It’s not just nice for media to be social — it’s imperative

By now, plenty of people have written about the need for traditional media entities to embrace social media as a way to engage with their readers, or what journalism professor Jay Rosen has called “the people formerly known as the audience.” We’ve even written about it ourselves on a number of occasions, and how important it is for newspapers and other outlets to do this. But few have put the argument as well as a student journalist did in a recent column for The Daily Californian, the student newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley. The bottom line, Mihir Zaveri says, is that the media itself is to blame for most of its problems, because it has failed to maintain the trust of its readers — and engaging with those readers in as many ways as possible is one of the only ways to try and reverse that state of affairs.

Everyone has their own favorite demon when it comes to finding the blame for the decline of newspapers: some prefer to see Craigslist and other online classified sites as the enemy, for removing one of the core money-making services that papers used to offer. Others — such as media mogul Rupert Murdoch (s nws) and the World Association of Newspapers — like to lay the fault at the door of Google News, which they claim “steals” their content and thus their revenue. And some blame advertisers for chasing the lure of online eyeballs, something that continues to eat away at the money papers make from print advertising (print ad revenue fell in the latest quarter for the 20th quarter in a row).

Certainly, you could argue that newspapers were slow to recognize the value of online classifieds, particularly free ones like Craigslist pioneered (Craig Newmark initially offered to partner with a newspaper chain, but they passed). And they also haven’t made much of an attempt to think like Google News — in other words, to think like an aggregator, rather than a gatekeeper of information. But I think Zaveri is closer to the mark when he says in his column that there’s an attitude at the bottom of all of these issues, and that is the biggest problem with the traditional media. As he puts it:

Here is the truth: it’s not you, it’s me. It’s not Craigslist’s fault for taking classified advertisements away from the domain of print. It’s not the blogosphere’s fault for writing and spreading news for free. It’s not the market’s fault for turning journalism upside down… It’s not even the sales reps’ fault for not selling enough ads to keep newspapers afloat. All of that stuff is on us, the journalists. It’s our fault.

“We got complacent and stopped evolving”

Why is it the fault of journalists? In Zaveri’s view — one I happen to share — too many newspapers and other publications that initially grew to dominate a market based on their connection to specific community of readers have lost that connection. In many cases, they have grown too comfortable with their market position and their (former) control over the machinery of the news. And that machinery has now been dispersed to the point where anyone can function as a journalist if they wish, and can even create their own newspaper. Says Zaveri:

Our job was to report the news, and we did that. But we got complacent, and we stopped evolving, and soon the concept of a news article became far removed from what you, as a person, valued. Now we find ourselves in an awkward position where an indispensable component of democracy is slipping away, and we’re scrambling.

Zaveri also also offers some potential remedies for what he calls the loss of trust that has afflicted most of the mainstream press (and while he doesn’t mention it, this loss of trust was evident long before the Internet started eating away at the media’s earning power). What they boil down to, he says, is “transparency and accountability: the free flow of information required to keep democracy alive [so that] individuals can make active, smart decisions about the world they live in.” Among his prescriptions:

  • Newspapers need to be transparent: “You need to know as much as possible about how they get their money, where it goes and why… you need to know who the editors are, where they come from and what they value.”
  • Journalists need to be out in the community: “We need to hold public meetings where you can come and talk to us about what we do and tell us what you like and what you don’t so that we can be better. We need to better serve you.”
  • We need to help you take action. “An article means nothing if it doesn’t help you make some sort of decision in your life, so every article needs to be coupled with instructions on how you… can make your life, your family’s life and your society’s life better.”

So how does a newspaper build trust?

That’s as good a list of recommendations as I could come up with, and not bad for a student editor whose entire journalistic career consists of a semester spent as an intern at the San Francisco Chronicle and a summer working at The Oregonian. And what’s more, Zaveri didn’t mention Twitter or Facebook or blogs — although I think his message of getting to know readers and letting them get to know you implies the use of such tools. That’s why it’s such a shame that so many news organizations restrict their employees’ use of those tools to the point where they are unlikely to have much impact.

To be fair, some newspapers are trying to do the kinds of things that Zaveri describes in his call to arms: the Journal-Register Corp. chain, for example, has not only embraced social media as a way of connecting with its readers but is also experimenting with a “community newsroom” at the Register-Citizen, where residents can come and have coffee, use the Internet and sit in on editorial meetings. And they aren’t the only ones doing this: the Winnipeg Free Press in Manitoba (owned by Postmedia) has also opened up a community newsroom in that city’s downtown core, where two members of the staff work and interact with readers in a number of ways.

These efforts are more than just touchy-feely attempts to look more open, I think — or at least they should be. As Zaveri rightly notes in his piece, building trust with readers could be one of the few remaining competitive advantages that newspapers have left, so they had better start getting good at it.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users See-ming Lee and timetrax