News Leadership 3.0

January 08, 2009

Beyond the news feed: Be the network

Ideas for ‘09: Expand your site as a network connecting people and information

Here’s Idea #2 for the New Year: Create a strategy to become an online network or expand your site’s capacity as a network.

This is not a fresh idea. But it feels urgent in 2009. Disturbingly, an extensive study by The Bivings Group found only 10 percent of the top 100 newspaper sites in the United States had implemented social networking tools, such as user profiles and the ability to “friend” other users by the end of 2008 (up from 5 percent in 2007). I found this figure amazing given the mushrooming popularity of social networking online and the growing use of networks by individual journalists in 2008.

Bivings evaluated the web sites of the 100 largest newspapers in the United States “based on the features included, with a focus on tools that increase interactivity and immediacy,” and did find progress:
- Social bookmarking: 92 percent have integrated external social bookmarking sites such as Digg and compared to only seven percent in 2006.
- Registration: The number of websites requiring registration to view most content (free or paid) has decreased to 11 percent, about one-third the rate in 2007.
- Commenting on articles: The number of newspaper websites allowing users to comment on articles has more than doubled in the last year to 75 percent.
- Most popular: 76 percent of newspapers offered a Most Popular view of content in some form (Most Emailed, Most Blogged, Most Commented, etc.), up from about half in 2007.
- Advertising: 100 percent of newspapers sites had some form of contextual advertising and 43 percent featured interstitial ads.
-User-generated content: 58 percent of newspapers offered some form of user generated content in 2008, more than double the number in 2007.

Clearly, these news sites are becoming more “of the Web.” But they are not keeping pace with the dynamism of the Web. If millions of people are using online social networks and journalists themselves are using flocking to them, why aren’t we seeing more networking practices on news Web sites?

Overall, the Bivings study concludes, “newspapers are trying to improve their web programs and experimenting with a variety of new features. However, having actually reviewed all these newspaper websites it is hard not to be left with the impression that the sites are being improved incrementally on the margins. Newspapers are focused on improving what they already have, when reinvention may be what is necessary.”

Steve Yelvington of Morris DigitalWorks talks about this lack of re-invention as well, in a recent post about “Looking for good news” in the industry’s financial picture.

“It’s primarily a failure to attract and retain a commercially relevant audience that’s breaking the newspaper business model.
“That points the arrow back at the people who create the content. The 20th century content model isn’t working any more, regardless of whether it’s in print or beamed directly into your cerebral cortex by a modified laser beam.
“If I were looking for good news, I’d be looking at the transition that many companies are making from single-product strategy to a portfolio/aggregation strategy. I’d be looking at the newspapers that are beginning to figure out behavioral targeting in a network context. I’d be looking for new newsrooms that are beginning to really grasp the breadth of their roles outside the simple 247 breaking-news concept.
“I’d be looking for great examples of facilitating and leading productive conversations. I’d be looking for great examples of online resources and local-life tools built around actual needs (as opposed to technologies or existing info resources).”

How can yours be one of the newsrooms that are “beginning to really grasp the breadth of their roles,” as Yelvington asks? For newsroom leaders who want to embrace a role as an online networks, I suggest a couple of steps:
Vision: Think, every day, about your news site and how to make it a vital network where your users find not only news but connections to one another, to their larger communities and to information they need.
Learn: Study popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and think about how their practices and technologies could help you gather audience and promote discussion around the news you are producing and the communities you serve. These popular social sites are often pretty trivial to the eye of a traditional news person but that doesn’t mean they don’t embody a process by which more and more people will find and recommend news to large groups of friends or connections. Look at free tools such as Ning and Twitter to get started.
Steps: Add features and test them incrementally. Do as much as you can as quickly as you can, rather than putting months of planning into a big effort that may or may not work. Play and learn on a small scale. See what users do. Move quickly off failure. Build on success.

What does radical reinvention look like at your Web site? Is your site among the 10 percent that has implementing social networking tools? What have you added and how are these tools working in your efforts to engage users? Please let us know about your efforts in the comments.

And a related note: Knight Digital Media Center’s annual leadership conference for local news organizations will focus on online networks. Here’s the” title=“program announcement”>program announcement.

Also related:
The Bivings report pdf. Check out the list (pages 8-9) of the features Bivings researchers checked for each of the top 100 sites. How does your site compare?
Ideas for ‘09 #1: “A new print team: Smaller in size, tighter in focus.”



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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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