Are Facebook ads good value for money?

I’ve never used Facebook to advertise anything to do with Ada Lovelace Day, but I thought I’d give it a go with a post about Ada Lovelace Day Live, just to see what happened. I assumed that FB would be quite effective at delivering my post to a large, relevant audience, but that’s not what happened.

When I set up the ad, FB said I’d reach 2,700 – 7,200 people, but in fact it only reached 1,588. The idea that FB somehow can’t find 2,700 people in the UK, over 7 days, who match my audience profile (ie, graduate or higher, in all the STEM-related fields they have) is absurd. Indeed, FB itself says that the potential size of my audience is 28 million, but it couldn’t find more than 1,588 people. Sure. Right. I totally believe that. *cough*

Of those 1,588 people reached, 25 “reacted” to it (ie used the like button), two commented (one of those comments is a guy being an asshole), five people shared it, and six people clicked the link.

These are not particularly impressive figures to me.

Now, I know that I only spent £10, but I run ALD on a shoestring, and that £10 was a test to see if it would be worth spending more. Frankly, I can’t say that I’m confident that it was even £10 well spent.

I had assumed that FB would be a cost-effective way to reach lots of people, but at £1.67 per click, I don’t think that’s the case at all. Frankly, it feels more like a rate-limited con than a useful service.

Kevin is more sanguine than I — he thinks 1,588 is good for a low-follower page (we have 124 likes on our page), and he has more experience than I do with the way that FB works. However, the point is that the whole reason for paying for an ad is because our page has few followers, and because FB has destroyed organic reach in order to force us to pay to reach more of the people we previously would have reached anyway.

But they’ve done a shit job of up-selling, because I would have invested £100 in ads, and would have expanded my ad horizons to include merchandise and similar if FB had delivered on this test. They didn’t deliver, so they’ve lost a potential advertiser and, sadly, I’ll have to just battle on and try to grow my organic reach.

This is a huge shame. The promise of social networks was that it would level the playing field, and that the smallest organisation or the least famous person still had the opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. There is, of course, now a huge issue with noise which didn’t exist at the dawning of the social media age, but that’s not the problem with Facebook.

The problem is that they have deliberately locked small folks out of building reach organically in order to drive ad revenue, but are not providing good value for money when people with limited resources pay a small amount for ads. Had they delivered even the lower end of their estimated reach range, I might have considered investing more. Had they delivered 7,200 people, then I certainly would have, even though I still think that’s an artificially low number given that they said my audience is 28 million.

What rankles most is that not only is there no good reason for limiting ad reach this severely, but also that it hurts the very people that social media was suppose to help: those of us stuck in the long tail without the resources to spend loads on advertising.

How Tor failed Social Media 101

There are some companies that appear to be native to the web, not just on the web but of the web. Often these companies were early adopters, building websites whilst others called the web a ‘fad’, starting blogs before most people knew what they were, and using social media in a way that makes them appear to have a sound and thorough understanding of the medium. Tor is one such company, but sadly, it has recently become clear that Tor does not actually understand social media and, in particular, has not developed or adhered to a crisis communications policy. 

The short story is that some month ago, two overlapping groups of people calling themselves the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies campaigned to game the Hugo Awards, in which both nominations and awards are via a popular vote. Whatever one thinks of the people in and supporters of these groups, it is fair to say that they are engaging in what one might call grievance politics. Certainly there’s also an awful lot of identity politics involved, so temperatures on all sides are running high. If your’e not familiar with the backstory, a quick google will provide you with a wide variety of opinions on the Puppies, their politics and their activities.

What I am specifically concerned about, and why I’m disappointed in Tor, is their reaction to a complaint from one of the Puppies about a comment made by a Tor employee, Irene Gallo, on her personal Facebook page. Rather than taking a considered approach, Tor threw their employee under a bus, and appear to have broken every rule in the crisis comms rulebook. It’s sad to see that a company that in many other respects really gets the web, fails to understand how to manage the fallout from an online furore. 

Note: I have no insider knowledge of what went down at Tor, I only have their public statement to go on, but that in itself tells me a lot about what probably did and didn’t happen. 

