark said, on March 23, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Jason, this is a insightful and persuasive response. Let me offer a possible example about how the evaporating messages of the Internet can be converted to profitable sacramentals. The bulletin board over my desk is my office version of the refrigerator door. The wall is dominated by three permanent objects. A framed political poster of my Grandfather, Peter Marino, vintage 1930s, who ran for the New York State Assembly. That is a family heirloom, recovered from a basement locker, cleaned, framed, hung on the wall.

    Next to it is a framed photographed copy of the ship’s manifest, the page that marks my grandfather’s arrival at Ellis Island with his mother, father, and two sisters. It records precious information about where they came from, where they were headed, and what they brought with them (twelve cents). My grandfather was four.

    Next to that is a framed photograph of the ship that carried the family from Naples to New York Harbor, a vessel called the Nord America. The photo and manifest I found on the Ellis Island website. I was able to order them both for a price of about $50.

    So years from now, could I access the deep files of a social network and recover digital files that could be converted back to concrete objects. I’d certainly be willing to pay for such a service. This idea may reveal my ignorance of certain technical issues, but I know that finding and now owning the Ellis Island documents was one of the most satisfying family experiences of my life. Cheers.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by George Dearing, Kevin Sablan, Kevin Sablan, Suzanne Lainson, Ben Cohen and others. Ben Cohen said: Fridge 2.0? Sounds like a startup idea. RT @jasoncfry Facebook and the future of "refrigerator journalism": […]

  3. […] emerged from an exchange I had back in March with my old friend and mentor Roy Peter Clark about Facebook and refrigerator journalism — local articles and photos about kids’ sports, school recitals and so forth that get […]

  4. Dan said, on December 28, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Just a note of interest, I believe the originator of the term “refrigerator journalism” decades ago was Don Ranly, a U. of Missouri journalism professor who taught many seminars on the topic around the country in the ’80s and ’90s.


  5. reinventingthenewsroom said, on December 29, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Interesting — thanks Dan. Though it sounds like Ranly is talking about something a bit different: delivering journalism that’s economical and works, instead of invoking the fridge as the altar for things clipped out. Either way, a good message for journalists to heed. Appreciate your reading and writing….

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