AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2009

Networking News   

Traditional news outlets turn to social networking Web sites in an effort to build their online audiences.

By Arielle Emmett

Can Facebook and Twitter save the beleaguered mainstream media?

Maybe not by themselves. But news organizations increasingly are turning to social networking tools in their efforts to compete in a challenging and fast-changing media landscape.

Vivian Schiller, outgoing senior vice president and general manager of NYTimes.com, says social media marketing is one of several essential strategies for disseminating news online – and for surviving.

"Though the long-term viability of any individual social networking site or technology is completely unproven," Schiller says, "readers will engage with each other and share stories. That is a given."

Today, journalists romance new communities by blogging and posting updates and stories on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Almost all news sites now use widgets that can be downloaded to a reader's personal browser or Web site to quickly link back to the "mother site." In addition, users are gravitating to the "thumbs up, thumbs down" recommendation engines (aka social bookmarking tools) like Digg, Mixx, StumbleUpon and Reddit. These sites invite readers to embed links and vote their preferences for individual stories, videos and Web pages, driving favorites higher up in the "must view" hierarchy and pushing more traffic back to home sites.

"Social media is a pretty good way to get young readers to read news," says James Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com. "The one thing that gets lost in all the automation and search engine gaming algorithms is that people want to know what their friends think and what people respect. One way to get content in front of you is to have your friends recommend it; that's a social filtering of news."

But as with so much in the digital space, the question is how much social networking can contribute to news outlets' bottom lines. "The challenge continues to be how to monetize these users' activities successfully," says Eli Wendkos, product manager for social media at AJC.com, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Web site. "A model will emerge that does just that. The question is, when will it happen?"

The mainstream media met social media head-on in 2008, says Ethan Beard, director of business development at Facebook. "The Internet has gone through a shift from people who get information to people who get to each other," he says. "But we realize there are a lot more pieces of the social graph than just people and their friends. We've wanted to get media companies and journalists to have a place within the social graph."

For Facebook, the "social graph" means "the mapping of connections between all people," Beard says. It's the chart of how everyone on Facebook (now more than 100 million subscribers, double the number a year ago) is ultimately connected to everyone else. In 2007, Facebook opened its software platform to media and application developers. "At the time, it was a very innovative step to let anyone have access to the social graph and leverage it anywhere," Beard says. He estimates there are 400,000 software developers working on new programs for Facebook, along with 25,000 applications already built on top of the Facebook platform. The apps allow anyone – from gaming companies to university researchers to media giants – to launch news pages and hyperlinks back to their own sites from Facebook.

Some media companies (including Condι Nast, the New York Times Co. and the Washington Post Co.) already have a substantial presence on Facebook through advertising and branded pages that give users a chance to join "fan communities," accessing news, photos, features, quizzes and blogs while sharing them among Facebook friends. Companies including CNN, ABC, CBS, CNET and Digg have gone a step further: All are participating in the new project "Facebook Connect." When viewers click on one of these major news sites and register, they get direct access to their Facebook profiles, posted materials and circles of online friends. Without leaving the CNN Forum, "you bring your underlying social graph from Facebook into [the forum]," Beard says.

The cyberdoor swings both ways. Users can import their profiles, privacy settings and lists of friends into CNN Forum while exporting favorite stories, videos and blogs for posting on their personal Facebook pages. Bottom line: CNN news and video get new exposure and increased traffic from communities of pals on Facebook. Already soaring, the CNN site now has 1.87 billion page views per month.

Examples of the marriage of social sites and the news media are everywhere. PBS.org has a Facebook page with more than 32,000 fans, along with a separate interactive media "laboratory" Web site called Engage. Engage invites viewers to create content, comment on stories, upload their own photographs, interview PBS filmmakers and chat with reporters online. PBS claims this level of public participation, including a cooperative partnership with YouTube to encourage viewers to "Video Your Vote," has helped push its Web traffic to record numbers. In October, PBS.org attracted 877,000 daily visitors and more than 20 million unique visitors.

"Part of the reason is that we're having more online exposure," says Kevin Dando, director of education and online communication for PBS Engage. "We've been looking at our statistics, and we're fanatical about [seeing] where people are coming from, what words people use on Google to get to our Web pages – 50 percent of our traffic comes from Google, so we have to make the site as Google-friendly as possible. We've also seen a dramatic increase in traffic from sites like StumbleUpon," a recommendation site that boasts more than 6 million users. "In the last few months, StumbleUpon itself has been one of the top 10 traffic driving sites for PBS.org."

Schiller saw NYTimes.com's traffic grow from 14.6 million unique visitors a month during September 2007 to 20 million a year later, according to Nielsen Online. "We launched a public profile on Facebook the first day it became available," says Schiller, who on January 5 will become president and CEO of National Public Radio. With 180,000 Facebook readers and a daily news quiz of five current events questions, she says the social networking site has been "not just a traffic driver but a brand enhancer" for NYTimes.com.

The Times' social media strategies have a thoroughness that may be likened to saturation bombing in cyberspace: Not only does the Times use Facebook, it also has numerous RSS feeds and about 20 feeds via Twitter, the mobile instant messaging/texting utility the Times uses to link columnists and readers. In addition, it has direct hyperlinks to Times content via other social sites such as LinkedIn (a professional media networking site).

"We're an equal opportunity disseminator," Schiller said not long before leaving NYTimes.com. "The point here is to disseminate our feeds because they drive traffic." In fact, she says, leveraging via social media isn't really new. "If you indulge me, we've had letters to the editor since the beginning of the newspaper," she says. "The idea we've always had is to have really interesting, engaged readers, many of whom know more than we do about particular subjects." As technology ramps up, though, "we've been able to amplify that [advantage] like crazy on the Web. It's not a new idea, but we can scale it and present it to our audience in a dynamic way."

