Can a newspaper be a social network?


So USA Today — the same newspaper that helped reshape the traditional paper business about twenty-five years ago — has launched a redesign of its website that incorporates a laundry list of “social networking” features: blogs, comments on stories, tags (keywords), voting on stories and user pages complete with uploads of photos, etc.

social.jpgMy iconoclastic friend Paul Kedrosky notes that much of the high-fiving about these features is “overdone,” and that USA Today has been getting some fairly predictable comments from readers about how they wish the paper would go back to the way it was (Don Dodge has more here). And that is to be expected. Let’s face it, some people just don’t like change. We got many similar comments from readers when we did a redesign at the Globe and Mail website over a year ago, and introduced comments on news stories — the first major newspaper to do so in North America (at least to my knowledge).

Paul’s concerns aside (and Tony Hung notes that Netscape experienced the same thing), I think getting more social with readers is something newspapers have to do, if they want to have a chance of avoiding the inevitable decline that legendary investor and gazillionaire Warren Buffett referred to in his recent remarks. But do readers want to socialize with their newspaper, or with the journalists who work there?

I think some do. Some may just wish to consume the news and be on their way, and that’s fine. Some folks don’t want to be social. But some may want to take advantage of networking tools, and to socialize in some way with the other readers of a newspaper, and I think theoretically a media outlet could become a social destination in some way. Whether USA Today can make that happen remains to be seen.

Further reading:

Stowe Boyd makes some good points about the new USA Today design here, including the fact that user profiles can’t include any external info (flickr streams, etc.) and the user blogs provided by Pluck have no RSS feeds or other features. The tags are also internally generated only.

Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 says the paper should get kudos for trying. And Read/Write Web has a poll based on the title of my post.

Comments (21)

  1. Rob Hyndman wrote::

    For me, a big part of the appeal would be socializing with other readers. No offense intended. :)

    Sunday, March 4, 2007 at 6:38 pm #
  2. Tony wrote::

    Question for you, Mat — did adding social elements to the Globe and Mail do anything for its bottom line? Traffic? Ad Revenue? Actual subscribership?

    t @ dji / bh

    Sunday, March 4, 2007 at 7:02 pm #
  3. Good question – will mom and pop wind up disliking or just ignoring the changes. The internet enthusiasm echo chamber is very large but it’s a tiny fraction of all the interested folks in the world. Ultimately they will determine how this all shakes out.

    Sunday, March 4, 2007 at 9:00 pm #
  4. Mary Specht wrote::

    I love it. The people who’ve left negative comments for USA Today must be a fading minority. USAT is right on with this move.

    The thing that throws me off about the recommend feature: from using reddit, digg and others, I expect my vote to move the article up in the list. All it does it change the number next to the headline.

    I understand the editors want to retain control of their pages. But, at least in the article comments, voting for something should move it up. This way I don’t have to sort through all the irrelevant or useless comments.

    Sunday, March 4, 2007 at 9:00 pm #
  5. Mathew wrote::

    No offence taken, Rob :-)

    And Tony, without going into too much detail (or I would have to kill you) adding comments and other social elements has definitely increased traffic, and since that in turn affects our online revenue I think it qualifies as a win-win.

    Thanks for the comment, Joe.

    And Mary, I think your point is a good one. People who are used to Digg-style voting are used it behaving in a certain way. Papers like USA Today will have to be aware of that if they want to incorporate similar social features.

    Sunday, March 4, 2007 at 9:21 pm #
  6. Mark Bradley wrote::

    I cross posted an excerpt of your story to my blog with this comment

    ” An interesting comment on changes to the newspaper. Of course the Sydney Morning Herald has been doing this for over 18 months so maybe whilst downunder we are often laggard bloggers, some of our better media are leaders in new media approaches.”

    Sunday, March 4, 2007 at 9:23 pm #
  7. Tony wrote::

    Great to hear it Mat — since I don’t want you to kill me, can you point to any other enterprises which have published this kind of information? Or, are they holding that close to their chest … ?