1. Consider the situation 

The first mistake Tor appear to have made is that they did not fully understand and consider the situation. There are several aspects to this situation that raise red flags and call for especially careful handling of the response: 

Any one of those issues would flag a complaint as requiring careful thought, but all of them together add up to a warning to tread incredibly carefully indeed. I don’t think Tor did that. The wording of Tom Doherty’s blog post in response to the complaint is clumsy and ill-considered, and shows no signs of having been properly thought through. 

2. Take enough time, but not too much or too little

When the shit hits the social media fan, it is important to respond in a timely manner, but it’s even more important to avoid a kneejerk reaction. If an issue needs further inquiry before a full response is issued, then it’s acceptable to publicly acknowledge the complaint and say that it’s being looked into.

It may even be that no response is required – not every complaint is deserving of employer intervention. If an employee has a disagreement with a member of the public on her own Facebook page, it is possible that her apology on said Facebook page is sufficient, and that her employer need not step in at all. One can debate whether that was the case here or not, but it is an option that should have been considered, along with all others.  

Doherty’s response reads very much like a kneejerk reaction. it is, to all intents and purposes, a public disciplining of Gallo, which is entirely inappropriate no matter what Gallo did. If you address a complaint, you do not use it as an opportunity to shame your staff. Doherty should have taken more time to think about exactly what was going on and how his post would be read by the broader Tor community. 

3. Remember there are three sides to every argument

Any public response to a public complaint is made more complex by the fact that there are three parties involved: You, them, and the audience. In his rush to appease Gallo’s critics, Doherty appears to have forgotten that he might also anger people who agree or sympathise with Gallo, or who do not believe that the complaint against her has merit, or who, after reading his post, believe that the complaint has merit but that his response was inappropriate, etc. 

In chastising Gallo online, Doherty has alienated a lot of people, and that in and of itself is a massive failure for Tor that Doherty himself should be disciplined for. You simply do not rush in with a response that inflames the situation, especially when it’s obvious from the beginning that tempers are running high and offence is being easily taken. Indeed, the taking of offence is a key weapon in grievance politics, and Doherty should have both realised there was a major risk that his response as written might make the situation worse rather than better. 

4. Talk to your employee, work with them on both your response and theirs

Whether or not you agree with Gallo’s initial comment, it is clear that there was insufficient conversation between Gallo, Doherty and others at Tor about how best to deal with the situation. Gallo’s apology has been deemed a ‘fauxpology’ by some, and I can see how they would reach that conclusion. The key line is “I apologize to anyone hurt by my comments”, which might have been more appropriate worded as “I apologise for saying something offensive”. If you’re going to apologise, swallow your pride and do it properly and graciously, even if you feel you shouldn’t have to, and be very careful to avoid any wording which can be interpreted as shifting the blame on to those offended.

But equally, Doherty, does not appear to have discussed his response with either Gallo or anyone else who might have pointed out that it reads very poorly. When you respond to a complaint, you do not need to defend the complainant, you simply need to address the substance of the complaint, where it is valid, and explain if necessary any parts of the complaint you have concluded are not valid. Doherty did not do that. 

So what should Tor have done? 

There are two things that Tor should have done, and that all companies should do right now, if they haven’t already: 

1. Draft an employee social media policy

Work with their staff to draw up a social media policy, governing appropriate behaviour online. This policy should not have the effect of chilling speech, so it absolutely has to respect the fact that employees need to have their private spaces online. But it should discuss how to protect those spaces, and how to think about what can be said publicly and how to think through the potential fall-out of controversial statements.

A social media policy should also tie in to standard disciplinary procedures, so that staff are clear on what would constitute a serious transgression that would invoke that procedure, and how it will play out. Social media is not special or different, so should always follow standard HR procedures. Staff should never, ever, be chastised in public, and that this happened is a failure of senior Tor management that needs to be addressed.

2. Draft a crisis communications policy and procedure

When something goes awry, it’s essential that people across the company know what to do, who to talk to, and how to minimise the impact. Doherty has not done a single thing that I would recommend a company do, and instead of soothing ruffled feathers, he has inflamed the situation and alienated core customers. 

A crisis comms policy should again be drafted with staff, discuss the kinds of issues that can crop up, particularly the different between external crises, where an event outside of the company’s control causes a problem, and internal crises such as this one, where staff members says something without giving it enough thought.

