Saving local journalism with vision

Local journalism is struggling. It’s struggling to develop revenue streams that will replace the classified and print display ads that it has lost over the past two decade, and I know that we also have a challenge to engage our audiences in this media saturated environment. 

Tom Grubisich of Street Fight Mag gives a great overview of some of the deep thinking going on about local media in the US on his way to laying out his prescription. 

I think the entire local news industry – both “legacy” newspapers and broadcasters and entrepreneurial and corporate “pure plays” – need to get out of their journalistic, Fourth Estate mindset and show their communities that they are all-in. They have to do this not only with residents they want as readers but also local merchants as advertisers. And with everybody else in the civic space. Otherwise, they’ll continue to be minor players in the otherwise thriving local digital space.

Amen, brother. As journalists, we have an almost religious belief in The Mission, but in local media, we must connect with our communities. This week, I’m having the third community forum for my four newsrooms. We’re going out to meet our communities, and this isn’t just a one-off. We’re going to be at farmers’ markets and other community events. We want to show our commitment to our communities and be visible, not just as individuals but as a team. 

Grubisich highlights how Steven Waldman has recommended in his “Report for America” that national and local philanthropic groups should support investigative reporters on two-year placements on short-staffed local news teams to do deep accountability journalism.

But Grubisich believes that “communities deserve more”, and he believes that they news organisations need vision. They need “an auspicious mission”, and he believes that to capture the imagination of Millennials and donors, this mission needs to be something like tracking the huge demographic shifts in the US. 

I think that this is one vision, and I believe that these large thematic stories are important. They help drive conversations in communities and build context for audiences that drive engagement. 

In our regional news group, Gannett Wisconsin Media, we did this with our State of Opportunity project. This project looked at the recruiting challenge companies have in our communities. We’ve getting hit with a double whammy. Our employers can’t fill the openings they have due to a number of factors – drugs, skills gap and the ’Silver Tsunami’. What’s the Silver Tsunami? I’ve spoken to major employers in our communities, and they say that up to 30 percent of their workers may retire in the next five years. That’s not only a huge hit in terms of numbers, but these are their most experienced workers. A lot of talent and skill will walk out the door. If we don’t find a way to meet this challenge in the coming years, our communities will get hit by a huge economic drag when some haven’t recovered from the Great Recession. The next five years are pivotal and will set the future course of these communities. Will they grow and thrive or enter decline? 

And that brings up one caveat that I have about vision. I like Tom Grubisich’s idea, but the vision you choose has to be rooted in your community. We can talk about grand visions and national trends, but these visions have to have local relevance. Otherwise, what’s the point of a local news outlet? That may sound obvious, but with consolidation and centralisation, a lot of these grand visions are driven from the centre to the periphery. What sounds good at larger cities or at HQ may not mean a jot to local audiences. That is a huge, but obvious danger with these macro-trends being the focus of the centralised editorial strategies. 

Content metrics aren’t bad, measuring the wrong things is bad

My friend George Brock has taken aim at Trinity Mirror‘s Newsroom 3.1 plan on The Conversation:

Quite apart from the limp, tired name of “Newsroom 3.1”, the idea of trying to improve performance with detailed numbers of “hit rates” or “impact ratings” has been tried and doesn’t work.

Later he adds:

One way of helping – rather than scaring – Trinity Mirror journalists might be to concentrate on demonstrating that what they produce is valued by people in Birmingham and Coventry. Simple clicks are evidence of passing interest or curiosity, not of a piece of journalism being valued.

Ouch. I agree with George that volume numbers of alone – clicks and even unique users – aren’t going to help us grow our audiences.

Like Trinity Mirror, Gannett, where I work as an executive editor, has also been training our journalists on how to use metrics. It is part of a larger strategy to be more audience focused. But fortunately, the training goes beyond volume metrics to include engagement and loyalty metrics. The main question that we are trying to answer is how do we produce something that is so valuable to our communities that they will pay for it? Just this week, I pointed out to one of my staff that her story wasn’t just getting a lot of views or clicks, but that it also was having higher than average engagement. People were spending time with her story.

