Newspapers and social media: Still mostly doing it wrong

Mainstream media entities of all kinds continue to come out with policies that show they still don’t really understand how social media works, or how to use it effectively. The latest example comes from E.W. Scripps (s ssp), a media conglomerate that owns a chain of newspapers and TV affiliates. Among other things, the chain’s new policy threatens its employees with termination if they use their blogs, Twitter or Facebook accounts improperly, and tries to draw a hard line between “personal” and “professional” usage — something that is not only difficult to do, but is arguably misguided. While some media outlets are trying to take advantage of social tools to really engage with their readers, others still seem stuck in the Dark Ages.

The Scripps policy starts out by saying that the company — which also owns the Scripps-Howard newswire service and the United Features comic-strip distribution syndicate — recognizes “the crucial role social media plays in providing local news and information to our readers, viewers and business partners” and that the chain’s papers and TV stations “have embraced the Internet and social media sites as essential elements of our future.” But after these motherhood statements, the policy quickly goes downhill, not unlike some other social-media policies we’ve written about in the past.

Broadcast, not a conversation

For one thing, the Scripps policy says the chain continues to “embrace new technologies to distribute our content and market our advertisers” — in other words, a one-way, broadcast-oriented approach, rather than using new tools as a way to talk with readers or viewers, instead of just at them. The policy also states:

  • The primary purpose of a personal account “is for employees to connect with friends or others with similar interests that aren’t work related.”
  • A personal account “should focus on your personal life.”
  • Scripps content created for work purposes “may be posted on a personal account before it is published or broadcast only with permission of a supervisor.”
  • If staff post “work product” on a personal social-media account “remember that Scripps owns the rights to that work product.”

Personal is better

It’s not surprising Scripps would want to draw a hard-and-fast line between the personal and the professional — lots of companies try to do this. But the whole point of social media is that it is (to some extent at least) personal, whether managers like it or not; that’s why it is so powerful. We identify with and are drawn to people like New York Times (s nyt) reporter Brian Stelter when they use social media because they give us insight into their personal experience. Should Stelter have avoided talking about how he forgot to bring proper clothes when he went to report on the recent Missouri tornado, and how his mother chewed him out for it? No. It made his account more entertaining.

Trying to make a writer or journalist’s use of social media less personal and more “professional” is not only misguided, but actually makes it less likely that any social-media usage will be effective or useful. Should you avoid excessive over-sharing and intensely personal opinions? Sure. You should be the best possible version of yourself, as I’ve argued before. But to make it less personal it to make it inherently less worth doing. And media outlets should be thinking about how to take advantage of the fact that everyone is becoming a brand now, instead of trying to stamp that out somehow.

While Scripps seems determined to try to assert as much control as possible over everything its writers do on the web or through social tools, other media outlets are experimenting with reaching out to their readers in all kinds of ways, and having some success doing so. The New York Times, for example, has been making more use of Twitter to engage with readers — and writers like Stelter have been showing how to use it and Tumblr as reporting tools as well. The newspaper also recently created an online debate (part of its ongoing “Room for Debate” series) based on ideas suggested by one of the paper’s readers.

Some other mainstream media outlets have gone even farther in trying to get their readers involved and engaged through social tools: the Register-Citizen in Torrington, Conn. has started inviting readers into its daily story meetings, by setting up a live discussion on its site that anyone can participate in (using CoverItLive software from Demand Media (s dmd)). As the newspaper’s editors described it:

Readers will be encouraged to comment on what aspects of a story to pursue, whom reporters should talk to about it and the larger context that should be considered in writing about the topic. It will also serve as an opportunity for readers to suggest other story topics the newspaper should pursue.

This move by the Register-Citizen is only the latest move by the paper to connect with its community: the newspaper was also one of the first to create a physical “open newsroom” as well as an online one, allowing readers and anyone in the town to come in and talk to the staff, sit in on daily story meetings and even have a cup of coffee and use the free wireless network. The Torrington paper is one of the flagships of the Journal-Register Co., where CEO John Paton has taken an aggressively “digital first” approach to turning the formerly bankrupt newspaper publisher around, with some success.

And the Register-Citizen isn’t the only one pursuing the “open newsroom” idea: A Swedish newspaper is also holding daily story meetings online with CoverItLive, asking readers for suggestions and input on what it is covering. The paper’s editor told a conference recently that not only have readers shown a huge interest in getting involved in this way, but advertisers are also interested because of the increased engagement that the paper has been able to show. “Get readers involved with your brand, engage them with their hearts and minds and the money will follow,” the editor said.

Smart advice — but chains like Scripps are going to have to change the way they think about social media before they get any of those benefits.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Hans Gerwitz and jphilipg