There should be a chain of command, so that everyone knows how to escalate a problem, and there should always be two pairs of eyes on the response, particularly in small businesses where it’s easy to feel personally attacked and thus to overreact when things go wrong. There should be guidelines on how to properly respond, what to say, what not to say, how to formulate a reply that addresses the facts and not the emotion of a complaint, and when not to respond at all. 

I find it unlikely that Tor has such a procedure, given what’s just happened, and that again is a failure of senior management that they need to address, urgently. 

Note about comments: I am travelling at the moment, and because all comments are moderated there may be a delay in approval of your comment, should you choose to leave one. Abuse, rudeness or any incivility will simply result in the comment being deleted. Repeat offenders will be banned. I am not interested in a discussion of the Puppies or their politics, so those comments will not be published, along with any other off-topic comments. For the sake of clarity, on-topic comments are those about crisis comms and social media. 

Can comments withstand Google-scale communities?

Not long after I joined the Guardian as blogs editor in 2006, I was at an online publishers event in London. Forefront in my mind was how to build engagement at the scale that we would quickly find with Guardian blogs, a particularly important question given that this was several months after the launch of Comment is Free, which was already suffering from serious teething pains socially. I asked Tim O’Reilly how to scale community, and he said:

You have to stay small as you grow big.

Being at a conference, Tim didn’t elaborate on his Zen k?an, but I still ponder it today, especially as I read this: How Ta-Nehisi Coates built the best comment section on the internet—and why it can’t last.

Flipping back to 2006, I had recently done a lot of work in my previous job at the BBC regarding social media – blogging as social media was then – I wondered how well the social aspects of blogs would hold up when we threw the scale of audience at it that the BBC could generate. I foresaw some of the issues that BBC bloggers would have in terms of trying to deal with volume of comments that they would instantly face.

In traditional blogs, the core audience is a community of choice, a group of people that shared an interest in a particular topic. That community of commenters grew to have social connections, bonds that helped foster civility. At the BBC, our bloggers could quickly generate an audience, but that didn’t mean we could create anything like the thoughtful communities of choice that we saw with smaller blogs. Our commenters didn’t know each other and would often be drawn to hotly contested topics because of strong, often diametrically opposed opinions.

To make that kind of conversation work, you need people with a very different skill set than your traditional columnist, who often come at issues with a ‘what do I want to be outraged about today’ type of mindset. What you need in order to make comments sections really work is exactly the kind of mindset that Coates’ brings to his work, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t still face the challenge of staying small as you grow big.

The issue is that the internet rewards scale and some social strategies simply fall apart at Google-scale. Once The Golden Horde – the name given to Coates community of commenters – grows beyond a community of choice and starts to attract people wanting to vent about some of the most sensitive issues that we face today, the comments often become unmanageable.

Back when I was blogs editor at The Guardian, I was often asked how I measured success, and I said it was not by the number of comments. Any fool can generate comments. You simply pick the hot topic of the day, push people’s buttons until they bleed and then survey the wonderful wreckage of human outrage. That is why in 2015 the internet sometimes feel like one gigantic generator of human fury.

Outrage was the standard editorial strategy in the 20th Century, when the only return channel was analogue and scarcity of letters to the editor set a high enough bar to keep the Angry from Milton Keynes interplay to a manageable and highly controlled level. That editorial strategy does not work in the 21st Century with a completely open return channel for which the technical and social tools have not kept pace.

In this century, the big challenge is generating thoughtful conversation. I have tried it a number of times, to the point where commenters knew that I was building a digital media Skinner box: Rewarding productive contributions more than punishing transgressions and guiding the comments towards conversation rather than confrontation. It is hard work and it does not scale particularly well. I was blessed with the autonomy and time to do it, but it takes time and a lot of effort.

At the end of the of the day, maybe staying small as you grow big is like Google where you break up a team when it gets too large. Maybe the only way to make this work is to keep the communities and conversations small enough so that people actually develop the kind of social bonds that allow them to disagree with civility. But that runs counter to the gigantic scales that make a business sustainable on the internet.

So, what happens when the business imperative to scale comments runs counter to social strategies to manage them? Things fall apart. It’s that simple. They become unmanageable and eventually people burn out and the communities of choice leave, in search of some other space where things work on a more human scale. I’ve seen it happen time and again. Some people seem like serial early adopters, but what they are really doing is seeking a space in which they can find community.

