in Just Journalism

Don’t forget the basics amid talk of the ‘future of news’

Newspapers and Future of News

Photo by cottonM via Flickr

It seems every day my RSS reader is filled with discussion of the “future of news.” Sometimes the discussion is around fantastical ideas, other times it’s about startups like Emphas.is or services like The New York Times’ upcoming News.me network. Sometimes it’s a great round-up of the direction news is headed, like Vadim Lavrusik‘s Mashable story about the convergence of social media and news media as we know it. Much of this is exciting, and some of it may even revolutionize news as we know it. But I also can’t help but feel that the “future of news” story depends on what product or startup someone’s selling or what media camp they fall in.

Do we talk too much about the ‘future of news’ and fail to focus on practicing the basics needed now?

That said, I wonder if we’re not talking enough about what news organizations can be doing realistically right now to improve. I’m not talking about operations like The New York Times, but the little to mid-size outlets that are still rather important to their communities but don’t have the means to experiment on a grand scale. Take my home state of Montana: newspapers there still dominate their markets and more importantly, remain part of the fabric of their communities.

But as print readership continues to decline despite growing news consumption, these publications need to foster digital audiences. Most of them are not. With all of this talk of things that are generally out of their reach (really, most newspapers actually don’t have the budget, staff or audience to create an iPad app for their quality local content), it would be easy to fall into a frightened paralysis in which leaders avoid innovating and focus on what they know best: the print product. To get started, these media need not revolutionize; they just need to start with some basics of online publishing, like these three:

Social Media

Social Media Referrals to Gawker Network

Social Media Referrals to Gawker Network

Too many news organizations don’t embrace social media, either as a means to share their content or source stories. And even if they are, they might be doing silly things like not interacting through platforms like Twitter and Facebook, i.e. auto-tweeting their RSS feeds with something like Twitterfeed. While using social media is a means to drive traffic (see chart of skyrocketing social media referrals), it must be carefully curated and conversational. The Next Web has some tips on how to do this.

Some publications have yet to embrace staff blogs and most especially, reader blogs. Staff blogs pose a tremendous opportunity for reporters to build faithful audiences and go beyond their beat.

Still others have yet to allow or foster comments and reader reaction to their stories. Pop quiz: How many of Matt Mullenweg’s steps to kill your community does your local news source engage in?

More than Shovelware

In fact, I’d wager that an extraordinary number of small to medium publications still engage in shovelware, the art of barfing print stories onto a stagnant web presence. Instead of breaking news on the web, updating the story throughout the day and expanding coverage to include audio, video, slideshows, documents, data, polls, tweets or even links, these diggers just keep shoveling from the print edition to the web.

Redesign

Speaking of barfing onto a webpage, a good number of news organizations have archaic looking websites with poor usability and low engagement. If readers don’t like what they see, or worse, can’t find what they want, then why should they subscribe or check back? And if a content management system takes an absurd amount of time to use, then of course editors and producers are not going to want to invest more time in making their stories flourish online.

With new designs and platforms that welcome readers, increase engagement, optimize for search, encourage sharing, foster community and allow for deployment of the previous two basics, publishers could be boosting revenue and developing a strong digital audience. Of course, this would take the most monetary investment of these three basics, but ignoring the elephant in the room is only a disservice to readers and the publication’s future—whatever that may hold.

Update: Alan Mutter’s Reflections of a Newsosaur beat me to the punch, it seems, with his “Eight strategies to help newspapers thrive.”