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January 6, 2009

Newspapers using social media to reach a wider audience

January 5, 2009

In this post Bill Adee, editor of digital media for the Chicago Tribune, describes how his newspaper is using social media to reach a wider audience.  They considered a number of elements which were important regarding the delivery of their online news content including:

  • the divergent routes by which readers arrive at content, such as search engines, bookmarks and links from other sites
  • the ongoing value of published content, and the issues surrounding the continued availability of it
  • in an era where news is becoming more platform agnostic, with delivery via Google, RSS and other widgets, how to drive readers to your stories and retain them
  • the newspaper’s obligation to their staff to give their content as wide a distribution as possible

And with the Tribune Co. also owner of The Los Angeles Times, facing possible bankruptcy it was even more important that they make full use of their existing assets — their intellectual property and their staff.

In most cases the majority of most online news media’s traffic will arrive indirectly, either through Google, another search engine or one of hundreds, even thousands of other sites.  Generally less than half of any site’s traffic comes directly from someone typing in the URL of that site.

Detailing the 60% of clicks that arrived at from external sources on a typical day in early 2008, Adee reveals an interesting pattern: Google at No. 1 as a source of outside traffic followed by, amongst others, Yahoo!, CareerBuilder, Fark, The New York Times and Facebook.  In total more than 4,000 sites sent users to with 350,000 different clicks.  The Chicago Tribune’s plan was to develop closer relationships with that majority percentage and convert them into regular readers.

How they did it

The Chicago Tribune addressed the problem by creating a persona, a ‘typical’ reader of the paper, not unlike one that information architects might use when modelling the ideal user of a website.  In the Chicago Tribune’s case this is Colonel Tribune, a middle-aged, politically moderate ex-army guy who reads several online newspapers for national news followed by, perhaps anachronistically, ‘the latest viral videos on YouTube’.  He enjoys the cosmopolitan food scene of Chicago.  His Facebook photo is a Wall Street Journal style hedcut.  It’s an interesting idea, perhaps a little twee, but which also gains kudos from the retro cool of The Colonel.  It’s hard to dismiss a guy in pinstripes with a brush moustache, wearing an origami paper hat.

And here’s the important part — he makes a point to interact with Tribune readers individually on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and other social media sites and blogs.

That post got me thinking about how broad the interest in social media as tools for dissemination is among national media.  Who’s using it? How big are the numbers?  Further, what is the investment needed by a newspaper to run this kind of operation?  What is the return on investment and, ultimately, what are the goals?  Here are some general ideas I’ve been considering, and which I hope to return to in more detail soon.

Some important factors about nurturing a relationship with your readers via social media

  • This communication is two way.  It gives, or gives the impression of, direct consumer access to a brand, its managers and its representatives.  It also confers all the values of and responsibility for that brand onto the public point of contact — the persona or avatar.
  • How scalable is this method of communication?  Can a persona or avatar continue to interact individually, and in a valuable way, with hundreds or thousands of readers?  Adee has already said,

“…be warned. To do this requires having the same kind of great team I had: Facebook-savvy youth, an innovative Web staff, and an extremely supportive newsroom. Even then, it will be essential to become immersed in the various communities and to reach out in ways that create interactive relationships.”

  • So this requires real, dedicated effort from a team of people.  It can’t possibly be left to an individual to maintain.  And here we come to some of the potential problems of this method.
  • One potential problem is that of identity.  How can we know or trust that the Twitter, Facebook or Fark account we are following and interacting with is real.  While it seems that little can be gained from impersonating a major news organisation, there is alsway the danger of using the trust engendered in that organisation to extract password or other personal details from users.  This is a very important point, and something that social media sites need to address as well as media organisations themselves.  Currently all we have to go on is the brief bio available and the number of followers or activity around the account.  But ultimately we cannot trust that we know exactly who were are following.
  • There is a risk of diluting your brand name.  A poorly managed or seldom updated profile looks really, really bad.  Worse than if it didn’t exist.  Your team behind the interaction must also be on the ball and maintain the voice of your representative across all avenues.  This leads us to the next point.  Remember that already there is huge cross-pollination between the major players — Digg twitters its popular stories here, Facebook statuses can be updated via Twitter and so on.
  • Can there be too much noise emanating from media organisations?  As well as your official avatar, many journalists and other individuals have their own accounts on social media sites.  Many of these are public and blur the lines between professional and personal opinion.  They can be identified with your site.  Can there be too many voices, sometimes conflicting or compromising each other?  Of course this issue has been encountered before with personal websites and blogs, but never before have the myriad routes to self-publication been so interlinked.  See these pages detailing some of the UK journalists and US journalists currently active on Twitter
  • Digg has proved that a good story can and will stand the test if time and gain recognition.  It will still be relevant and readable weeks, maybe months later.  It is important that your CMS has a single, canonical URL for content that can continue to be referenced and used into the future.
  • Users of social networks are not necessarily displaying goal-oriented behaviour.  They are there, as the name suggests, to socialise.  This includes sharing information, links and discoveries.  The opinions of our friends and colleagues mean infinitely more than the dispassionate results of a search engine, and arguably more than the recommendations of a website editor.  Newspapers have never historically been able to exploit that avenue, and even in the internet era many have failed to do so.   Is Google your friend?  Not really.  But it is useful.  Your friends, however, mean much, much more. has recently retired it’s social bookmarking service Times File, preferring instead to outsource this behaviour to Furl, Digg and Delicious.  The job of the major news organisation utilising social media as a platform is to earn trust, and provide unique and privileged access to the source of news.  As Adee says,

“Can a mainstream news site become part of the social media scene? Absolutely, yes. But Like friendships, these are ones that come only with time, trust and hard work.”

One more point I must emphasise is that the discovery of a news outlet’s presence on a social networking site is almost impossible to discern with full confidence.  A quick search through most newspapers’ own websites reveals no official links through to social media, further confusing matters.  Come on, guys, how hard can it be to publish a page of links to your various accounts and make it easy for everyone to find.  At present some of the smaller accounts have an air of privilege about them, but also a sense of anonymity.  If you’re going to use these avenues, advertise the fact.  The Chicago Tribune features Col. Tribune prominently on its web pages, intrinsically linking together the character and all his publishing routes.

From some brief research I carried out, some organisations are tackling social media more successfully than others.  It’s also, inevitably, a crowded marketplace and sommewhat confusing – a mixture of official accounts, poorly named ones, some updated daily some not for months.

LA Times:



Chicago Tribune:


The Telegraph:


The Guardian:



The Washington Post:



New York Times: