EDITOR’S NOTE: I wrote the following piece as a contribution to a scholarly paper being written by Wichita State University communications professor Les Anderson, who asked me to share my expertise and comments about social media for a paper he is writing and presenting at a National Newspaper Association conference in Mobile, Ala. Anderson has promised to share what portions of this piece he used for his paper as soon as the presentation is complete.

Social media is a variable buzz-term these days.

Everyone and their dog is on Twitter and Facebook, and the traditional diary has been replaced with blogs that can be read by more than a pesky sibling cracking open the diary’s lock.

With such online services being so prolific as a way to share information among friends, family and complete strangers, how do news organizations capitalize on these new communication tools?

That is actually a more complex answer than one might think. The knee-jerk reaction would be to say they just jump in and join the conversation, which is partly true. But complexity stems more from how one looks at news organizations than how they look at the social media tools.

Large media companies – The New York Times, CNN and Washington Posts of the world – are completely different than the local, weekly newspaper that reports on wheat crop yields and Friday night’s pinochle game at the senior center.

The big media companies can just jump into the social media world and wait for the followers and friends to come because their digital presence is already large enough that people are actively seeking new ways to connect with the media outlets.

For a small-town new organization, that is far from the case.

Often times, the weekly newspaper is in an area largely unaffected by the Internet. The subscribers are of an older generation that only wants to read their news from a newsprint paper that leaves ink on their hands.

In some areas, such as Moundridge, Kan., religious sects, such as the Holderman Mennonites, don’t use technologies such as televisions or computers, so having an online news Web presence is of little help to the news organization, especially when looking at the bottom line from a publishers standpoint.

(This is one area where the bigger media companies greatly differ from small papers because their customers see value in the online advertising based upon the sheer number of viewers coming to these juggernauts of the media world, while small-town advertisers don’t necessarily buy into the idea of the Internet.)

However, with the vast majority of younger generations, and an ever-increasing number of older generations, are quite active on social networking Web sites.

They don’t automatically consider where they get their news. They just spend time on the social network and glean information from what their digital friends are talking about and sharing via links.

This is where a small-town news organization can capitalize and begin to recruit people to their digital products and train them to turn to an online portal as their way to get local news about community happenings.

A Facebook account or page can be established. A page is different from an account in that a page represents an entity with more limited options while an account gives the impression that the account holder is a live person and several widgets and features can be added. Depending upon the goal of entering the social media fray either is a viable option.

The Moundridge paper, The Ledger, has a fan page, which can be used to share pictures and videos as well as local events and news items.

Utilizing Facebook for photo sharing can help begin building an online community because other people can tag, or mark who is in the image, themselves in the picture, so if a newspaper employee posts pictures from a sporting event, the students on Facebook and make it know they are in the photo. However, the picture will remain within the newspaper’s page so people will be brought to the newspaper’s social media presence to see the tagged images and see the images that have been uploaded.

As people are perusing the photos, they will see other items, such as news, that have been uploaded. Soon, they will be going there for more than just pictures or videos. They will begin to see the Facebook page as a way to stay up-to-date on the local happenings between publications.

Besides Facebook, another powerful social-media tool is Twitter, which is a micro-blogging services that allows you to keep everyone abreast of what is going on in 140-character updates.

Twitter is valuable because it can give a small paper the ability to instantly update readers about what is taking place, especially in a breaking-news situation.

Twitter is similar to a Facebook “status” update. The premise is to answer the question, “What are you doing?” However, a user can say whatever they want within the 140-character limit per post.

Such a tool is easier to use than Facebook because anyone with a cell phone can use it. Each Twitter account can have one cell phone number associated with it, and an update can be posted by simply texting the update to the service. If the reporter in the field has a smart phone, such as a BlackBerry or iPhone, he or she can even install applications that allows said person to update the Twitter feed without using a text message, which is good if the person only has a limited number of text messages they can send each month. This depends upon the service plan associated with the cellular carrier.

A widget can be placed on the newspaper’s Web site that will display Twitter posts, or tweets, so everyone can see them.

This is one big way Twitter differs from Facebook because people don’t have to have a Twitter account of their own to read tweets, but people have to have a Facebook account to take part in the news organization’s Facebook offerings.

There are many other social media tools available for a news organization to use, which includes social book marking tools such as Delicious, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Technorati and Digg, all of which are ways to share links to interesting online content with others.