Suw and I often say in our training and consulting that metrics aren’t bad but be very careful about what you are measuring because you might end up optimising for the wrong thing. Suw says that we often fail to measure what is important because we focus on measuring what is easy.

Measuring impact and what what our audiences value is challenging, but we have to do it. And we have to get smarter in how we do it.

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. 

I’m hiring: Come work with me to create the future of local news

Update: I wrote this post in 2015. Seven months after I wrote this post, my position was eliminated. Don’t worry. I had a Plan B, C and D, and it all worked out better than I could ever imagined. I am building information companies for the 21st Century. 

Just a little over a year ago, I started as executive editor over two Gannett newspapers, the Sheboygan Press and the Herald-Times-Reporter in Manitowoc Wisconsin. As of Monday, I’ve added two more titles to my stable, The Northwestern in Oshkosh and The Reporter in Fond du Lac. We are the newly formed Lakes group of newspapers.

I’ve put a lot of time and thought into how these newspapers will work together going forward, and if there is one thing that I have learned in my first year, our success is based on building strong relationships with our communities. We will have a laser light focus on high impact journalism and high engagement with our communities.

This focus is why we grew our audience last year in Sheboygan off the back of incredibly strong digital growth. That’s right, our audience grew, based on Scarborough data. That growth is supporting commercial success too. I’ve got just about the best commercial teams that anyone could ask for, and the Herald-Times had some of the best financial performance of any newspaper in all of Gannett’s Central Group last year. More than that, the HTR also just took top honours for the second year in a row in the Wisconsin Newspaper Association awards, sharing the award with our sister paper in Marshfield. That’s success no matter how you measure it.

No, my papers aren’t the New York Times or the BBC, but if you come and work with me, you’ll be working with someone who has been at the forefront of journalism innovation for decades. I was the BBC’s first online journalist outside of the UK. I was The Guardian’s first blogs editor, and after striking out on my own, I built a global media consultancy with my wife, the British social media pioneer, Suw Charman-Anderson. I worked with Al Jazeera on their social media efforts during the Arab Spring, and Suw and I helped launch a ground-breaking digital news service, Firstpost.com, in India in 2011. Last year, I came home to the Midwest to help create the future of local journalism, one of the most interesting challenges there is in media.

Our newspapers may not be big, but I run them like start-ups. There is zero distance between idea and execution in my newsrooms. Sell me on the idea and why we need to prioritise it, and we’ll find a way to do it. We have constraints, but if you learn to innovate here, you can do it anywhere. Constraints just make success all that much sweeter. Give me a couple years of your career, and there will be no limit to where you’ll go.

That’s my elevator pitch for why you should come work for me, and now I’ll briefly detail the roles. I’m looking for three newsroom leaders who are autonomous, creative, energetic and have a passion for community engagement. In addition to duties across the group, you will be the top editor in each newsroom. You will have to travel around to the other sites to keep in touch with your staff, but you won’t have to be in constant motion – that’s my job.

I’m also looking for several experienced reporters. (Experience in this context could be a year or two if the experience is right, but it can be more.)

I also have one entry level reporting position.

If you have any questions, drop me an email kanderson2 at gannett dot com. These are great opportunities. If this challenge sounds right for you, apply at the links above. I’ve have a great first year, and I’m just getting started. Once we get the team in place, we’re going to make some noise. You will want to be a part of this.

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.

Local journalism: Business models that don’t rely on scale

Emily Bell hired me at The Guardian, and she has just delivered a speech in which she says what I already know.

The demands of web scale economics have torpedoed the local news model; they have also driven great invention and a new set of entrepreneurial skills into journalism.

Later she elaborates what web scale means.

A viral story is the holy grail. And viral does not mean a couple of hundred thousand any more, it means millions. Sometimes tens of millions.

I know Emily is right that one successful digital business model is scale, but I don’t believe that is the only business model. It’s just one that works right now, in some contexts. Scale isn’t new – it has always been successful, long before the internet and mobile media came along.

