A Tweet, a Like, a Share: Print Finds and Defines Audience Through Social Media

Feb 10, 2012

Article ImageThis article is the first of two, based on research done by Brandi Shaffer, a journalism graduate student at Kent State University. She interviewed a variety of traditional media outlets in northeast Ohio about social media use.

In the lawless, uncharted Wild West that is social media, Twitter and Facebook are dueling cowboys while a tumbleweed named Tumblr drifts over the barren landscape. The two behemoths draw pistols at dawn for the elusive goals of increased ad revenue, engaged readership and stronger editorial content.

Spaghetti western metaphors aside, it's clear that media professionals' interpretation and use of social media vary widely. While some prefer to foster a sense of community with their readership, others seek to unload content, or seek out story ideas, or hand the spotlight over to their advertisers.

From anarchy must come ingenuity and each publication must find its own path to readership prosperity. Traditional print media is finding its place online, on smart phones and on iPads, all while getting closer to their readers than was conceivable just ten years ago. 

Reaching the Audience

Publications that reach consumer audiences often find higher numbers of followers and have different aims for social media use. Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer encourages reporters in the newsroom to maintain their own social media accounts, creating a chorus of united voices. With a circulation of 243,299 during the week and nearly double that on Sundays, the publication reaches a broad audience.

"We have about 20 newsroom folks who are very active on Twitter and Facebook," Thom Fladung, managing editor of The Plain Dealer says. "Our strategy is to help build communities, not just push out stories. I don't think opening a fire hose on Twitter works-we encourage people to have dialogues."

As a daily publication with home delivery in 10 counties but statewide availability, The Plain Dealer covers more content than a weekly or monthly publication might, with a much broader scope, such as special events coverage, news conferences, or color commentary. The staff quickly realized that different types of social media should be treated differently.

"I think Twitter is best for news of the moment," Fladung says. "Facebook seems more personal to me. It's a good way to ask questions of people, what else you want to know about a story, good way to share and getting story referrals. Communities are particularly active on it."

While newspapers present a collection of voices, some publications choose one singular voice. Vince Grzegorek is the web editor at Cleveland Scene, a weekly news and entertainment paper distributed at 1,500 locations in Northeast Ohio. He runs all the social media on his own in addition to news blogging. For Scene's aims, he believes maintaining an online presence through consistent updates is the best route, particularly since the tone is specific.

"It helps to have a unified voice instead of five different voices," Grzegorek says. "Our tone is pretty snarky."

The volume of content being produced can play a significant role in the tone and frequency of posts or tweets. Alternative Press magazine is a national publication based in Cleveland that features reviews and news about rock music in all its forms. The magazine's managing editor, Annie Zaleski, describes her publication's social media use as a "collaborative process," where no defined rules or roles are set in place. Though the publication is printed just once a month, its online presence is constant. Zaleski agrees that Facebook is best used for conversations, asking questions and even crowdsourcing, while Twitter is a bit more one-sided with content from their RSS feed. The publication just started using Tumblr, a micro-blogging site that's ideal for images, to post retro promotional photos.

"I worked for an alt weekly and it was a lot more community building, less content," Zaleski says. "This is more like a daily newspaper type thing, there's so much going on."

Trade and business publications have a specialized, targeted readership and tend to control content--and whom it reaches--more closely than consumer publications. They don't need broad, wide-reaching appeal, just specific content for specific eyes. For them, social media can take on a different role.

Brooke Bates is the senior editor of interactive media at Smart Business, a monthly business magazine for executives with 17 location-specific publications, including Smart Business Cleveland. Bates notes that starting to use social media was "an uphill battle," because she had to convince others of the benefits for a traditional media source so accustomed to print. She sees the roles of Twitter and Facebook reversed from what consumer editors perceive, with Twitter being more interactive. For Smart Business, the primary objective is distributing content and Bates says that will automatically engage the community.

Don Loepp is the editor of Plastics News, a weekly newspaper that covers the global plastics industry with a circulation of 46,000. Loepp started out using the same headlines and updates on both Twitter and Facebook, but wondered if the Facebook audience might be overwhelmed by the onslaught of information. A healthy respect for the benefits and limitations of each medium led to more effective use.

"Twitter is every headline. You can see who's doing what, who's picking it up. You write about a company and the next day they're following you, it's a cause-and-effect thing. Facebook is trying not to overburden people but pick a few items every day that people will be interested in."

Loepp says consumer media tend to be ahead of the game in their use of social media because they're "dealing with a larger sector of your audience that's more cutting edge. People are coming around to using it in B-to-B, but we're not driving the rise of social media."

Since trade and business publications' audiences are naturally smaller, they can't expect to garner the same numbers as consumer publications, though they can make promises to their advertisers about reaching the intended audience.

"More people are liking things and signing up to follow what we're doing," Loepp says. "It's not a big number, but I don't know that a trade publication can expect thousands."

Establishing the Audience

Most editors of northeast Ohio publications observed overlap between social media followers and traditional media readers. For Plastics News, social media is most effective for reaching international groups.

"Readers see our stories in print and it's a loyal group and they haven't gone anywhere, but we also have loyal followers online who want the news first and immediately. We're serving both audiences."

AP's Zaleski said while the staff doesn't have any hard data on the overlap between print readers and online readers, she believes a number of Twitter followers are kids looking for news while Facebook consists of more subscribers.

Some publications, like The Plain Dealer, create communities within communities. Begun by the newspaper's online editor, the Twitter Twenty organizes the most active Twitter users and "invites them to be part of a club to share thoughts and ideas about Cleveland and its issues," Flading says. The participants rotate regularly.

Smart Business' social media presence opens content to a much broader audience. The print subscription requires qualification--subscribers must have a certain position within a certain--sized company-but no such guidelines are present on Twitter.

"We have CEOs who follow," Bates says, "but there are more entrepreneurs and start ups. The online network skews a little younger and it's not just executives, but college business majors and employees."

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Once the limits and benefits of each social medium are established and the audience is determined, a media company must decide how it will use content to reach readers in this new forum. Most editors agree that they hope to foster interaction-to allow their readers to not only get their content, but also to respond, knowing that the staff is getting the readers' viewpoints.