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From AJR,   December/January 2010  issue

The Distribution Revolution   

How news organizations are intensifying their use of social networking venues like Twitter and Facebook to circulate their stories and connect with their communities


By Bret Schulte
Bret Schulte (bjschult@uark.edu)is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas. He profiled Gingrich for U.S. News & World Report in 2005.     

Hanna wasn't much of a storm by the time it spun across North Carolina in September 2008. It hurled rain, and it blackened a few houses. But for Wilmington's Star-News it was packing something bigger. You might even call it a wind of change.

Executive Editor Robyn Tomlin was fresh on the job, having just arrived from the Star-Banner in Ocala, Florida. When the storm hit, she was hunkered down in her new duplex, just two blocks from the ocean. The house shuddered in the wind. Then the lights snapped off. Some life-loving folks might have crawled under the bed. But Tomlin had other ideas.

"I was tweeting all this stuff from my cell phone," she says. So were other Star-News staffers across the area. "We were able to connect with people all over the community who were seeing the same thing. I think that was the first time I thought, 'My goodness, look at what this can do in a situation like this.'"

Until then, the New York Times Co.-owned Star-News (circulation 48,000) had one main Twitter feed that supplied headlines to followers and not much else. A few staffers had their own accounts. But in anticipation of Hanna, the newsroom decided to try something new, a unique feed for reporters and the public to post their own eyewitness accounts and questions during the storm. "It wasn't [Hurricane] Katrina by any stretch of the imagination," Tomlin says, "but people from all over the world were suddenly following these tweets because it was happening in that moment."

A year later, the Star-News is putting out stories and discussion topics on 15 Twitter feeds. Meanwhile, 30 of its staffers have their own accounts, which they use to promote their work, engage the community and mine story ideas. The paper (if one can still use the term) is also pushing out stories on its own Facebook page and encouraging reporters to do the same on their own pages. Many do. Says the Web development manager, Vaughn Hagerty: "That conversation, that feedback, is key to a lot of the things we're doing."

In New York, the Wall Street Journal is pumping out and bringing in information through more than 100 Twitter feeds, a veritable cardiovascular system alive with stories and dialogue. The New York Times has its Twitter feeds, too. But it's also pushing TimesPeople, which works with the gamut of social networks to allow people to recommend, share and comment on Times content with friends who also sign up for TimesPeople. Looming Internet behemoth The Huffington Post, meanwhile, offers its own version: By signing up, every comment you make on a Huffington Post piece automatically sends the comment and the story across your social network of choice. For Facebook, that means it appears on your news feed, where all your friends can see (and click) for themselves.

All this focus on Facebook friends and Twitter followers and sowing stories and links across the Web is dramatically altering a side of the business that the newsroom never much thought about: distribution. What was once the province of doorsteps and homepages is now about the hustle of networking, the savvy application of technology and the dark art of promotion and marketing. And, increasingly, it's everyone's job. The imperative for newsrooms to push stories far and wide is redefining the work of reporters and editors and prompting even more questions about the future of audiences, news brands and that standard-bearer of online journalism: the good old homepage.

That the social networking scene has pushed into the news business is no surprise, but what is raising eyebrows is how quickly the famously slow-footed industry has embraced it. "We're seeing that the user, the citizen, has become an integral part of the evolution of a news story," says Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Why one story might become widely read and another doesn't has to do with the pass-along effect." That effect means that readers have less reason to visit a site's homepage--an online surrogate for the publication brand and its role as information gatekeeper. Now, newsrooms are scrambling to reassert themselves in an era that is nothing less than an uprising of status updates. "Maybe in earlier eras [news organizations] needed proof of concept to do anything; now nobody's waiting for proof of concept," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "They're looking for any way possible to stay with the innovation curve."

For reporters, the curve has come up especially fast. "In the old days, most journalists thought it was their job to write a story, and it was someone else's job to distribute it, market it and find an audience for it," says Alan Murray, executive editor, online for the Wall Street Journal. "In the new world, the journalist has a responsibility for the whole set. That really does change the job of the journalist in some really profound ways."

As is well documented, asking journalists to do more has often paid dividends for news organizations. No exception here. By having newsroom staffers manage social networking accounts, they multiply the organization's reach across the Web. Getting a story placed high on Digg--a live ranking of the Web's most popular offerings--can, in turn, draw thousands of more hits. Twitter followers have proven to be avid and loyal readers, engaging with reporters who cover fields of interest to them. Facebook pages have become a venue for news organizations and individual reporters to post links to stories and respond directly to comments and questions.