As a way to share all such content under one, single-branded umbrella, though, a paper can utilize blogging.

Blogs are typically thought of as online journals for personal views and experiences, but a news organization can use them in a variety of ways.

Individual reporters can use them as a way to communicate with sources and readers about various stories being worked on and show everyone how the reporting process works.

Columnists can use them to post their opinions.

Also, it could be a news blog that posts news stories that would be found in the print product, full of facts and sources.

The term and utilizations of a blog are changing, but regardless of how it is used, it still provides two very important functions – conversation and immediacy.

No matter how the blog is being used, readers can post comments at the end of the post, and then reporters or columnists can join that conversation in the comments. Much like Twitter and Facebook, it allows people to easily communicate with the news organization and get to know the reporters so any wall between the readers and the writers is nearly eliminated. It will help remove any fear the community has of “the media.”

People are quickly becoming used to reading blogs, and they are less fearful about posting comments to voice their opinions.

Also, it is fast. It only takes a few minutes to fill in the comment field of a blog post compared to the time it takes to read a print piece, develop an opinion, write a letter to the editor, send it in and see it in print.

Instant gratification is important to most people, and in a small town, time is always of the essence because people tend to be more self sufficient than those in large towns and cities.

The fast ability for readers to join the conversation also means reporters can post quickly and beat other media trying to swoop into town covering big news events. Also, it allows local news events of varying degrees importance to the outside world to be reported on quickly. If someone wants to know how Friday night’s football game turned out and they don’t want to wait until next week’s paper, they can look at the paper’s blog, or sports blog if specialization is incorporated, to find out that night, especially if it was an away game that fans couldn’t attend.

This could be accomplished with a traditional content management system, but it again comes down to people being more comfortable with a blogging platform.

News Web sites can be daunting to some. A blog, though, can make people more comfortable with spending time on the site.

A prime example is at The Ledger in Moundridge. On March 8, 2009, a helicopter crashed in a field outside of town.

The local newspaper editor, Todd Vogts, was on scene even before the ambulance arrived, and he was definitely the first media at the crash site.

He utilized Twitter to post updates about what was going on, and then he used photo sharing site Flickr to post photos that were incorporated into his blog post about the incident.

In this case, Vogts used his personal blog, www.voiceofthevogts.com, to report the information.

He beat the other media that arrived by utilizing these social media tools, including Facebook because his “status” was updated with a tweet every time he posted to Twitter.

The real value in the social media was shown, though, when people began commenting on the blog post.

The pilot of the helicopter, 66-year-old Roger Hershner who died in the crash, was from Sequim, Wa., and people from Washington found the post as they were looking for information about their friend and family member.

As of last check, 34 people commented on the blog post, sharing stories about the pilot and the amazing life he had led (to see the blog post visit http://voiceofthevogts.wordpress.com/2009/03/08/helicopter-crashes-kills-one-near-moundridge/).

This translated into Vogts providing extra stories coverage of the crash that showed Moundridge residents who the deceased man truly was, which several locals said they appreciated because so often something happens involving someone from outside of the community and they know nothing about the person.

Such insight into the pilot’s life made him more human instead of being just another tragic accident.

A newspaper from Washington serving the pilot’s hometown contacted Vogts and used his story and photos in their publication and provided him with stories he used in The Ledger.

Not only did the blog become a place where people could share stories about the pilot, but it also translated into a partnership with a newspaper halfway across the country.

Could this have been accomplished without social media tools? Maybe, but it probably wouldn’t have been so successful.

People came to the blog and shared their memories because they felt comfortable with the format the information was presented in.

In this case, the comments were not moderated. They went live on the blog immediately, which is something some news organizations have a problem with. But most of the time people will moderate each other and keep the negative and non-productive comments and conversation pieces to a minimum. Concerns over the legality of letting comments go live without moderation are greatly over exaggerated as the comments themselves will be viewed as the content creators unless a certain type of comment that is inherently negative is sought, according to law.

Of course, to buy into any of this, small-town, weekly publishers will need to understand that putting information online will not necessarily detract from paying subscribers.

Generally speaking, online users and print subscribers are two different types of people in small communities.

Social media tools are a way to reach people not being reached by the print product.

One of the most compelling reasons to utilize social media, though, is its price – free.

In times when money is tight everywhere, the value of using free services to increase readership and the relationship with the community can’t be ignored.

Please follow and like us: