From the Spring 2010 APME magazine
News organizations across the country work to find their place
in the growing world of mobile devices and social networking
By Alan D. Miller
Smart phones and other mobile devices are fast taking over the world, and news organizations are struggling to find their place in that realm – including in social networking.
The good news is that the vast majority of editors responding to two recent APME surveys say their news organizations are delivering news in a format specifically for mobile devices.
The bad news is that the mobile feeds are not updated as frequently as their websites for lack of sufficient staffing, technology and training.
But there’s more good news: Almost 70 percent of the 26 respondents to a February survey said their companies are selling advertising against the mobile content. About 80 percent said they are eager for staff training on how to better use mobile devices for news delivery.
More than 90 percent of editors said in our April survey that they have personal Facebook and Twitter accounts.
And while 60 percent of the 96 respondents said they believe social-networking enhances the credibility of their organizations, their responses to other questions about social-networking suggest that the industry overall is still skimming the surface.
Use of Facebook for journalistic purposes is catching on. Nearly half of the APME survey respondents said that up to five people in their newsrooms use Facebook. And nearly a quarter said 25 or more staffers are using it.
But it appears that those staffers aren’t being given clear guidelines. Two thirds of respondents said their newsrooms do not have social-media policies. And almost 15 percent said no one in their newsroom is assigned to lead social-media efforts. A third said a mid-level editor has taken on that role among other duties.
Some are finding ways to monetize their social-media offerings. One editor reported using Facebook as a news site with advertising. Another created a "Facebook Fan Club” for a website geared toward women. "It is based on the premise that we connect customers and advertisers – and that just having a fan page doesn't guarantee friends. Our "club” ensures print and online visibility for business and company fan pages.”
One offers ads on "e-letters” for business news and specific beats, such as weekend nightlife and the art scene. Another is "working on a ‘Daily Deal’ incentive for Twitter and Facebook followers.”
The Washington Post recently announced its "Network News” initiative, which integrates Facebook into the paper’s website and incorporates activity from users’ Facebook friends to create a value of social relevance.
"Local publications need to recognize the importance of tapping into Facebook’s community, because, first and foremost, it is precisely where their readers are finding, sharing and discussing the types of pertinent content that the papers seek to champion,” writes Chris Treadaway, a Texas internet entrepreneur and former Microsoft manager, in a recent report on ReadWriteWeb.
"Facebook might already have more reach in the community than any other media outlet – especially local newspapers,” writes Treadaway, author and CEO of Lasso, a social-networking startup. The ubiquity of Facebook affects "discoverability of a newspaper’s content, who monetizes it and how…. A deep and complete understanding of social media is necessary for publishers of any kind to modernize, grow and ultimately survive.”
When it comes to mobile devices, the biggest traffic drivers are stories about breaking news and weather, according to the February APME survey. Commuter traffic information, entertainment (such as movie times) and sports also were mentioned.
Clyde H. Bentley, a former managing editor who is now a journalism professor and fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, said the survey results indicate that newsrooms are positioned to take full advantage of mobile devices for newsgathering and delivery.
"If technology is not the issue, then that in many ways provides an easy solution: training,” he said.
Often, he said, the bottleneck in such situations is not the front-line journalist. "It’s the editors.”
And even editors who want to provide more training are in a bind. In the latest APME survey, 65 percent of editors said they have cut back on training because of budget tightening.
Reporters and photographers are at least eager to learn, if not eager to use the latest technology. And editors can help them by providing access to smart phones and training, Bentley said.
"This is going to be a shakeout year,” said Bentley from the Missouri School of Journalism. "A lot of people are going to be using smart phones or learning to use them.”
He said about 90 percent of employed adults have cell phones, about 17 percent of which are smart phones. And only about 4.5 percent of the smart phones are iPhones. Consumers are moving rapidly toward smart phones, and as many as 50 percent of consumers could have them within a year.
That means newsrooms have a little time to figure out their place in the mobile world, but they also must remember that the majority of consumers still have phones that receive only voice and text, Bentley said. That means newsrooms should not forget to feed their news interests via options for text alerts.
Bentley said U.S. newsrooms have been slower than their counterparts in Europe and Asia to adopt smart phones for newsgathering. Again, editors can make the difference, he said.
"The challenge for managers is, do you pay for someone’s phone? For their data service? We traditionally haven’t done that. But that’s something to work out in the coming year. Do we want reporters to check out phones like we used to check out cameras in the old days?”
Ideally, Bentley said, managers should want their staffers carrying smart phones with them all the time: "What’s the old saying about the best camera for shooting news? It’s the one you have with you.”
Some smart phones now include cameras with resolution of up to 12 megapixels, optical zoom and HD video capabilities. Bluetooth links allow attaching a full-size keyboard.
"Your reporters can literally have an office in their pockets,” Bentley said. "It takes us back to a time when reporters on the street could call a story back to the office. These days, if you’re a big-metro reporter, you think twice about leaving the office to fight traffic and pay to park. But with this technology, you wouldn’t have to come to the office. This opens the up the notion of reporting on the common man again.”
In other results, the latest APME survey showed that nearly 71 percent of news organizations are talking about putting at least some web content behind a pay wall. Nearly 62 percent said their newsrooms are involved in that conversation, and many of the conversations center around niche sites and exclusive "franchise” content, such as specialized local sports coverage.
When it comes to quality control, 38.5 percent of editors in the latest survey said they have consolidated copy desks. More than 55 percent said the quality remained the same as before the consolidation and almost 37 percent said quality suffered. Almost 8 percent said quality improved. It’s probably no surprise that 79 percent said they saved money, but interestingly, almost 66 percent said they also saved time.
Alan D. Miller is managing editor/news for The Columbus Dispatch and chairman of the APME Sounding Board.