How a Local Newspaper Can Effectively Use Social Media

We’ve been preparing for the death of print media for some time now. The imminent demise of the print publications looms in the distance, and it’s been made quite clear that social media is its only saving grace.

The ease of obtaining news almost down to the second through online sources has made newspapers and magazines almost obsolete, leaving them to litter the waiting rooms of doctor’s offices and to be the last-resort bathroom literature that we reach for when we have forgotten our tablet in the other room.

It’s a slow and painful death to watch.

In recent years, hallowed news institutions have faced competition not from their peers, but from amateurs with a smart phone and a Twitter account. What it boils down to is that people want news in a fast and concise manner, and print media is unable to deliver.

Nicolas Carr touches on this idea in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, writing, “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr is not alone. Society has been increasingly eschewing traditional forms of media for ones that are more succinct and entertaining, such as Buzzfeed or Twitter. And while larger news outlets such as USA Today or the New York Times have expanded to social media platforms, local papers are slower to do so.

As a senior writer for my university’s newspaper and former high school newspaper nerd, I have a great love of the medium. I’ve compiled a list of ideas for local papers to effectively use social media that I think may help them better adapt to our media-saturated world.

1. Get a Twitter Account: I know this seems fairly obvious, but you’d be surprised. My local paper back home has yet to create account on the site and I think it’s going to hurt them in the long run. While it may have been more profitable to jump on the “Twitter Train” right as it was taking off, it’s still not to late to join and begin building up a following.

2. Actually Use Your Twitter Account: There is nothing sadder than an ill-maintained social media account, especially one for a company or organization. If your last post was from three or four months ago, not only are you not doing your job as a news provider, you’re sending the message to your followers that you’re not all that interested in keeping their readership.

The great thing about local papers is that they can create a greater connection with their followers because they don’t have the daunting task of catering to the ten million-plus followers of a larger paper. They have the freedom to write about hard-hitting news like public policies or scandals in the mayor’s office (and then link the article in a Twitter post, of course), as well as to post the outcome of the Friday night football match from the two local rival high schools.

I know my mom and dad subscribed to our local paper largely to cut out clippings of mentions of my brother’s and my triumphs on our respective sports teams or pictures of us with clubs that we were involved in while in high school. Even now that I’ve made the move to high education and my younger brother is poised to do the same, my dad goes through the Tribune every afternoon (well, three afternoons out of the week. Like I said, it’s a dying form) to look up football stats on my brother’s friends and to cut out pictures of my best friend’s success on the soccer field at a local private school.

I know that were my parents more technology savvy and understood what in the heck a tweet was, they would be retweeting every mention of their children, their children’s friends, or their neighbors. That local connection is just something that bigger online sources can’t buy.

3. Use Your Twitter Account Frequently: This kind of goes along with #2, but I felt that there is an important point to make. It’s not enough to link a few articles into a tweet every day. I know I immediately pass over tweets from local newspapers that simply follow the formula of [“Insert vague title of article” and Post link to said article].

Don’t get me wrong. That formula is tried and true and it’s fine. But if you’re a local paper, it’s not going to get you much coverage unless you have some really scandalous or abnormal keywords in the title (one of my current favorites is “Potato salad rage leads to woman’s arrest.” Thank you, Buzzfeed).

If all you’re doing is linking articles on Twitter, you’re missing the site’s whole point, which is to provide up-to-the-second information about a developing news story. Is there a woman being arrested for a “potato salad rage?” Then go down to the station and report. If you’re not able, retweet eyewitnesses (though it’s always better if you’re the original source).

I’ve heard it argued that Twitter really took off when one man was able to tweet a picture of the Hudson River plane landing in 2009. A guy with a camera phone broke one of the biggest news stories of the year, and that’s amazing.

I know that the editors of the campus newspaper that I write for tend to live tweet events, and while the actual paper’s account may retweet them, it never does any live tweeting itself. I guess the thing about that is that if you’re a well-established writer for the NY Times or something in a similar vein, you can live tweet to your 20.7K followers and everything is fine and dandy. But if you’re the assistant editor of a small town publication, you’re probably not going to get much traction unless you stumble upon something really novel.

4. Don’t Count Facebook Out Just Yet: It’s been said that Facebook has been on its way out for some time now, but it’s important to remember that it’s not gone yet.

Facebook has become a long-standing (perhaps relatively long-standing is a better term. After all, it’s only been around for about ten years) institution on the social media landscape. And sure, maybe Facebook doesn’t draw in the greatest number of followers, but it definitely serves a purpose.

Say what you will about the older generation, but they’ve taken to Facebook like white on rice (to use my grandma’s saying) and let me tell you something, I’ve never seen any group share as many news links as a 50+ plus age range has. If you’re able to tap into that invaluable resource, you’ll have Aunt Sallys and Grandpa Jims sharing your latest news story all over their Facebook page.

5. Vary Your Media Content: Like Carr said before, the Internet chips away at our capacity for concentration and contemplation. As sad as it is, many no longer have the attention span or time to sit and read long-form articles (she types as she continues writing her 1500+ word article). And this doesn’t mean to do away with long-form completely, but instead to integrate other media sources into your social media round up.

One advantage of making the move from print to the online world is that you’re now able to make use of videos, online polls, and slideshows. Sharing a quick video of the local softball team’s game-winning run or posting an online poll on a new policy’s effectiveness is a good way to engage a local newspaper’s audience.

One site that has really changed the game is Buzzfeed, which is singlehandedly responsible for the insane amount of “listicles” (list/articles) and quizzes on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I’ve even seen other sites integrate the listicle into their web content, because it provides news in a quick and succinct manner, which is what we’re all about these days.

6. Tumblr Can Be Used For News Too: This one may seem like a bit of a stretch, but stick with me. Tumblr’s greatest advantage is its ability to be creative, meaning that news organizations can use this site to share things that might not be well suited for Facebook or Twitter.

Organizations like USA Today or the New York Times have Tumblrs that boast beautiful pictures of their top new stories, cool graphs, random pictures of the latest happenings in the entertainment world and more. The main point of a news source’s Tumblr account would be to create or reblog (though I would heavily emphasize being creative) visually appealing content that informs the reader without them knowing it.

In addition to cool pictures and graphics, long-form stories and editorials can also be posted to Tumblr, especially those with more of an edge that may not be appropriate for the actual newspaper or Facebook (and no, I don’t mean inappropriate stories with profanity and nudity. I mean more personal stories written from a first-person perspective or a person’s opinion on a polarizing issue).

7. Engage Your Followers: I think that this is pretty self-explanatory and goes for all social media sites. Like I said before, one of the greatest strengths of a local paper is the connection that it can build with its readers. No matter how shallow it is, if my local paper’s Twitter account retweeted my picture from a big basketball game (Go Heels!) or replied to a comment that I had made on their Facebook page, not only would I be seriously impressed, but I’d probably be a follower for as long as they were around.

Having someone man the social media sites all day might seem frivolous, but it may just save the local paper.

I hope to see more local papers make the move into social media over the next few years, or I’m afraid that they won’t make it into the next decade (or maybe even next 5 years, but I choose to be optimistic).

I understand that it’s hard to make the change—and believe me, I understand the desire to maintain the integrity of the paper and news. But the fact of the matter is, there may not be any integrity to maintain in the paper gets discontinued.

It’s sink or swim for newspapers in this digital age, and social media might just be the lifejacket they need to survive.

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