As an editor, this raises all kinds of questions. But the one thing I would say is that while we all want the biggest audience possible, we have to accept that strong, highly-engaged community strategies operate on a different scale. Push them beyond their social bounds and they will simply fall apart.

Update: After thinking about, small communities of choice also tend to be rather homogenous. This begs the question on how we develop technologies and social techniques that allow for diversity of thought and civil dissent.

On uncertainty, case studies and the Great Race to be Second

People behave in many different ways that when they are unsure what is expected of them, but one of the most common is to hang back and watch what others do. It’s often a smart tactic. It allows us to observe the behaviours and expectations of others, see how transgressors are dealt with and, in the light of that information, choose a course of action which we hope will result in a good outcome for ourselves whilst avoiding the wrath of those around us.

This tactic breaks down when either the crowd doesn’t know what’s going on and so cannot clearly demonstrate the preferred or most effective behaviours, or when the crowd is simply wrong. In the first case, hesitancy can result in poor outcomes for everyone, and in the second case, bad decisions made by early actors result in bad decisions by those who copy them.

If you want a good example of extreme uncertainty, you need look no further than the use of social media in business. The last ten years has seen a transformation in the way that businesses and their customers communicate, and not just in terms of new tools arriving on the scene. There have also been major changes in expectations regarding tone, accessibility, and response times. Many of these changes are alien to business managers, young and old, who simply don’t know how to cope with them.

This uncertainty has resulted in a lot of people milling about, looking for examples of what other companies have done so that they can copy them. If you have absolutely no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, but you know that you have to do something, then it’s tempting to copy someone else. And the main way people find things to copy is by reading case studies.

The problem with case studies

The problem with relying on case studies as a learning tool is that they give readers a highly filtered view of reality. In fact, it’s often so filtered that it’s misleading.

The first issue is success bias: The projects that get written up and publisher are the ones that succeeded. It is very, very rare for a company to write a case study of a project that didn’t go as planned. Those are buried, unexamined by the public or by social media professionals.

This is a shame, because failures offer a lot of insights into how social media works, what people respond well to (or not), and what pitfalls exist. By publishing only successful case studies, we are robbed of the opportunity to learn from mistakes.

The second issue is glossing over: Projects which are ultimately deemed successful often include missteps and misunderstandings, yet these are again often airbrushed out of any resultant case study. Instead, you are given a narrative in which only successful decisions are made and everyone gets everything right first time.

Some companies are brave enough to include a section about ‘Challenges’, but usually these are just minor speed bumps that were overcome without affecting the overall outcome of the project. The truth is that most case studies have a skeleton or two in their closet, so you have to maintain a degree of scepticism because you are only being given half the story: The pretty half.

The third issue is that of context: Case studies are often only relevant to the company that executed the project at the time that they executed it. For example, a Facebook marketing case study from 5 years ago won’t be relevant in 2015, because Facebook has changed massively and the tactics that worked then may well fall flat now.

Even within one company, case studies may not be generalisable. For example, if you’re a publisher with a romance imprint and a factual imprint, it’s likely that what works for the romance audience won’t work for the factual audience, because what they want from social media interactions will be different.

Sure, some aspects of social media are universal, but the specifics of any strategy or campaign will depend on audience. So for a case study to be useful, you have to understand precisely the context and conditions in which the original project was implemented, how your situation differs from that, and how those differences will affect your own implementation of something similar.

If you’re going to go to all that trouble, you may as well start from first principles and learn how to construct a strategy from the ground up.

The Great Race To Be Second

A dependency on case studies can also mutate into something far, far worse: A refusal to act until someone else has demonstrated results first. This Great Race To Be Second is pervasive in the field of social media, and illustrates the extreme insecurity of those making the decisions.

No one gets fired for spending millions on Microsoft products, but spend a few thousand on an untried social tool and suddenly you may have to justify your decision. The easiest way to do this is to be able to point to the competition and say, “But this is what they’re doing!”

This way of thinking is incredibly problematic for several reasons:

  • Your competition might not actually know what they’re doing, so copying them can result in poor results for you
  • Your competition might be doing what’s right for them, but that might not be right for you
  • Waiting for someone else to go first introduces unnecessary delays and may give them the competitive advantage
  • Copying others can be a very shallow way of learning how to do something, resulting in only superficial knowledge
  • Copying others results in a loss of flexibility, as if your situation changes in a different way to that of your competition, you will have no one to copy and will lack the understanding needed to diverge from their path

Businesses must instead learn from first principles, developing a solid understanding of the foundations of social media in order to craft a strategy and roadmap that is right for their company, in their market, for their audience.

