On the chaotic and often tumultuous playground that is the World Wide Web, one thing is becoming more and more clear: Publishers have to play nice with social media if they hope to succeed. Yes, Facebook and Twitter are the popular kids on the playground, and they're the ones spreading the word about your content.
According to the "State of the News Media 2012" report from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), "Facebook users spent an average of 423 minutes each on the site in December. By contrast, a PEJ analysis of Nielsen Net View data puts the average time on a top 25 news site at just under 12 minutes per month."
With statistics like these, publishers aren't just looking to produce good content-they need to create "shareable" content. Not every story can go viral, but publishers need to make content that makes readers want to share it with their networks or risk falling off the news map. But what does that mean for the reporters and editors on the ground, playing in the social sandbox and charged with the task of getting the news out to their readers while creating the kind of content people want to tell their friends about?
All the News That's Fit to Share
Alisa Bowen, general manager of The Wall Street Journal Digital Network, says she feels the social media explosion presents an opportunity for news providers, in that it gives them the chance "to make yourself visible to a much larger group of people than would otherwise search you out."
Bowen says that social media has helped The Wall Street Journal reach a different type of audience than the older demographic traditionally associated with the newspaper. "By making our content discussable, accessible, and shareable," Bowen says, The Wall Street Journal can engage younger audiences.
She adds that the common myth has been that younger people don't read newspapers and don't watch TV news and therefore aren't engaged in the world around them. But the explosion of social media has shown, Bowen says, younger people are "very engaged," but they just have different ways of showing it.
News agencies are noticing this. Indeed, they'd be hard-pressed not to, seeing as how readers can not only often comment on stories on a publication's website but also share the stories-and their thoughts on said stories-via Facebook or Twitter. News outlets, Bowen says, are "hearing the public's response more loudly, and social media is amplifying that."
"The public's ability to participate is unprecedented," she adds. However, simply granting readers the ability to share a story on Facebook isn't all that matters, Bowen says. Crafting a quality story, she says, "is still paramount."
"I think what matters is producing content people feel is important enough and meaningful enough" to share, Bowen says, adding that "making [a story] shareable just isn't enough. It has to be interesting."
But studies show that certain content is more likely to be shared. Including videos, pictures, any multimedia, really, increases the likelihood that a story will be shared. Newsrooms need to think about more than just the printed word. Bowen points to The Wall Street Journal's coverage of Google's iPhone tracking. "The story is important in and of itself, but by packaging the story with interactives, graphs, videos, and other dynamic elements, the stories become intrinsically more shareable because it's a very holistic approach to the story."
The Real-Time Newsroom
Perhaps one of the biggest impacts social media has had on The Wall Street Journal has been in the newsroom itself. Traditionally, newspapers have operated on a one-deadline-a-day, when-do-we-go-to-press type of schedule. But a once-a-day approach simply won't fly in this day and age when, Bowen says, "news is old over a platform like Twitter in minutes."
"For us, it's really helped push Wall Street Journal and [parent company] Dow Jones into a more real-time approach and a more global approach," Bowen says.
Last year, The Wall Street Journal launched WSJ Social, a Facebook news app that includes articles and blogs from WSJ.com, such as breaking news, columns, analysis, and opinion. Bowen says the app was "a fantastic innovation" and has "certainly been a positive experience" for the company.
"By having an app and empowering reading on the application ... the way people are interacting with the content is more visible," Bowen says. Pleased as she is with WSJ Social, though, Bowen says she feels the creation of a news app is "one of many chapters" and that her company is "looking forward to continue to innovate" as the internet evolves.
But Facebook apps aren't the only social news game out there. "We don't have a printed product and never have, so making sure all of our stories are sharable through social media has been a priority," says Christine Stuart, editor-in-chief of CTNewsJunkie, a blog launched in 2005 that covers Connecticut news.
For many news organizations, CTNewsJunkie included, using social media goes beyond just sharing the final product. In fact, it's changing the way many reporters and editors assign, gather, and even report the news. "I use social media to tweet live from events I'm covering, and I also use it to gather information, which I later independently verify," says Stuart. You can hardly turn on your local television news without an anchor asking you to tweet pictures of the latest storm or traffic information. Yes, social media has truly made its way into every aspect of reporting the news.
Social news isn't just about posting a link on Facebook anymore. As we've already heard from The Wall Street Journal example, publishers can go beyond a page and a simple like and build entire apps within the Facebook environment. The Wall Street Journal isn't the only publication turning to social applications to create a different kind of experience for its readers. Another popular daily paper that has a news app is The Washington Post. Last fall, it launched The Washington Post Social Reader, a free app that lets you read news on Facebook. Katharine Zaleski, executive director of digital news at The Post, says the app was downloaded more than 19.5 million times in its first 6 months.
