I’m going to call out my local newspaper in this post for being completely inadequate to the task of providing critical information to its community in a crisis. I know people there, and they’re not going to be happy with me, and I apologize in advance for that because most of them are not the problem. But there is a problem, and, as Mike Benard from Kodak likes to say, it’s time to put the dead fish on the table.
I live in Hunterdon County, N.J., until recently a fairly rural, farming community. It’s located in western central New Jersey, along the Delaware River, and for well over 150 years it has been covered by a weekly newspaper called the Hunterdon County Democrat. I worked there for a year in the mid-1980s, when it was still family-owned; it’s now part of Advance, which owns a bunch of other dailies and weeklies in the state and next door in Easton, Pa. And until the county really started to grow and evolve from a farming to a bedroom community, the Democrat was read by pretty much everybody who lived here. Recently, as with all newspapers, it has suffered circulation losses and it hasn’t managed to attract readership among newer residents in the same numbers as it has among long-time residents. There are many reasons for that, none of which are the subject of this rant (although they might be of a future one).
However, the Democrat still covers the basic goings-on in the county, and now that I’m an appointed local official — alternate member, zoning board of adjustment — I decided I probably at least ought to subscribe to its Twitter feed to get a sense of what was going on around here. (Its website is now merged with all the rest of nj.com, a disorganized mess I have never been able to navigate successfully, full of hateful, ignorant and vitriolic comments and forums. More about that in another rant.) So, coincident with the now-famous October snowstorm, I followed them on Twitter. My hope was that they’d provide key information during what was shaping up to be a pretty serious weather event. I even tweeted that I’d followed them, and got a nice Twitter direct message back: “Hi — glad you’re following us! We’re new to SM and trying to figure out how it fits us and we fit it. Any tips as we ramp up?”
Heh. Why yes, yes I do have some tips.
First, how can you be new to social media two years after the rest of the world started using it seriously? Two years? Really?
Second, what do you envision your mission to your community to be? What is social media’s unique role in fulfilling that mission that no other method of engagement or information distribution can do as well? Hint: It’s not just tweeting headlines from your upcoming print edition.
Third, you can’t fit social media around the edges of what you do. It has to be central. If you’re not going to commit good resources, take good measurements and improve, don’t bother doing it at all.
Fourth, social media is two-way. Since the storm your Twitter feed has been almost all “Article: [headline]” tweets, with an occasional other news update, a retweet here and there, and one or two questions or exchanges with followers. Not much in the way of meaningful information.
Fifth, social media is immediate. You have to do it real-time. This was a huge event. Many people had cell phones that they could charge in their cars, but no power, so Twitter on a mobile device stood to be a vital communications link. Tweeting a headline from your print publication about the Flemington Food Pantry getting a new director isn’t what most people probably needed when they’d been without power for two days.
I could go on. But in general, what your Twitter feed tells me right now is that you still consider yourself a weekly print product, rather than an essential source of local information for your community. That’s not a key to future success. I am by no means an expert in social media, but I am an active user, and I am a resident of Hunterdon County, and I was counting on you for real help during and after the storm, and I gotta say, you didn’t deliver.
In fairness, you did say you were new at this, so here are some resources that might help you out:
- The Newspaper Next reports, which will help you frame your mission in your community in entirely new ways, and (I hope) open the door for you to think in new ways about how you can fulfill that mission. (Disclosure: I worked on the project.)
- Steve Buttry’s blog. He is one of the strongest advocates of using social media as a newsroom tool, both for reporting and for audience engagement. Required reading in the industry.
- Matt DeRienzo’s blog. Again, a staunch advocate for using social media as an engagement tool.
- Jersey Shore Hurricane News. A Facebook page and Twitter feed, set up in the days before Hurricane Irene but that has continued since then and now tracks all major weather events in the state. It’s run by two people. Please note they currently have 24,000 Facebook fans, and had more than 27,000 at the height of the hurricane. The community information, service and connections they provide can only be accomplished via social media, and they work it 24/7 when they need to. (Sadly, I learned more from them about what was going on in Hunterdon County than I did from you.)
- Vermont Flooding 2011. A Facebook page set up after Hurricane Irene devastated most of the state of Vermont. Similar to Jersey Shore Hurricane News.
So, you have some homework to do. Most important, you have a mindset to change. You’re not a weekly print newspaper any longer. You are (or you could be) a critical community information and connection resource. They’re very different.
Update, Nov. 4, 2011: Thanks to Matt DeRienzo for pointing me to the work The Daily Freeman in Kingston, N.Y., did in partnership with the hyper-local site Watershed Post during Hurricane Irene, including building and maintaining a publicly-accessible database of local residents who needed help, or who had help to offer. Matt also reminded me of this good summary of how Journal Register newspapers operated during the hurricane.