The votes are in and readers want engagement

I recently wrote a blog post and hosted a poll about the Lansing State Journal being on Twitter and how it should handle that account. The issue is that the State Journal uses an auto feeder to populate its Twitter stream with headlines from its web site. Unfortunately, this leads to the potential of outdated news ending up on its Twitter account, a place where breaking news generally becomes old within minutes if not seconds.

The folks running the State Journal’s Twitter account have gotten better over time as they’ve become more comfortable with the service. They are engaging with readers who point out errors or have suggestions. And this past week they even posted a Follow Friday shout-out to my wife and me, who are frequently tagged as the LSJ online watchdogs. The problem is that the staffing for the Twitter account is apparently not considered a priority in the State Journal newsroom. Although, like most newspapers today, I’m not sure if news in general is considered a priority these days.

When I had a discussion on Twitter with the State Journal staff about the problem with their feed, they raised the dilemma of using the Twitter stream to post news only when staff is available, noting that tweets may be few and far between if they go that route. When I asked people to weigh in on the concept, allowing them to vote for full automation, tweeting only when staff is available or a combination, they, not surprisingly, voted for the combo. Certainly it wasn’t a scientific poll and the number of respondents wasn’t huge, but nearly 83 percent of those who voted opted for “Usually automate but engage during breaking news.”

What was more interesting than the poll numbers, however, were  the comments from my readers. Some commented on live vs. automated posts:

I don’t mind the automated tweets for promoting their published articles. For example, the business news feeds are great. The breaking news tweets should be in the moment. ~ Lisa

As a whole, news organizations have a huge responsibility. As a society we expect them to cover everything that interests us, do it accurately and without bias, and then make sure we know they have covered it. At the same time newspaper circulation has continued to plummet making it necessary for them to cut staff. I don’t think it’s realistic under these circumstances to have a live person tweeting at all times. I do agree, however, that every attempt should be made to disseminate accurate information at all times. ~ Anne Craft

Others suggested another approach entirely, using Twitter as a back channel to the newsroom:

Twitter is about two-way communication, sharing and networking. While I appreciate headline/breaking news being tweeted, I’d much prefer more interaction with followers, insights or background stories that don’t make the articles, etc. I know that is hard with limited budgets, but making some effort will show they care. Maybe the folks in charge of the budget will see how beneficial it is to the community and toss a few more bucks in that direction to keep it going!  ~ Kate

While still others admitted that they turn to their social networks for news, not the local newspaper:

I don’t follow the LSJNews feed (nearly 17000 tweets in just over 800 days! way too much information!), and rarely visit the LSJ website (due to the quantity and quality of their advertisements). I instead follow locals…and get Nixle alerts from government agencies for major news in the area. The power of the medium makes this possible; if the message is interesting enough, someone in my social graph will relay it.  ~ cchoffme

I will give credit to the Lansing State Journal for wanting to hear more about this issue. The newspaper’s Twitter feed even retweeted my original blog post and poll. There’s no question the State Journal and other news outlets are experiencing growing pains as they fumble around in the social media space. Perhaps they can finally find a niche that allows them to connect with readers again so people will turn there first for news and information that is timely, important, accurate, complete, unbiased and reported fairly. Come to think of it, maybe social media can wait and newspapers should focus on making that happen on their own websites and printed pages first! If you don’t have credibility and the trust of your readers, it doesn’t really matter what medium you use to publish the information, because no one will be paying attention to you.

Where in the world is your local newspaper?

Lansing locator map“Hi, I’m from Lansing.”

If you’re from Michigan or live here now, that’s probably enough information for you to figure out that I hail from the middle of the Mitten State. But what if you aren’t familiar with city names in my home state? Would “Hi, I’m from Lansing,” be enough information for you? Of course not; you’d have to inquire about where Lansing is to get the full story. It’s a simple follow-up question since I’m right there to ask.

But what if I was only available to you online and told you I was from Lansing? What if you had to search my web site for clues about where Lansing is? I’m betting you’d end up frustrated and maybe even think less of me because I made a difficult task out of something that should be simple. That is, unfortunately, what too many local newspapers are doing online.

The newspaper industry is struggling with how to survive this new age of global interaction where people want their news online, they want it now and they want it for free. I’m not going to profess I have the answers on how to make everything better for my former industry. But I can suggest that one thing they need to remember is that there is no such thing as “local” on the Internet. We need to know where your paper is located. We need to know the city and the state. Even better would be a small map showing us where in the state you’re located. And this information should be at the top of the page, prominently displayed. Without it, we can’t put your news stories in the proper context.

Newspaper web sites tend to be a nightmare of information overload to begin with. There are advertisements that blink, pop up and roll over the content I’m after, and the layout often looks like the only design training the person in charge has is from reading “Web Site Design for Dummies.” Please don’t make me wade through all that nonsense just to play 20 Questions on my hunt for what state your city is in.

Let’s use one of my local papers, the Lansing State Journal, as an example. There is a small line of grayed-out, blurry text as part of their masthead that says “Michigan Press Association” above a line that tells us it’s an award-winning web site. (Really? Hmm, another blog post idea here!) Other than that clue, and having to dig through the stories and ads for more clues, you wouldn’t know the Lansing State Journal is from Lansing, Michigan, as opposed to the cities of Lansing found in Illinois, Kansas, New York, Iowa or North Carolina.

The Niles Star is another example from Michigan, although it could be from Illinois, Ohio, or New York. Then you have The Daily News, which is from Dowagiac, Michigan. That little tidbit is available to you if you look at the URL and see it says “dowagiacnews.” Of course, that only gives you a city and not a state. And the web site itself doesn’t tell you what city it’s from — I guess it’s “The Daily News of the World?”

Newspapers need to grab the global online community in a giant bear hug and never let go. Instead, they seem intent on finding new ways to prove to us they are stuck in the age of ink and paper, driving away a world full of potential readers whose first question is generally going to be, “Hi, where are you from?”