Waiting for others to move first and relying on their strategies to inform yours is a recipe for disaster, and not just because you’re ceding that first mover advantage to someone else. The Great Race To Be Second can only result in a substandard result, in both the short term through suboptimal strategy and execution, and in the long term through a failure to acquire the foundational knowledge needed to understand future changes in the social media landscape.

What are case studies good for?  

All of the above does not mean that case studies are entirely useless. They’re not, they can in fact be very useful indeed as sources of ideas. Seeing what other people have done and how they’ve done it can be provide inspiration, but other people’s projects should only ever be viewed as suggestive of possible avenues to explore, and must not be read as concrete recommendations.

Ultimately, your social media activity must be driven by the needs of your business, and the needs and wants of your audience. It will also be constrained by the limitations on your resources and the cultural expectations of your audience. So you cannot build a robust strategy piecemeal out of other people’s case studies because they do not take your specifics into account.

So, by all means, read case studies, but do so knowing that they are not blueprints for success, they are at best back-of-a-napkin sketches to be investigated further.

If you want to learn how to write your own tailor-made social media strategy, my online course is available for just $87 (£58) – a whopping 75% off – until 15 February. Udemy provides all students with lifetime access and a 30 day money back guarantee. 

Five social media myths debunked

A lot of myths about social media have grown up over the last decade, many of them now so commonly repeated that they’ve passed into received wisdom. Here I tackle five of the most pernicious.

1. Social media is for youngsters

The idea of the “digital native” is a pervasive one, telling us that young people somehow innately understand technology whilst older people are social media dullards incapable of truly understanding how it works. This idea is nonsense. The truth is much more mundane: Technological capability, interest and access varies as much amongst young people as it does amongst older people. And whilst young tech users may relate to their technology differently, that’s doesn’t mean that they have developed a deeper or more comprehensive understanding than older users.

It’s really important that business people understand this, because the myth of the digital native affects recruitment and promotion, often resulting in social media accounts being run by people who are too young and inexperienced to cope with being the public voice of a business. It also disadvantages older people who may know their business, market and audience better, and have all the communications skills needed to be successful in social media.

2. No one really knows what works on social media

Whilst social media is a new field — blogs have only been around 16 years, and most social networks are less than ten years old — the idea that we don’t know how it works or what to do is false. In fact, experienced practitioners have a very good idea of what works and what doesn’t, but because of the fickleness of human nature, no one can guarantee that a particular tactic will work at a specific time.

A good practitioner will know what tactics have the best chance of success, and which to completely avoid, dependent on the nature of their target audience and the content being produced. A well-crafted social media strategy will take into account the nature of your audience, assess your content assets and resources, and make sure you choose the right social media platforms based on your business needs.

3. You need to have a profile on every social network

It is better to maintain one social network profile really well than to sign up for lots and let most of them languish. The fear is that your audience will expect you to be everywhere and that to not have a presence shows a lack of interest in serving them. The truth is that small businesses do not have the resources to be everywhere, and people understand and accept this. But if you do have a profile then people will expect it to be active, so it’s better to not create the profile in the first place than to make one and let it lapse.

Furthermore, to the point of resources, every social media platform that you engage with comes with an opportunity cost: What else could you do with that time and money? If you are spending time, and therefore money, on using a social network that doesn’t actually support your business goals, eg it doesn’t result in more sales or more brand awareness, then you are wasting your resources. You should focus on the tools that are most likely to reach your target audience and support your business.

4. You must be on Facebook

Of all the social media tropes that I hear, this one is probably the most common. The logic is that Facebook has 1.35 billion “monthly active users”, and that to eschew Facebook is to miss out on a massive audience. There are two problems with this assumption. Firstly, it is getting increasingly difficult for small businesses to get value from spending time on Facebook. Changes to the platform’s algorithms mean that even if hundreds or thousands of people decide to like your page or join your group (which is in itself a challenge that’s getting harder to meet), only a small fraction of them will see any of your posts show up in their timeline. Facebook ultimately wants businesses to pay for their posts to be promoted, so it’s in their interests to make it harder to organically reach people, not easier.