But I’ll sketch out the challenge for local media. I am the editor of a number of local newspapers in the US, and I’ll take one, the Sheboygan Press as an example. The total population of Sheboygan County is 114,922. That’s not even a million, much less tens of millions. And, to make things worse, the internet has undermined many of the geographical advantages that local newspapers used to enjoy.

On this basis, I might as well throw in the towel, but I’m nowhere near ready to do that. The challenge for local news is to create a new range of products for audiences born digital and mobile. For too long we’ve been trying to find a market for the same products that we used to deliver in print, and that just won’t work. We can’t simply write that local council story the same way that we used to and hope that social media will be enough to market it. I’m really not sure that those incremental, process-based stories actually engage audiences. Instead, we need thematic stories and engagement opportunities that tackle big issues in sticky ways.

There will not be a single source of revenue that will replace the fat revenues that we used to earn from print. But I have the insane, audacious belief that I can come up with another business model with multiple lines of new revenue: Digital marketing services, events and social strategies that deeply engage local audiences and make money. As Jim Brady once said to me, there is no silver bullet to save local media, just a lot of shiny shrapnel.

As I did when I was at The Guardian, I’m using third party services, the duck tape and spit of the internet, to bring the cost of experimentation down as close to zero as possible. I’m relentlessly measuring what I do, and I’m ruthless and unsentimental about failure. Learn from things that work and things that don’t work. Learn fast rather than fail fast. And, when we hit on something that works, we’re going to scale as much as we possibly can.

And we in journalism need to get over our aversion to selling. We’re being outsold at every turn, and in order to survive, we need to sell the value of the public service we provide, sell so hard that it will make P.T. Barnum blush. This is an existential battle for attention, and we need to sell a vision of local journalism rooted in service to our communities. And I’m not going to pussyfoot around this, we need to get over our aversion to making some coin.

No, I don’t think that every journalist needs to be out there selling subscriptions and ads, but every journalist needs to realise that the battle for attention that we’re fighting. Every journalist needs to understand the business we’re in and how it is changing.

I know that this is a daunting challenge, but I’ve never shirked from a challenge. Bring it on.

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. 

A fun way to earn revenue with newspaper archives

Sheboygan Press 107th Anniversary edition
The cover of the Sheboygan Press 107th Anniversary edition

The week before Christmas, the Sheboygan Press, one of the papers I edit, celebrated its 107th anniversary. Our business might be news, but our readers also love history. We run a weekly column from the head of the country historical society, and it’s really popular.

Seven years ago, for our centennial, we ran an anniversary edition and included a replica of our very first edition. For this edition, we decided to celebrate our birthday with a vintage styled newspaper with stories from throughout the decades.

As a new editor and a newcomer, it was a great way to learn about the history of the city and of the newspaper. I learned about Charles Broughton, who led the newspaper to become “one of the most influential, liberal papers in the state”. The graphic on the front page trumpeted many of his and the newspaper’s campaigns and accomplishments including the preservation of local wetlands.

Broughton was also a fierce anti-Prohibitionist, and on the front page of the commemorative edition, I included an editorial I assume he penned railing away against the Anti-Saloon League, which branded the Sheboygan Press a “bootleg newspaper”.

It was fascinating looking through our bound archives to see the features we had. Our paper used to have a society editor who chronicled just about everything when it came to the who’s who of Sheboygan. The society editor chronicled local teas, travel and social events. It’s odd that in this age of social media when we reveal just about everything to friends real and virtual that I find it a slightly creepy invasion of privacy to have this level of detail about the local goings on. Discuss.

In our first edition, the publishers ran an announcement of their intentions in launching the paper, and to be honest, there wasn’t much that I would change. They wrote:

IN PRESENTING this the first issue of the SHEBOYGAN DAILY PRESS, the publishers do so with a sense of deep responsibility mingled with feelings of pride that Sheboygan has now a daily morning paper and one that will represent the people and all classes of people.

…It is a hard matter to please everybody, and it would be foolish and futile for us to attempt to do that.