    Sunday, March 4, 2007 at 9:33 pm #
  8. Mathew wrote::

    Thanks for that, Mark — glad to hear others are on the social networking train as well.

    And Tony, I don’t know that anyone has actually published details about traffic or revenue as far as the impact of social features goes. I’ve come across some comments by editors at the Guardian and the BBC, but they were pretty general.

    Sunday, March 4, 2007 at 9:36 pm #
  9. Mark Bradley wrote::

    This thread might also be interested in this post published today on a similar vein:

    Sunday, March 4, 2007 at 10:36 pm #
  10. Ryan wrote::

    Revenue? Bottom-line?

    Uh, no, taking a social is about building a brand, joining the 21st Century, and taking your mouth away from the megaphone.

    USA Today isn’t exactly the most hip and relevant stack of dead trees on the planet, so building a better brand online is one of the ways they’ll survive.

    Yes, there will be people who have to walk into conference rooms with publishers and spit out some traffic data (hint: comments and lists of most-recommended stories increase page views), but the value added to the brand will have a higher ROI if you’re into that sort of thing.

    Crap, I just said “value added” and “ROI” in the same graf. Been hanging around with the marketing folks too much…

    Sunday, March 4, 2007 at 11:09 pm #
  11. gzino wrote::

    Very difficult for paper to become social network. Especially USA TODAY. Their content is anti-community: wide breadth, shallow depth. Communities focus around narrow breadth, deep depth. Glad they added the features, but features don’t create communities.

    Monday, March 5, 2007 at 12:52 am #
  12. Sameer wrote::

    I think the comments feature will definitely help drive traffic here given the demographic.

    Say there’s a modest adoption of comments, you have to consider the significant multiple of repeat and new visitors that don’t comment but come back to read comments. I reckon that the ratio of ‘comentors’ to those on the sidelines just reading is at least 1:50 at the minimum.

    Not sure if a social network is a practical goal for a newspaper such as USAT but if you evaluate social features on a piecemeal basis, some are total winners for this demographic. Comments being most lucrative.

    Monday, March 5, 2007 at 1:44 am #
  13. Karl wrote::

    Great question.

    I think good local newspapers already act as social networks for their communities. It’s just taken them far too long to realize how to translate that to the web.

    I wonder if the traffic and engagement increases will be enough to attract advertising that offsets loses incurred in the papers.

    Monday, March 5, 2007 at 10:54 am #
  14. Mathew wrote::

    Gzino, you are right — features don’t create communities.

    And Karl, I think you are also right and that good local newspapers are already at the hub of a social network or community.

    As for the question about whether engagement and traffic can boost advertising levels enough to make up for losses on the paper side, I think that is the billion-dollar question everyone would like an answer to :-)

    Thanks to all for their comments.

    Monday, March 5, 2007 at 11:12 am #
  15. Mathew, you asked “But do readers want to socialize with their newspaper, or with the journalists who work there?”

    I think many readers have no particular interest in socializing with their newspaper, nor its other readers – but would like to socialize with the journalists who work there. My subscription to the Globe continues thanks largely to its columnists.

    Tuesday, March 6, 2007 at 4:53 pm #
  16. Mathew wrote::

    Thanks, Rohan — I guess you and Rob disagree on that point :-)

    Tuesday, March 6, 2007 at 8:00 pm #
  17. Rob Hyndman wrote::

    Well, maybe some columnists. :)

    Wednesday, March 7, 2007 at 6:48 pm #
  18. I think the social interaction on news sites is still almost entirely amongst readers – I can think of very few examples here in Australia (except for the odd Fairfax blog) whereby journalists actively participate in the discussions.

    Friday, October 19, 2007 at 2:08 am #
  19. Steven wrote::

    I agree that too many start-ups have “feature overkill”, from a user-experience perspective, being able to vote up/down a story, as well as up/down comments (so that offending ones go down the list), and linking commenters to their profiles is the most essential social features for most blogs and newspapers. We’re actively looking for the right plugins, software apps, etc. to accomplish this.

    Monday, June 16, 2008 at 6:12 pm #
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