Your newspaper isn’t MySpace. Should it be?

I’ve often heard conversations about launching a social networking site at a newspaper start with the words “Not that we’re trying to be the next MySpace, but…”

And it always begs the question, well, should we? Should a newspaper-hosted site be the social networking spot for your geographical area?

Here’s a few variations on an answer:

Lucas Grindley says:

“All of us need to take a breath and recognize that newspapers are not the social network. Never have been. Newspapers benefit from the network, but we are not the network. The way it has always worked, and works best, is when newspapers write something so provocative or important that readers tell their friends. And those friends tell someone else. And so on. The newspaper lights up the social network by inserting valuable news.”

A good point, but it sounds a lot like the “blogs couldn’t get by without the source material from big media” argument, if you’re familiar with that thread. I don’t think the newspaper has to *be* the network, but I’m sure the newspaper can host the network and turn a tidy profit.

Mark Potts debunks the “blogs couldn’t get by…” argument by pointing to the active community sites (some hosted by newspapers) in places like Bakersfield and Westport, but then he looks a few years months ahead:

“I firmly believe we’re going to see rise of independent, high-quality journalism sites, undoubtedly created and run by professionals being cast off in the wave of newspaper buyouts and layoffs, that take an I.F. Stone-like approach to doing muckraking reporting on important subjects. We’re also going to see many more entrepreneurial journalistic efforts that use a small staff, unencumbered by high costs of traditional media, to cover communities and subjects.”

Think of Sunlight Foundation and the work New Assignment aspires to do, then think about what your newspaper can do to develop news content that bubbles up from a social networking site the paper hosts. Should we start building a wall between the news and the conversation? The short answer is No; the longer answer involves some consideration of how you’re branding this thing: Is it News? Is it Community?

Mindy McAdams points out some of the theory behind the answers to the News/Community question, bringing Uses & Gratifications into play via a paper on Incentives and Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks:

“We should not ignore social relations as a form of “payment.” If I gain face (or social standing) by doing something, then that might motivate me to do it. If I lose face (or social standing), then that might motivate me to avoid doing it. There are probably some things you will only do for free.”

And that’s an important point: What does a member of a newspaper-hosted social networking site want? Attention? Discussion? A feeling of community? A sense of ownership? That last one appeals to me. Who wouldn’t want to feel like they told the New York Times something it didn’t know?

If you’re still wondering whether the social networking business is worth getting into, check out this tidbit: McClatchy Buys Citizen Journalism Site Fresno Famous.

This is the smart play if you’re operating in an area with a thriving community site: Buy the thing, and bring the users a little closer to your newspaper brand. Now, how are you going to monetize that investment? Is it just a matter of selling some local ads, or are there other values to the body of regular readers you just picked up?

Think about what the value of an online community member is, and drop your idea in the comments… Let’s figure out how to both give and get value out of online conversation.

3 thoughts on “Your newspaper isn’t MySpace. Should it be?

  1. Just to be clear, I don’t subscribe to the idea that blogs couldn’t exist without the mainstream media feeding them with information. Maybe for some blogs that would be true, but not for blogs such as ours, for example.

    What I’m trying to say is merely that media folks shouldn’t get so down on ourselves for not inventing MySpace for newspapers before MySpace did it for everyone else.

    Sure, newspapers could have invented MySpace. Sites such as Bakotopia are proof it actually can be done. And we could have done a lot of other things. YouTube, CraigsList, etc. These ideas are within our skill set.

    But they’re not at the core of what makes our skill set so successful. We’re good at communicating information via other people’s social networks. We do this by creating great journalism that people just have to talk about.

    Focus on how to benefit from emerging social networks and how to create great journalism that spreads throughout those networks. It’s the proverbial “low-hanging fruit.”

    Why aren’t news stories exploding on YouTube every day? Because we’re not even trying.

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