…Sensational stories and fake news will be given a wide berth. We realize that our city is a growing one and its interests will always receive our first thought. Anything that tends to advance Sheboygan and put it in the front rank will always have our cordial support. Of course there may be times when certain public affairs will demand attention and notice and when it may be difficult for us to take an impartial stand, but if such an emergency arises, as it surely will, the influence of the SHEBOYGAN DAILY PRESS will always be for what we consider the right.

When my news editor and I first came up with the idea, I felt like it was definitely one of the crazier things that we had come up with since I started. But I went to our ad director who let me know about the replica edition we had created for our centennial. The ad team embraced the idea. Actually, they didn’t just embrace it, they didn’t just run with it. They bloody well sprinted away with it. Initially, we were only going to run with four pages, but our advertisers loved the idea so much, they sold almost three pages of ads in a day. We added two more pages to the section. It’s a very nice thing to be adding pages to a mid-week edition because we have so much ad support.

We promoted the project on Facebook and even paid to ‘boost’ our posts to reach people beyond our normal audience. One post has 203 likes, which is pretty good going for a local newspaper.

I had a lot of fun putting the edition together, and I think that showed through with the edition. Our readers loved it and responded to it, and our advertisers really loved it too. What more could I ask for? We need to surprise, amuse and engage our readers more like this. It ended the year on a high note, and I am looking to carry that momentum into the new year. Happy 2015!

Strengthening communities and strengthening journalism

When I started as the executive editor of two Gannett newspapers in Wisconsin, I said that my strategy was about building a community platform, and I think that Jim Brady, founder of Billy Penn, a mobile, Millennially-focused news site in Philadelphia, has explained why he and I are bullish on this kind of strategy. The former editor-in-chief of Digital First Media and former executive editor of washingtonpost.com explained the thinking behind Billy Penn in an interview with StreetFight:

From our conversations with younger news consumers, it’s clear to me that there’s a hearty appetite for a news operation that uses traditional reporting as a springboard to strengthen communities. Not one that necessarily promotes a particular agenda, but one that connects people who are interested in similar topics or issues and tries to drive solutions to those problems rather than just stopping at reporting.

My experience has been that it is not just Millennials who are hungry for engagement, community and solutions. Yes, our communities want traditional reporting, but they want us to go beyond simply pointing out problems. They are also looking for us to help them identify and evaluate solutions. It is not a paternalistic strategy that aims to tell our communities what to do, but works to engage them in a process to help bring more people together to address issues.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. At one of my papers, we recently tackled the growing local drug problem with a solutions-oriented series. A story about a local nurse who ended up abusing drugs has been shared on Facebook 476 times, which is huge for us. The series had such an impact that we had people emailing us, asking to be put in touch with the community groups taking part in our series so they could ask to help. A local radio station owner is collaborating with us to address the problem. We touched a nerve, and the community responded. And they want more from us than simple reporting. As Jim says, our readers want us to help provide a springboard for solutions.

Another issue that we are facing in the communities that we cover in northeastern Wisconsin is the so-called skills gap. Our employers have more job openings than qualified workers. In Sheboygan County Wisconsin, we have 4.0 percent unemployment (September 2014), which is within spitting distance of the 3.6 percent it was in October 2006 before the recession. The local economic development corporation recently had a campaign to try to lure young people visiting home for Thanksgiving back to the area, complete with a list of entry-level positions with starting salaries above $30,000. Our employers are concerned about the coming demographic cliff as Baby Boomers retire. One local employer told me that over the next five years, they could lose up to 35 percent of their workforce to retirement. So employers are supporting internships and apprenticeships as well as training for their workers to get the workers they need.

Traditionally, we would have written a few stories, possibly a week-long series, to address this issue. But this is a huge problem, so we’ve dedicated nine months to a major campaign. And we’re looking to do non-traditional things such as crowd-fund scholarships and hold jobs fairs. Our local businesses, including major multi-national companies headquartered here, have embraced our months-long workforce development campaign called State of Opportunity. We’re working to let people in our communities know about incredible job opportunities, and we’re thinking about ways to reach beyond the state.

As Jim says, we don’t have a political agenda, we simply want to help our communities help themselves. This is exciting stuff. It’s not your father’s local newspaper, but rather something new, exciting and vital.