Memo to newspapers: The future of media is a two-way street

Plenty of newspapers and other mainstream media entities are happy to use social tools like Twitter and Facebook to promote their content, host comments on their news stories in order to build traffic, and otherwise try and take advantage of the web. But while some are making strides in actually connecting with their readers — including Forbes magazine, which just launched a new “social news” design — few are taking the steps they need to in order to really engage with their readers. That’s partly because they don’t really know what to do, according to Joy Mayer, who just finished a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship looking at media engagement and has released a practical guide for newsrooms.

The guide (the PDF version of which is here) was put together based on a collaborative process involving interviews with journalists at newspapers around the country, and discussions with social-media editors such as Steve Buttry, formerly of Washington-based TBD and now with the Journal-Register Co., a newspaper chain that is making some of the most aggressive strides towards a “digital first” and community-centered approach to the news. Among other things, the company — which just recently hired former TBD general manager and ex-Washington Post online editor Jim Brady as editor-in-chief — has created a “community newsroom” at one of its regional newspapers.

A rethinking of the way media entities operate

Mayer says she hopes that newsrooms both large and small can use the guide to try and brainstorm about ways they can connect with their communities better. And it goes far beyond just setting up a Twitter account to post story links to, or running a Facebook campaign for a specific story — the Reynolds fellow is talking about a comprehensive redesign of the way most media outlets interact with their readers, from comments to ventures such as “open house” events involving the community. In an email to the Knight Digital Media Center, Mayer described her efforts:

I’m trying to shake up how we think about community, our concept of audience, and being responsive [and] I’m also… laying out what I think new, emerging news organizations can do to thrive.

In her guide, Mayer argues that newsrooms need to adopt a series of “value statements” about their relationship with their readers and their communities, and that these statements should include:

  • We appear to be and actually are accessible, as a newsroom and as individual journalists
  • Individual community members feel invited into our processes and products and encouraged to help shape our agenda.
  • We find ways to listen to and be in continual conversation with our community.
  • We continually alter what we cover, and how, based on what the audience responds to.
  • It is easy for community members to share their expertise and experiences, and we value their contributions.

Fulfilling these vision statements, says Mayer, could include things as simple as having an easily accessible staff directory complete with links to profile pages that have contact information, responsibilities, and so on. Editors and writers could include their interests outside of work, she says — their favorite sports teams, hobbies, restaurants, etc. — as a way humanizing themselves for their readers. Some newspapers might want to invite readers into the newsroom, the way the Register-Citizen has in Torrington, Connecticut, and all should try to publish the news they report “more iteratively and transparently” while inviting readers to share what they know about a story.

Take ownership of the comments on stories

But most important is finding ways to connect with readers wherever they are, Mayer says, whether it’s a discussion forum or a blog or the comment section. And the journalism professor is a big believer in having writers take ownership of the comments their stories generate, advising newspapers to consider “holding individual journalists responsible for staying involved in the comments on their stories.” In her guide, Mayer adds:

Research has shown that the civility of comments goes up when site owners participate. Do we take ownership over the comments on our own website? Do we invest in moderating and participating in the conversations that take place there?

This is a point that Anil Dash of Expert Labs and Activate Media has also made in a recent blog post entitled “If your website is full of ***holes, it’s your fault,” and the value of comments is something we have tried to reinforce here at GigaOM as well. But as I’ve pointed out in a number of posts about the social-media policies that have been implemented at a number of newspapers and news organizations, many media outlets actively discourage their staff from interacting with or engaging with readers — either through the comments section on their stories, or through social media such as Twitter or Facebook.

This kind of engagement is the future of media

Many of these policies make it clear that the news outlet values social media because it can be used as a promotional tool, or can produce sources and other content that can help in the reporting process, but few of them look at what reporters and editors should be doing with them apart from promoting their content. In many cases, they spend a lot of time talking about all the bad things that could happen when journalists express opinions on Twitter or a blog, but they don’t talk about what those journalists could gain from doing this — such as insights they might never have achieved otherwise.

In addition to the Journal-Register Co., another media entity that has staked a big part of its digital future on interaction with readers is Forbes magazine. Editor-in-chief Lewis Dvorkin recently wrote about a redesign the magazine has launched for its website, which builds social elements into the page — including the ability for a writer to “call out” or highlight reader comments, as well as Twitter widgets and other tools. And Dvorkin notes that writers for the site (some of whom are on staff and some of whom are contractors) are rewarded based on the engagement that they generate with readers, some of which is measured in traffic such as pageviews.

Dvorkin describes this as a future based on “transactions,” by which he seems to mean not necessarily financial transactions with individual writers, but the day-to-day engagement with readers that comes with a blog-style approach to writing — including responding to comments, interacting with interested readers via social media, and so on. Whatever you want to call it, I think both Dvorkin and Mayer are right that these skills and tools are becoming a crucial part of what media has become in a digital age.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Sandy Honig and George Kelly