Friday, March 16

Chasing Newspapers: Social Media

With all the talk about the decline of traditional media, especially newspapers, I decided to take a peek for myself, given I often quote Bruce Spotleson, group publisher with Greenspun Media, who once observed that, to date, "no new media has ever replaced another media." Here is what I found...

In 2006, the magic number was 102,406 — the circulation needed as a publisher to break into the Top 100 U.S. Daily Newspapers by circulation. Not to take away from whatever East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.) is doing right, but that number seems somewhat paltry to me given there are blogs that easily draw a heavier readership.

In fact, not counting Sunday circulation (most newspapers usually have larger Sunday circulations), none of the top 51-100 broke 200,000 in 2006, according to BurrellesLuce (using figures filed with the Audit Bureau of Circulations), a leading media monitoring company. Only three — USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times — break the one million circulation mark.

In contrast, you need significantly more visitors to touch the Top 100 Web sites; several of which — Yahoo, MSN, and Google — provide news content. More specifically, many top social media outlets (blogs) have a higher readership than almost all daily newspapers.

If you need any more proof that daily newspapers are in trouble, consider that comScore Networks announced that 747 million people, ages 15+, used the Internet worldwide in January 2007, a 10 percent increase from January 2006. Or that PEW/INTERNET recently noted that 15 percent of Americans cited the Internet as their primary source of political campaign news in 2006, doubling since the last mid-term election.

Does this information mean I'm changing my position and beginning to think that traditional media is dying? NO! Not for many reasons, including that more targeted publications (magazines, weeklies, etc.) are still growing in America. My position remains that all media, social or otherwise, is important to public relations professionals.

However, this information does indicate that it is time for newspapers to realize that each, on its own individual merits, must decide whether it will evolve or die. For everyone's sake, I hope they all choose to evolve.

Spotleson, who spoke to my "Writing for Public Relations" class last night, asked a pretty pointed question. Given that daily newspapers traditionally inform/educate (in more detail than broadcast), stir public opinion, cover politics, provide a forum for ideas, entertain, and recognize individuals ... "Who will pick up the slack (if daily newspapers die)?"

It's an excellent question because it seems to me that daily newspapers function differently than the Internet news outlets. Generally speaking, a newspaper reader peruses newspaper sections and stumbles upon news they never thought to look for. Contrary, Internet news readers search for specific topics or look for popular topics with the advent of user-powered content like Digg, Reddit, Yahoo, Technorati, etc.

The difference between these two styles of news consumption is larger than the Grand Canyon. If we always consumed news like we do on the Internet today, it is possible some of the greatest stories of the last century would have never been covered.

I'm not saying one news consumption is better than the other, but given it is often traditional media that is investing the money to cover (or uncover) the news that social media then opines on, one might wonder if social media can afford to lose newspapers.

As much as I'm becoming more vested in the concept of social media and how it might benefit clients, I also concede that social media and information sources like Wikipedia are not always the most credible sources. Just ask actor-comedian Sinbad who recently commented on his presumed death (thank you Kristen Hunsaker for the tip). This bit of trivia doesn't even touch on the idea that most, if not all, political blogs are even further to the right and left of traditional media.

What I am also saying is that as much as I am a fan of social media, I am also a fan of traditional media. And that, if individual daily newspapers want to survive, they need to begin thinking harder about business and technology right now.

There is an immediate need for newspapers to improve hard copy content, enhance content delivery online (beyond search engines), develop better analytics for advertisers, rethink subscription rates, abandon this notion of one day charging for online content, and half a dozen or so other things. (Frankly, sometimes I think I had a better business model to integrate hard copy/Internet circulation and advertising sales five years ago before blogs even entered the picture.)

After all, I can only guess that there are reasons that both the Associated Press and PR Newswire have agreements with Technorati, which tracks 71.5 million blogs. I imagine, in part, they are preparing for a world where their biggest distributors might not be dailies but rather bloggers who are even less inclined to fact check.

There is an old saying that if you want to save the world, save yourself. Nowadays, it very much applies to daily newspapers.



Mike Burtner on 3/17/07, 4:22 AM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Burtner on 3/17/07, 4:29 AM said...

I agree that the validity of contributory 'news' sources may be sometimes questionable, but the disparity between electronic and more traditional media may be more perception than fact.

Here is a link about the study conducted by the science journal 'Nature', in which they found roughly the same number of errors in the Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Of course, the EB hotly contended their accuracy, but the point I took away from this is that we have a collective expectation that a set of books bound in leather, with the rep. of the Encyclopedia Brittanica would have almost no mistakes, or that there would be a significant disparity.

When a newspaper mistakenly prints erroneous material, the retraction comes days later, and is buried deep in the content. And certain misstatements like the Sinbad situation seem more significant because of celebrity, just as the misguided editing that caused John Siegenthaler to complain most loudly about Wiki- credibility. But who knows how many tiny mistakes go unnoticed in print media every day, simply because the error seems insignificant to many people.

I think media, like currency, is only as trustworty as the collective faith with which it is imbued by those who use it.

Richard Jennings on 3/17/07, 11:04 AM said...

You get free access to and those other subscription sites with a netpass from:

This was on CNBC last week. ;)

Rich on 3/17/07, 11:32 AM said...

Hey Mike,

Thanks for dropping by to make an excellent point and providing the link. I appreciate it.

History, among other things, is always being rewritten to compensate for errors, mistruths, and ignorance (minor and major mistakes alike). Newspapers (and all media) admittedly make ample errors given the amount of content they produce on a daily basis. The corrections are often blurbs buried on page 2 or whatever (I think dailies have 30 days to correct an error in Nevada).

Honestly, my intent was not necessarily to take a swipe at Wiki, which I use from time to time, usually to refresh my memory about a specific topic (plenty of people are swiping at Wiki). It's fast and easy. I chose that example because it was timely, current, and celebrity stories, like political stories, tend to provide clear, dramatic examples.

A better example may have been the alleged pornographic Barba photos, which were not her. Thousands of blogs claimed those photos were her (almost 100 to 1 to those who said they were not her), creating a perception that departed from reality. Of course, the media didn't necessary exonerate her from those photos either.

More to my point is the idea that maybe we need traditional media more than we think. Maybe we need more facts and less opinions shaping our presumed truths. If we assume traditional media is still interested in that pursuit (maybe some are not), then they seem best equipped to continue the job. It used to be their job was simply defined: to tell the truth and shame the devil.

So, in sum, you are right ... information is only as trustworthy as the collective faith with which is imbued by those who use it ... as evidenced by the disparity between our media in the U.S. and media across the pond. Having worked as a journalist (and still do from time to time), I've often found story writing is challenging process of collecting opinions and facts in order to shape some simple, easy-to-understand truth. It's hard work.

In closing, allow me to add that where I think traditional media can do a splendid job is uncovering stories no one thought to cover. And although there may be fewer today than yesterday, the best print reporters always fact check to death. I hope more online information providers take a lesson from those old print guys and not be tempted to sacrifice facts for fast reporting.

All my best,

Rich on 3/17/07, 11:36 AM said...

Thanks Jennings ... good to know!

I love what the Internet has done in making more media faster to source and easier to access, despite being at the expense of paid circulation.



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