Winter 2008

Accepting the Challenge: Using the Web to Help Newspapers Survive

‘Meeting us where we are—with a great Web site, content that works well in digital media, told in ways we can absorb and share—is a step in the right direction.’

By Luke Morris
With newsroom layoffs happening everywhere, it must really stink to be graduating and starting a job search in May, right? Wrong. It doesn’t feel too bad for those who, like me, are in this position. The newspaper optimists know recent grads are the best equipped to save newspapers, and they’ll be willing to hire those who show the potential to keep newspapers afloat.

Many newsrooms continue to adjust to the Internet and all of its new newsroom duties. Those doing the adjusting right now might have reservations about taking on all of these added duties, but journalists about to enter the job market don’t know how things were before the Web changed everything. To them, working for print and Web is all part of the daily life of any journalist.

I’m not suggesting that the newsroom should be run with a Spanish Inquisition attitude of “convert or die” (or to say it a different way, if you can’t handle the Web, get lost). The veterans in the newsroom still have important roles to play in keeping the focus on what journalists do best—no matter what media their work appears on. But there needs to be room for younger journalists who can help continue the newspaper’s evolution—or, some might say, energize its revolution—into an online news organization.

As those of us who’ve grown up with the Internet begin to enter newsrooms, we bring with us our visceral understanding of how the Internet works. We were, after all, among the early adopters of some of the more popular ways of the Web, like Facebook, which started as a college-only networking site. Nor are we shy of putting ourselves online, as we demonstrated by signing up quickly for MySpace accounts. Ditto for Twitter and lots of other social media sites that people older than us tend to avoid. And we’ll likely be the ones to stampede toward the next great online breakthroughs.

By being on the Web so much, and observing how others use it, when we get into the newsroom we’ll bring with us a good sense of possible ways to integrate the newspaper into the vast territory of digital media. Perhaps, with this kind of input, newspapers will only be a half step behind the Internet instead of feeling like they are miles behind.

A big challenge newspapers have right now is figuring out how to get us to even read the paper. In his book, “Is Voting for Young People?,” Martin Wattenberg writes that we do not connect with the news because we’ve grown up in a time when watching the evening news isn’t the only option on TV, not to mention the Internet. Cable gave us the ability to watch other programming during the traditional time slot when many older Americans watched the news each night as a family. Nor is dad usually found reading the newspaper at the breakfast table anymore.

Even if we don’t relate to getting our news in the way that our parents—and their parents—did, I don’t think it’s time to abandon the idea of getting newspapers into the hands of our children. From where I sit as a journalism student about to graduate and look for a job in newspapers, I’m really hoping that newspapers find some way to permeate our culture. Meeting us where we are—with a great Web site, content that works well in digital media, told in ways we can absorb and share—is a step in the right direction.

Content and Community

Host of the video blog Wine Library TV and business and social media mogul Gary Vaynerchuk often tells people that every successful Web site excels in what he calls the two “Cs”—content and community. For him, content comes in the form of his video blog about wines. Vaynerchuk capitalizes on the community side by including his followers in a lot of his operation; in fact, he makes his Web site completely open to his viewers.

Vaynerchuk live streams tapings of his shows on Ustream.tv. He also puts himself on Ustream to talk with his fans, pulling as many as a few hundred followers each time in sessions that happen during the workday. He Tweets often and is adroit at using many similar social media tools. Added to all of this, he answers every e-mail sent to him, and some days they number in the thousands. Newspapers looking for ways to be dominant in the era of digital media have a lot to learn from Vaynerchuk.

News organizations already have plenty of good content, even if many of them are lacking in the digital community department. Sure they have readers or viewers located in their market area, but that’s not how Internet community works or is measured. To be a successful Web site means having a community whose members feel a strong desire to participate. They’re the people watching Vaynerchuk on Ustream and sending messages on Twitter wishing him a better day after his beloved New York Jets lose.

It’s hard to imagine journalists having the time and energy for this very high level of interaction. If they did, then when would they find time and energy to do their reporting? But newspaper reporters and editors can—and many already do—hop into a chat room hosted by the paper or get on Ustream for 20 minutes once a week and keep in touch with readers. And when the newspaper sets up its Web site in a welcoming way (with good social media tools), then readers will use it to engage with one another.

Leo Laporte, who is host of TWiT.tv (www.thisweekintech.com), a Web site cranking out many podcasts a week, set up a microblogging program similar to Twitter on TWiT’s site through Laconica; it’s called TWiT Army. Join TWiT Army, and you can post links or reflections on an article in a mini post, as you would for Twitter. Wiredjournalists.com also does this, but through Ning.com, a Web site that provides a customizable template for creating your own social media program.

Having content and community isn’t going to solve all the problems that newspapers confront today. They must still work very hard to get their entire product out to wherever potential consumers can be found. Creating an iPhone application is a great step to push content to consumers, but the next challenge is to move the community part of the equation onto the mobile devices as well and not only the devices with famous names. When a newspaper decides to get its content onto one kind of phone, it should immediately expand its goal to aim toward getting the newspaper’s content onto every phone made after a certain year. As new products—hardware and online programs—emerge, those in the newsroom who are their early adopters will be the ones well suited to lead the brainstorming of how to get the newspaper onto these new technologies.

I don’t shudder at newspapers’ Internet-induced downfall. Instead, I see it as a challenge. Every time someone tells me that wanting to get a job in a newspaper is a dumb idea, it motivates me even more to prove them wrong. And I believe there are plenty of young people like me who want to be part of the reason that newspapers will survive. We’re ready to take what we know from our use of the Internet and apply it to whatever we can do to keep newspapers afloat.

When I toss my mortarboard into the air on May 17th, consider it my way of saying, “challenge accepted.”



Luke Morris is a senior at the University of Kansas and copy chief of The University Daily Kansan. He blogs about his rookie view of the newspaper industry at http://breakingintojournalism.blogspot.com.

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