Readers are blushing from all the sudden attention; news organizations, meanwhile, are hoping that social networking will reduce their dependence on the unknowable algorithms of search engines to deliver traffic. While a report from the Pew Research Center shows that the number of people using Twitter and other networking services to get their news fix is still low--just 10 percent of those with social networking profiles--almost everyone expects that number to grow. And fast.

In September, the Wall Street Journal held a series of conference calls with bureau chiefs and reporters to help them adjust to the new world order. Not everyone is keen on it. Even some reporters just five to 10 years out of school think that the idea of accruing and catering to online followers and friends is strange--or worse, unbecoming. Rather than mandating everyone to become social networkers, the Journal is recruiting volunteers to use Twitter to represent "subjects of interest," like the automotive industry or personal technology.

The Journal isn't limiting itself to tweeting free content. It does the same for subscriber-only stories, with a note that they are behind a pay wall. "The beauty of Twitter is you follow key people who are interested in the topics that you are interested in," Murray says. "RSS feeds are a thing of the past, so we're encouraging selected reporters to start Twitter feeds to interesting stories and help drive traffic to the site." He does the same, often using his feed to inform his 5,000 followers of Journal pieces that don't get play on the homepage, like a survey on the eve of President Barack Obama's ill-fated visit to Denmark asking readers where the 2016 Olympics should go. In a show of prescience, only 20 percent picked Chicago. "I thought that was interesting," Murray says. "So I tweeted it." Nevertheless, the paper is discouraging reporters from setting up personal Twitter accounts out of worry that off-the-clock ideas and opinions could be misinterpreted. (See Drop Cap, page 6)

Beyond the give and take of Twitter posts, the Journal is also working to integrate social networks more closely with its site, though Murray declined to give more specifics. One recent example, though, might provide a clue. In August, the paper worked with Digg Dialogg when interviewing U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. The questions the Journal posed came directly from the Digg community. "It's another way of working more closely with social networks," Murray says, "because we think they are going to be an increasingly important way for people to get their content."

Chad Lorenz, the homepage editor at the online magazine Slate, is also prepping for the social-networking shakeup. The site gets little traffic from search engines. Most of its readers stream through the Web site's front door. Even so, "we know people are reading differently," Lorenz says. "We know there's way too much out there for people to go from site to site." To keep its content up to speed, Slate has most of its roster of writers on Twitter. By himself, chief political correspondent John Dickerson has 1.2 million followers. That's not in the Ashton Kutcher stratosphere, but he's outperforming Newt Gingrich and Justin Timberlake.

On Facebook, Slate, which is owned by the Washington Post Co., has been more innovative than most. In addition to its own page, on which it posts choice stories every day, Slate has also created five Facebook pages in the last year to promote individual projects. Called "Fresca Fellowships" after Editor David Plotz's prolific consumption of the grapefruit-flavored carbonated beverage, the projects enable reporters to spend a month on a piece and to work on developing an online community to support it. One fellowship went to Dahlia Lithwick, who toiled away on a chick-lit novel, "Saving Face," at a pace of a chapter a day, with the help of more than 1,700 Facebook fans who post plot and character suggestions on the page wall. One question posed by Lithwick on the page: "Whats the meanest possible thing Cole could say to Erica in a blowout fight?" yielded more than 50 comments. A few: "you're just like your mother," "And you never floss!"

Like most other publications, Slate doesn't know exactly how much traffic is coming from these efforts. And much of the interaction with readers occurs on Facebook or through Twitter as well as on its own Web sites. Still, the growth potential for news sites is huge, editors say. From his bare corner office overlooking D.C.'s Dupont Circle, Plotz says, "I've been pushing very hard to make sure my colleagues understand we can't depend on the idea that the promotion of the Slate homepage will mean a life on the Web."

What social networking means for traffic depends on the site. Some are seeing a surge at the article level, though it's hard to know how much comes from better search engine optimization and how much comes from social networking. And not all that side-door entry is coming at the expense of the homepage. Traffic on the Wall Street Journal homepage, for instance, has exploded by 250 percent in the past two years, according to Murray.

For others, homepage traffic simply isn't that important--and might be growing even less so. Rather than expecting readers to come to its Web site, the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization in Washington, D.C., is "working hard to go where the audience is," says Executive Director Bill Buzenberg. Participating in that mission is Steve Carpinelli, a media relations expert whose job description includes managing a massive cross-listed database of media contacts. It's organized by subject, such as the environment; as well as medium, such as bloggers and aggregators like The Huffington Post; television; radio and newspapers. His goal is to find people willing to take for free the Center's work, which is also located on its own Web site--not that many people bother to look. The Center is also on Twitter and Facebook but has put its knack for whizbang interactive maps and graphics to best use with a newsletter, an e-mail with more content, images and links than most home-pages. "I don't think the homepage is for everyone," Buzenberg says. "Readers almost all come to us through our projects."