Secondly, Facebook interactions tend to be shallow: People will share posts within Facebook, but are less likely to follow links and, when they do click, less likely to stay on the site they visit for more than 5 seconds. Is there any value to building up a large following on Facebook if people don’t visit your website or buy your products?

5. Social media strategies are a waste of time

Social media can be deceptive: It’s very easy to create an account on a social network such as Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr. They’re pretty easy to use too, excepting Facebook’s impenetrable privacy settings. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to successfully use social media for business.

Many businesses who just plunge on in end up using the wrong platforms and/or the wrong messaging, see poor results and give up thinking that social media isn’t right for them or their business. In actual fact, what they needed was to think strategically about what they want to get out of their social media use, who they are talking to, and what those people will want to hear.

Using social media for business without a strategy is rather like going for a walk without a map: You might get where you want to go, but you might also end up going down a lot of dead ends, wasting a lot of time and could even get so frustrated trying to find your way that you give up.

If you want to learn how to write your own tailor-made social media strategy, you can get 50% off my online course using the code SA150120. Udemy provides all students with lifetime access and a 30 day money back guarantee. 

ICYMI – Gannett at #ONA14: Data-driven insights with Chartbeat

I missed the Online News Association conference last week because I had just returned from Asia speaking at the WAN-IFRA India conference and doing some data journalism seminars with journalists in India and Singapore.

However, my Gannett colleagues were at ONA14 in force, and they highlighted how we’re using analytics tools like Chartbeat to make sure that our journalism reaches the widest audience. We’re doing that with a mix of dayparting and content programming to make sure that we have the right content for the right audience at the right time of day, and we’re also driving an audience focus in our newsrooms that delivers real public service and engagement.

Kevin Hogan, who is the digital editor for some Gannett sites in New York, created a great Storify summary of the discussion at the Gannett Salon about the insights that Chartbeat is providing us.

A few highlights:

  • Only about four percent of readers who come to a story from a link shared on social media will return to the homepage of the site.
  • At Gannett, we get our highest loyal traffic at 9 am in the morning. This is definitely true at my sites. Traffic starts building at about 6:30 to 7 a.m. and then starts a gentle glide path downward through the day after 10 a.m.
  • Readers use tablets and mobile more in the evening. Our desktop/mobile mix shifts to mobile between 4 to 6 p.m., and it is driven almost entirely by Facebook.

To serve your audience, stop feeding the goat

To transform, local news operations will have to fundamentally rethink what they do and what they stop doing. We know that we have to attract new audiences, deliver new services and find new ways to earn revenue to support this transformation. However, it is easy to feel like we’re drowning on a daily basis feeding the beast, or as the authors of a report from the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University put it, feeding the goat.

Nieman Lab summarised the report that looked at why local news operations weren’t innovating. The report found that local newsrooms felt that they had little time or resources “to try experimental reporting methods — especially data journalism”.

How to find time to innovate?

The local newsrooms that have made smart use of digital tools have leaders who are willing to make difficult trade-offs in their coverage. They prioritize stories that reveal the meaning and implications of the news over an overwhelming focus on chasing incremental developments. They also think of the work they can do with digital tools as ways to tell untold stories — not “bells and whistles.”

Amen. As my friend Adam Tinworth said in response to my recent post about building a community platform, it’s not about doing more with less but actually doing different things.

I am finding time to innovate because I am building partnerships with local institutions to add context and depth to our coverage. We aren’t just aggregating content, but more importantly, we are aggregating authentic voices in our communities. We are thinking about coverage thematically rather than focusing on incremental stories and engaging our communities in that coverage. Thematic series allow us to weave a deeper narrative that builds loyal audiences.

We will build this loyalty through a mix of technology and real engagement that goes far beyond simply sharing our stories through social media. The community platform strategy is about building a deeper relationship with our communities. We’ve taken the first step, and over the coming months, we will be doing much more not just at the two papers where I’m executive editor but at the 10 papers in the Gannett Wisconsin network.

In the coming months, I want to accelerate the changes I’m making, but to do that, I will have to think hard about what we stop doing. We simply do not have the resources to cover everything that we have in the past in the way that we did it in the past. We will cover how the local council is buying properties and selling them to developers who will add more apartments downtown for young professionals. However, I will do that in part by engaging young professionals to write, rather than simply having my staff write more stories.