Like the Times, most major media sites are throwing resources at the social graph. National Geographic, for example, has its own video channel on YouTube, along with several prominently featured stories and hyperlinks back to nationalgeographic.com. But some companies with broadcast or film holdings, such as Viacom and NBC, have traditionally been reluctant to part with content or allow it to go viral. According to Erik Flanagan, executive vice president of digital media at MTV Networks Entertainment Group, even Comedy Central has had to rethink its social media strategy. "Until 2007, we were in a bit of an isolationist mode," says Flanagan, whose network produces Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." "We weren't capturing [people's] reaction in terms of our Internet properties, and we weren't putting our content out where they were talking about our shows," he says.

In an earlier iteration of its Web site, Comedy Central had placed the video assets of "The Daily Show" onto a video player that would not allow user downloads, viewer commentary or blogging. In the summer of 2007, however, "The Daily Show" launched its own site, and everything changed. "We made it possible for users to embed the [Stewart] video clips wherever they wanted them. So now every clip from 'The Daily Show' can be put on a Facebook page or a MySpace page," Flanagan says.

"Daily Show" Web traffic soared to record heights in September with more than 800,000 page views, according to the market research company comScore. One reason for the upswing, Flanagan says, was that the program "is a media hawk and has found humor in letting various public figures hang themselves by recompiling comments they made to the media in previous episodes and then comparing them." But another factor, he adds, is pure social strategy: "We love the fact that other people can look [at our content elsewhere] and yet we have 10,000 doors back to our own site. It's almost like we've established a mini-embassy on other people's soil."

News outlets and social media may be happy newlyweds, but can this marriage last? Mike Maser, chief strategy officer of Digg.com, thinks so. The news recommendation site started in 2004 and now enjoys 33 million unique visitors a month. Maser believes social engines spread public conversation, and that's all to the good.

Social media is "the wisdom of the masses," he says. "When Digg was first launched a few years ago, traditional media outlets saw it as a potential threat. At that time, some still took a walled-garden approach, where they wanted to keep their users consuming content only on their site for fear of losing eyeballs. Things have evolved a lot since then, and it didn't take long for publishers to see the tremendous traffic and new users Digg can drive."

Because Digg doesn't host content, instead sending users back to the home news site, "it's as virtuous a cycle as you can imagine."

Digg is among the top five traffic drivers to some mainstream media sites, Maser says. And the more sophisticated sites and ISPs can now massage their advertising rates to accommodate a sudden "firehose" of Digg traffic – what Maser calls "The Digg Effect." This means that literally hundreds of thousands of eyeballs can migrate instantly from the Digg homepage to an originating Web site that has a particularly fascinating piece of news or video once viewers push it up high enough in the Digg queue.

The great upstart social networking tool is Twitter, the mobile messaging utility that allows wandering social media fans to text one another – and columnists and news producers – by sending short questions, comments and updates of up to 140 characters. Twitter, like Digg, is very young, only two years old, but already it has a million subscribers. They can sign up on the Twitter Web site and then send messages from computers or mobile devices. Members have used Twitter to break stories before the mainstream media did; the first reports of China's Sichuan earthquake in May came from Twitter subscribers. Journalists, including washingtonpost.com political writer Chris Cillizza, NYTimes.com political commentator Kate Phillips and Times music critic Jon Pareles, tweet their fans routinely with political microblogs and musical updates.

This fall, NASA's Veronica McGregor, the news manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, invented an anthropomorphized Twitter "personality" for the Mars/Phoenix Lander, providing regular mission updates and disclosing that Phoenix had actually discovered water and snow on Mars. "There were tears in people's eyes when they found out," McGregor says. The updates were so popular that NASA now has a following of 39,000 Mars/Phoenix subscribers on Twitter, and the agency is using the mobile tool to update the public on other NASA missions.

Brady of washingtonpost.com says social text may not exactly save the news industry, at least in traditional incarnations, and notes many would argue it could fragment it further. However, "social text sites are helping us," he says. Traffic is up 43 percent this year. "It's the stuff that gets your stuff into the ecosystem, like Digg or Twitter," he says. As a rule of thumb, though, the move is not to wait for readers to come to you, Brady continues. Instead, "the bigger play is to put your stuff directly into a social media site."

This means pushing a continuous cycle of video blogs, Twitter marketing and content plays to places like Digg, YouTube and Facebook. At the same time, washingtonpost.com is encouraging columnists to start their own social pages and fan communities that follow them as a "virtual entourage." For example, washingtonpost.com political maven Chris Cillizza's blog, The Fix, has nearly 4,000 followers on Twitter. Cillizza doubled his fan base by Twittering observations and updates constantly during the Democratic and Republican conventions. In addition, he also "videos himself" asking viewers for feedback while tweeting URLs right back to the home Web site.

Brady isn't sure where all of this leads or if social media will ultimately fizzle. "My attitude is for awhile you go with the flow and try as many new things as possible, and not get crazy on day one. Start playing in the sandbox and eventually find out if it's working for you. It certainly can't hurt."

Besides, he adds, "There is more opportunity in social media for a niche story to be successful... If you know you have a good story, why not share it?"

Arielle Emmett (arielleemmett@rcn.com), a former Temple University journalism professor, is studying for a Ph.D. at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. She wrote about news aimed at cell phones and other mobile devices in AJR's August/September issue.