News Leadership 3.0

September 21, 2009

Navajo Times employs social media to reconnect scattered young with a traditional community

In a guest post, Craig Matsuda revisits a recent KDMC program participant to learn how the ethnic media organization has found across the globe a new, enthusiastic, young online audience with Facebook, Twitter.

Craig Matsuda, a longtime editor at The Los Angeles Times and now a consultant, coordinated Knight Digital Media Center’s recent conference, “Transforming Ethnic News Organizations for the Digital Now,” in partnership with New America Media and the McCormick Foundation. In the process, Craig worked closely with editors from about a dozen ethnic media outlets as they worked to improve their online offerings. I have asked Craig to follow up with program participants in a series of guest posts.

In an old language that some fear soon might be lost, a small ethnic publication has been greeting a surprising, new, youthful audience every morning for a few weeks now in a 21st-Century location.

Ya’at’eeh Nihidine’e, the Navajo Times tells its young cyberspace friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter. That hearty, “Good morning, Navajo people!” then is followed in English by headlines from the Times’ latest edition or a circulation promo or maybe a tease to an online video or photo gallery.

The content and contact clearly matter, as the Window Rock, Ariz., paper - which says it has a weekly circulation of 22,000 - has signed up a robust 1,600 fans on its Facebook page, which has been up only since August.

“We’ve been surprised and pleased how things turned out,” publisher Tom Arviso says of his organization’s leap into social media. “We were eager to get to young readers and we thought this might be a way. But our Facebook and Twitter experiments have far exceeded our early expectations.”

When he and reporter-editor Jason Begay attended the KDMC program in Atlanta for ethnic media leaders, they envisioned improvements to the Times’ online presence, especially its web site. They said they hoped the Navajo Times site would be the home for videos that would play a key role in preserving their people’s language, traditions and culture. They took in the social media presentation by Peoples Software Co. CEO Susan Mernit. It just wasn’t their chief focus.

But on their return home, they looked and learned to their displeasure that an unauthorized Facebook page was posted for the Times with bad, bogus content, Arviso said. They contacted the company, got it pulled down and decided, what the heck, maybe it was the time to put up a proper Navajo Times page.

The timing was impeccable. The newsroom staff had started breaking stories about a tribal deficit and suspect spending by leaders. It was peak season for big reservation events like the summer fair, a beauty pageant and even a metal rock concert. The Times talked it all up on Facebook. And from spots as far away as Iraq and Afghanistan, young Navajos eager to reconnect with family and happenings back home flocked to the Times’ new, social media information sources.

Read their enthusiastic, energetic postings and what emerges is just how the diasporan young - in California, the East Coast, overseas - have coalesced around the Times and formed what ethnic media outlets long have sought to create and foster: a community.  Its members talk about traditional foods they hunger for but can’t find; they swap information about jobs and learning their traditional language; they’ve grieved over the loss of a young soldier in Afghanistan; they cajole and argue with each about everything from tribal government to the merits of various kinds of music, including opera.

Yes, opera.  The plans by Arviso and Begay for more video haven’t disappeared. With the tools provided by YouTube and Facebook, the Times is putting up more video online.  A much-discussed Facebook posting even featured a video of an opera company’s performance at a reservation high school of a modified La Boheme.

Both the Times’ web site and its Facebook pages reflect greater attention to not only video but also photography. “We have so many great pictures that we couldn’t publish in the paper,” Arviso said. “Now we can put them online and our audience really responds to them.” Indeed, the web site spotlights several online slide shows, and on Facebook, the Times has 18 photo galleries, which have prompted more than 200 comments.

Because Begay has just begun to build the Times’ Twitter presence, it isn’t showing the results the Facebook page has, Arviso noted. Still, it has a solid rate of one follower per tweet (159 tweets posted, 159 followers).

In concrete terms, the publisher says he’ll soon see metrics as to whether the social media have driven traffic to the Times’ web site, which the organization says gets more than 230,000 page views monthly. But Arviso notes that he has made a point already with advertisers about their greater reach, exposure and cross-promotion to the Times’ burgeoning, young Facebook and Twitter audience, many of whom are away earning college degrees and headed to higher incomes. That’s good news in the grim economy, in which Arviso says the Times is holding up and holding its own.

Next steps? Arviso said he knows his staff is working hard, learning a lot of covering as much as it can. “We still have to get better, though,” he says. He wants more audio and video of interviews in Navajo; the paper publishes a page now in the traditional language and he’d like a weekly video with a lesson and reading in Navajo from it.  “We need to get folks some equipment - video and digital cameras, digital tape recorders,” he added. “We need to put that stuff in our people’s hands and train them more. We’re going to put up even more stuff online soon.”


There is no doubt that internet influences on the young men with a great power…as for me Facebook and Twitter are very useful…

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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