This was the first day that I worried about journalism. I believe that good quality copy will rise to the top, and that simply having more streams of information won’t kill but reinvigorate journalism. I don’t suggest that I’ve joined the doomsayers completely. I have had my dimly lit candle of hope flicker.
Today in my Survey of the Internet class, we had Eric Janssen is VP Digital Media for Memphis’ daily, the Commercial Appeal speaking. He was earnest, smart and informative. I very much enjoyed hearing about his struggle to keep the CA relevant in the digital space. He’s engaged in every form of social networking, and he’s savvy about media in general. Sadly, he may have broken my resolve about the future.
Eric talked about how the newspaper’s role as a “connective tissue” of a community transcends its printed version and should be encouraged to operate outside of its traditional sphere. I absolutely agree, but here’s the wrinkle.
When looking at the Commercial Appeal’s Facebook page, Eric asked if we thought it was journalism. I said I did not. I said that it was a very good way to promote the CA as a brand, and that it was essential to building an audience. However, no it is not journalism. To my surprise, he disagreed. His assertion is that links on the Facebook page inform the public and add journalistic value. What was implied was that a set of links on a page that the CA could not make a dime from, was as important as the printed paper or the CA’s own website.
I was baffled. I had always assumed that the goal would be to drive traffic to the CA website. Though the amount of revenue generated by online ads is small, at least its real. Numbers also drives it, so if you can get your traffic up the possibility of generating some revenue is improved.
What Eric was talking about was branding. He is suggesting that the newspaper is not really a newspaper anymore, but a news service. The Commercial Appeal is not a news site, it’s a brand whose credibility needs to be expanded into local web space. These things are all true. But, if the brand represents nothing more than credibility, what is the point?
The idea of Facebook, Twitter and the like is not just communication, but promotion. The CA’s Facebook page should be a vehicle for the promotion of the paper and by extension, the website. If it isn’t, to what advantage does it offer a cash-strapped industry and newspaper? Having a successful Facebook page is not the point of an online department.
After a few calls with some at the paper, a picture became clear. The online department does not really see itself as part of the newspaper at all. In effect, the online division is a branch of PR.
That may not sound like a big deal, but lets put it in context. There is a division within a struggling metro daily who’s mission should be to bridge a path to future revenue, and it not only does it have no plan to do so but it isn’t even interested in that as a mission.
If the CA has decided that its online department is not in the business of managing or creating content then it has already signed its death notice. The online department needs to be aggressive in the social media space but it cannot be at the expense of the product. There is no brand to promote if there is nothing to sell.
If a newspaper wants to transition itself for the future, it has to change its entire mindset. The online department should exist to augment the content already there as well as spread it to the web. The goal should not only be one of cheerleader. It should be the role of a newspapers website to try and contribute to the betterment of not just the brand, but the whole set of underpinnings that allow it to exist.