Doing new things feels exciting, but the less exciting, more risky and yet absolutely essential thing I have to decide is what we stop doing. I don’t want to simply cut back, but to free up resources to do new things, I have to figure out what we stop doing. So far, the audience is responding to what we’re adding rather than noticing the things that we have scaled back on. Long may it continue, and I think it will because what we are doing feels like it has more impact, more depth so people are focusing on that rather than what we’re no doing anymore. I am also using technology to smartly import local events calendars from public institutions and then automatically reverse publishing into print with as little production as possible. More on that later.

I’ve got a meeting with my two news editors coming up where we talk about what we stop doing, what we can outsource to machines and what we do to partner with our communities.

I don’t have all of the answers. If you’re an editor, what are you deciding to stop doing? And just as importantly, what is that allowing you to do that you couldn’t before? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Rebuilding journalism through building a community platform

Shebpressteched

Last year, as my job search started to lead back to newspapers and back to community journalism, I started to think about the challenge and how I might meet it. When I wrote that blog post, I got a bit of pushback on Twitter about how stretched local newsrooms are. I knew that then, and now, I live that challenge. I wrote then:

After years of declining readership and revenues that have led to savage cuts, to say that local journalists are stretched thin is an understatement. They are stretched to breaking point.

Newspapers need to fight for new audiences and new revenue, and they must do that without new resources. As I said in my blog post last year:

When the cuts started, the talk was about ‘doing more with less’. It was about finding efficiencies and cutting out the duplication of effort, but after years of cuts, newsrooms now find themselves able to do less with much less. Editors have had to become a lot more creative on how they work with the staff they have left, with other resources if they are in a group, and with their communities.

When I landed in my new job as executive editor of two newspapers in Wisconsin, I had to prioritise what I would do, and to be honest, I didn’t think I would really be able to start my community platform strategy for months, possibly not until the autumn. But then my communities surprised me. Many people I met said they wanted more from the newspaper. I was honest with them and told them that they wanted the same thing I wanted, a vibrant newspaper. To achieve that, I told them I would need their help, and I was concrete on how they could help.

Since I started marrying social media and journalism way back in 2000, I have continually been surprised by how people and communities engage when you give them a specific thing to do. My communities have really responded, especially the schools.

As a new editor and very much new to my communities, I have made a point to meet leaders in my communities. As I met school leaders, they were very enthusiastic about the partnership that I wanted to create with them. I wanted to give students an opportunity to be heard in the newspaper, and I also wanted to give school leaders the opportunity to take their message directly to readers beyond a quote in a story. Yes, our reporters would report and write stories to put these contributions from students, teachers and school leaders in context, but we also had room to give people in our communities space to share their expertise and opinions.

I have to admit that the stars really aligned on this project. The head of a charter school in Sheboygan suggested that we do something about technology in education, due to a switchover from iPads to Chromebooks at high schools. My reporters were already working on a number of stories about new technology initiatives in local schools, and I had already arranged to visit some high school journalism and creative writing classes. This came together much faster than I had anticipated.

Across both of the newspapers, school administrators, college presidents, teachers, college faculty and students have contributed some 30 articles. What the students have written has exceeded all of my expectations – articulate, passionate and authentic. For instance, the social media editor of the high school news site at Sheboygan North wrote about how she tried to give up social media for Lent. We had another article in which students voiced their opinions about having their mobile phones seized by teachers. From the local charter high school, we had two passionate pieces arguing the pros and cons of technology in education.

More than that, my education reporters uncovered leads for future stories during the process, and I’m working hard to free up time for them to manage these partnerships directly.

This has been such a positive start that we’re now exploring other ways that we can partner with the community. Sheboygan is a real foodie city, with lots of local food traditions plus some stunning high end restaurants in downtown Sheboygan and at the resorts in Kohler. We’ll be launching a digital food hub with a blog and video series in the summer. We are also looking to launch a Community Champions discussion series in which we will give passionate advocates of our communities space to discuss how we help them achieve their full potential.

As I said when I started, I wanted our newspapers to be at the centre of the conversations in our communities, and with the momentum building around our community platform, we’re well on our way.