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What Online Newspapers Can Learn From Social Networks

The medium of choice for news consumption is rapidly tipping in favor of websites, iPads, and other Internet connected devices over the traditional printed paper (learn more from InVocus 2010 State of the Media Report). It seems all eyes are on the newspaper industry as it struggles to maintain its market share through this quickly changing environment. The paper will be around for a long time. I won't go so far as to say it will be around forever, but there is something satisfying about sitting in the easy chair with a paper or magazine that technology hasn't met - yet.


What is it about the newspaper that endears the reader's heart? What is it that keeps them paying their monthly dues? To answer this let's take a look at the most successful news outlet in the world. Facebook.

The average content on Facebook may not meet the professional journalist's standards of being well-written, thoroughly investigated, and thought provoking. As a medium, though, Facebook does have the social awareness and interaction that people seem to thrive on. Facebook got it right at the right time.

Before the dawn of the Internet, before TV and radio, social media was monopolized by the newspapers. It is the conversation that sparks from a riveting article, the discussion about so and so's life after reading their obituary, the person to person commerce in a classified that answered to the social needs of the reader. The newspaper provided a medium for social conversation.

Newspaper leaders began to realize that this social need was being met through the Internet. So they jumped on the digital bandwagon and began publishing their content, then made a big mistake. They de-valued their core business and stopped charging for it online just as their paper subscriptions began to drop. "No problem" they said, "we have lots of traffic on our website, so let's sell advertising." And did they sell advertising. Some of the "best" examples of advertising overkill are seen on Newspaper websites.

Before we list the lessons that newspapers can learn from Facebook and other social networks, I need to put a plug in for the paywall. If people were paying for a newspaper subscription offline, then they will pay for it online. There will be resistance because they are used to getting it for free, but that has to change if the news industry is going to survive on this new medium. The big news sites are implementing paywalls (NYTimes, WSJ, etc.) and it is even more imperative that local newspapers do the same on their websites.

Principally, Facebook and Newspapers are different. Facebook is not a content provider, they simply provide the vehicle. In order for Newspapers to maintain and get back their sense of community, they need to learn from successful social vehicles.

Five Lessons Online Newspapers with Paywalls can learn from Facebook, LinkedIn, and Stack Overflow.

1. Social interaction should have proper precedence in your business model. 

Your most important asset is good Journalism and content. What is the second most important thing? Advertising? No. As tempting as it may be from a business standpoint, advertising is not the answer. It is the social factor driven by a sense of community. Advertising is useless without good content and lots of people talking about it.

2. People are interested in what their friends are reading. 

Even with a paywall, if a person is talking about your articles, photos, and local experts to their unsubscribed friends, then watch those subscriptions rise.

3. People like discussing news through comments and messages.

Some newspapers may opt out of this due to the overhead of moderation, but I would venture to say this ought to be worked in to your editorial budget. The reasoning for this is found in the first point.

4. People should stay in the news loop with email notifications on what they want.

People don't mind getting email notifications as long as it fits their interests. Make it easy for the reader to create and manage subscriptions to the types of content they want within their subscription service. 

5. Reward online subscribers for activity, don't penalize. 

Various paywall models are emerging as newspapers are experimenting with their website visitors. All of what I have seen so far charge more for more activity. From a business position this makes logical sense. More bandwidth and server space is used, so charge more. However, I suggest that this thinking is flawed.

Here is where I would like to make amends with advertising. One idea for rewarding your paid subscribers for site activity is by reducing their monthly subscription based on activity. Think of this person who actively comments and 'recommends' content as a sales rep. The more socially active this person is on your site, the more their friends will either sign up or come back. This in turn grows and further endears subscribers to your online community. This exponential social effect allows you to provide better stats to advertisers and charge more for advertising.

Note: I refer to the Thomas Smith principle I wrote about in my paywall/advertising article regarding ad view quantity to response ratio.

Pulling from Stack Overflow's example, another way to reward activity is through achievement recognition and status symbols, like a virtual badge for so many approved comments. A reward concept, implemented well, mirrors aspects of the offline world and makes interaction with your site even more engaging - and even fun.

Implementing The Social Layer for Newspapers

You can take these principles to your web developers and start implementing these things for your newspaper. We've seen it work before and it will continue to work. If done right, with your added value in place (good journalism and content), then it will work for you and your community newspaper too.

Now, a shameless plug for our product. We are developing a number of features in Newsroom that adhere to the principles mentioned above. Our objective is to help newspapers establish a strong foothold in the local social content markets. Our target audience with this product is Newspapers with a circulation of 50,000 or less. Learn more about Newsroom here.