"The Social Reader shows how you can build a news experience from social behavior," Zaleski says. "We are seeing that news is increasingly social, and I think it makes sense to build social apps."
"We're not suggesting that social apps are better in some way, they're just different," says Bowen. "They allow users to get a socially curated view rather than the view of a specific editor, and some people find that interesting. We're experimenting to see what people find most engaging."
Like Bowen, Zaleski feels Facebook and other forms of social media have shown that people not only still follow the news-they love telling others about it.
"News publishers, especially The Post, see the large impact Facebook and other social platforms can have," Zaleski says. "Facebook continues to adapt, and it has shown us that users find sharing news and information enjoyable and highly engaging."
And the impact of social media has made this an exciting time for publishers, Zaleski adds. "I think we're seeing a revolution in the way people engage with the news," she says. "More people than ever before are not only reading news, but they are contributing to it, and it's an exciting adjustment for us."
Readers Become Editors
In some ways, social media has empowered readers in a manner they've never experienced before. No one knows that better than Ken Doctor, an analyst and author of Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get. Doctor has been following social media's effect on digital publishing from the start.
"In news, we're becoming each other's editors, deciding what we'd like to read by touts, tweets, and transferred links," he says. "So we've joined editors, the traditional news gatekeepers, picking and choosing the day's news we'd like to read and think our friends and associates may like as well."
Among the ways to "pick and choose" the news are popular apps such as Flipboard, which lets people create iPad magazines from links their friends have shared on a variety of social networks. However, Doctor cautions that Flipboard may ultimately prove to be not as much of a boon to the news industry as it seems right now. He says the tablet aggregators are "both a discovery tool and potential threat to publishers."
"Think of Google in 1998," Doctor says. "For free, it started sending lots of traffic to content sites, and they loved it. Then, within a few years, people started going directly to Google"-through such avenues as Google News and other news aggregation sites-"and publishers lost traffic and audience. Now think of Flipboard in 2012." Doctor continues, "Same story: Great discovery place for content and traffic driving, but if and as it becomes a major destination site, publishers can lose audience and customer contact."
Of course, that was also once the danger with Facebook, as users started spending more and more time on the site. So far, though, both publishers and Facebook have found ways to enjoy mutually beneficial relationships and continue to find new ways to share, promote, and uncover new content.
Introducing Interest Lists
Facebook, of course, isn't going to sit back while tools such as Flipboard grab its users' attention, which is why, in early March, the social network launched Interest Lists. Facebook software engineer Eric Faller wrote in his announcement of the new feature that Interest Lists "can help you turn Facebook into your own personalized newspaper, with special sections-or feeds-for topics that matter to you."
For example, Facebook users who love football can subscribe to the NFL Teams Interest List and get plenty of pigskin news right on their pages, eliminating the need to go to teams' pages or to sites such as ESPN.com. Likewise, if a user is more politically minded, he or she can subscribe to the 2012 U.S. Presidential Candidates list to see updates from all the campaigns and posts from such news outlets as CNN and FOX. Users even have the power to make their own lists based on their own favorite topics.
Shortly after the list launch, Jennifer Van Grove, a writer for the technology news site VentureBeat, opined in a column for the site that the Interest Lists "are absolutely a home run."
The lists "have the promise of better distributing Facebook content to the social network's 845 million monthly active users," Van Grove wrote. "More content, that people have an expressed interest in, means users will spend even more time on Facebook, and share, ‘like,' comment, and engage more, activities that will distribute content farther and wider."
Because it's based on Facebook, users can access their new Interest Lists at home, at work, or on-the-go-an attribute Van Grove seemed particularly enamored of.
"The real kicker is that Facebook's social newspaper experience, unlike the myriad of apps toying with the same notion, works independently of a person's platform," she wrote. "On web, mobile, PC, or tablet? No matter. It's just Facebook, so the experience stays the same and you can continue to get your news sections uninterrupted wherever you are."
In his March announcement of the Interest Lists, Faller noted users' ability to create lists not just for themselves but as a means to introduce others to new topics. So, once again, while the ways to do it may change-from Interest Lists to news apps to simple "share this" buttons on websites-people will continue to have the ability to tap into that desire they've always had-to turn others on to the things they enjoy. And it's a trait that long predates the internet.
"Facebook picks up on what people like to do, share, as they always have," Doctor says.
Zaleski agrees-there's a human element to sharing. "People share for emotional and personal reasons," she says. "News makes them laugh, and they want to make their friends laugh; news makes them concerned; news makes them feel informed, and they want to inform their friends." In other words, news producers are just tapping into the human urge to share the things they like with the people they know.