For other outfits, the distribution revolution has had a direct impact on the way editors think about and use their Web sites, particularly the homepage. In June, the Landmark-owned Roanoke Times created a new position: the dayside delivery editor. The job entails managing "the nowness of the Web site," says Carole Tarrant, the Times' editor, and includes churning out the new headlines on the newspaper's Twitter feed throughout the day. "It's more of a broadcast mentality" than a typical newspaper mentality, Tarrant says. One of its strategies is to use the Twitter feed and homepage as a daybook, issuing reminders of upcoming meetings and events. On a Monday in October, for example, the homepage and Twitter feed alerted readers that that day was the voter registration deadline in Virginia--though there was nothing about it in the print edition.

For years, search engines were the primary referrers to news at the article level, frustrating news organizations everywhere and sparking an all-out war to be king of Google Mountain. Through social networking, readers still cherry-pick their news rather than travel to a homepage and digest its contents. "When news enters the social realm, the referrers are part of the brand," Rainie says. "You're not only assigning the value and importance based on the name of the organization, but also the value you place on your friend's judgment." But it's working to some newspapers' advantage, even small ones. At the Roanoke Times, referrals from Facebook accounted for 1.72 percent of the total in January. By September that had jumped to 4.38 percent. Twitter referrals, though fewer than Facebook's, have nearly doubled since June, when the dayside editor position was created.

What all this meant for the Roanoke Times brand hit the paper like an earthquake. Well, it actually was a small earthquake--a 3.0 tremor that rumbled local residents awake at 4:08 a.m. on May 16. Almost immediately, Twitter accounts lit up with a frenzy of questions and concerns. "Just got woken up by a giant boom in Roanoke. Wonder what it was," wrote a Twitter user dubbed Santoroski. Someone called Pacarrell responded: "Yes, Virginia, the earth moved for me too." But no one could say for sure what it was. At the Times, an early morning online producer saw the tweets and checked in with the U.S. Geological Survey, which confirmed the quake. He posted the news to the news site and Facebook page and fired off a tweet with the news.

"It went from not knowing what it was to the paper saying it was real, so it's real," Tarrant says. "That tells me we have a space in all this. You can have these citizen journalists, but they're still really looking to us." The same is true with national stories. "When big news occurs or large news events are unfolding, brand matters a lot," Rainie says. "People by default go to their favorite place, and it tends to be a well-known mass media outlet." Murray of the Wall Street Journal argues that nothing much has changed. "Homepage traffic is in some ways a proxy for the power of the brand. Weak homepage traffic could be an indication of a weak brand."

Wilmington's Star-News has gone on the offensive. It's using Twitter to compete more directly with radio and television by streaming a live Twitter feed of accidents, gridlock venues and other road worries directly onto its homepage. Many are sent in by area residents. The effect is a give and take with readers, says the editor. "More and more people are expecting that kind of conversation with us" via social networking, Tomlin says, "not just pure promotion."

The idea of conversation birthed MyReporter.com, which allows readers to pose questions to reporters through the Star-News Web site or via Twitter. Responses usually come back within 24 hours. It got started last fall when Night Metro Editor Jim Ware happened across a question on his Twitter account: Why is there a helicopter flying around my house? Ware did some reporting and tweeted back that police were searching for a robbery suspect. A year later, MyReporter.com won a Knight-Batten Citizen Media Award, with judges hailing it as "a tremendous validation of readers." The paper's recalibration to social networking has spilled over into the bricks-and-mortar world. Reporters and editors now frequently appear at tweet-ups, coffeehouse meet-and-greets with their Twitter friends.

That's all well and good, but what, if anything, will all this mean for the bottom line? Social networking is a hit among readers, but will that translate into dollars? As it is with seemingly everything online, there are no easy answers for monetizing any of this. But people are trying. The Star-News is working to allow advertisers to embed and aggregate their own Twitter feeds into online ads. Tomlin gives the example of a food page with an advertisement carrying eight to 10 Twitter feeds from local restaurants offering specials and coupons. That would spare readers from having to follow those restaurants individually on Twitter, and the aggregation would help build a critical mass of eyeballs.

As often happens in the Twitter Age, journalists played entrepreneur with this concept, too. "This was actually a newsroom idea that was developed and passed along to the ad department for development," Tomlin says. With any luck, all this experimentation on social networking--finding out the hard way what works and what doesn't--will provide some answers to the business side of online journalism, which is in dire need. Hey, that's worth tweeting.