When it comes to the relationship between a news organization and its community, most of us would do well to pay more attention to small-town newsrooms.
These are folks who have:
— a well-established standing as the go-to place for news
— a solid relationship with the people they serve
— a market share that would make bigger operations salivate
It is with that in mind that I prepared to do a workshop last week with members of the Missouri Press Association. The daylong seminar, hosted at RJI, also brought in high school and middle school journalism teachers, who were in town as part of an ASNE training program.
The topic of the workshop was social media, but I’ll embrace that term only if we define it loosely, as media designed to be social. Designed to be acted on, contributed to, talked about and passed along. And these ideas are not at all new to community news, which is often designed to be stuck to the fridge or mailed to the grandparents.
The part that’s new is figuring out how the well-established, social relationship between newspaper and community translates to the digital age. As Dave Marner, managing editor of the Gasconade County Republican, talked to me about last year, what does it mean to fill community scrapbooks these days?
My research into how Missouri’s community newspapers are making the transition to the digital world led me to discover one of my all-time favorite newspaper Facebook pages. Allow me to introduce you to the Houston Herald, which takes the news directly to its community in a way that respects readers’ time and makes it easy to be in the know.
The Herald is a weekly newspaper in south central Missouri, in a community of just under 2,000 and with a print circulation of 4,000. The paper’s Facebook page, which launched in 2008, has 2,500 likes.
Now that’s penetration.
The page is so interactive, so conversational, so vibrant, that I called to chat up the proprietors and learn how it worked. Jeff McNiell is the paper’s editor, and Brad Gentry is the publisher. The two of them work together on the page, which seems to serve as a real community water cooler. It’s a lovely mix of the paper’s links to staff stories, community announcements, breaking news and shared posts from other sources. It also hosts significant community conversation around the news — the kind of back-and-forth comments that a lot of news sites would be envious of.
What impressed me most, though, was how the community uses the page to talk to itself — how the page’s reach is embraced as the best way to hold a megaphone up to the rest of the town. In the most striking example of this, the town’s police called the paper with news of a lost child needing to be identified. The police specifically asked the newsroom to post a description of the child on Facebook. Five minutes later, the child’s grandmother saw the post and got in touch.
The newspaper’s Facebook page is quite simply the most effective way to get the town’s attention. Who could argue with the awesomeness of that?
Jeff talked me through how the page works and why it’s important for them.
— Jeff and Brad plan to post five to six times a day. They use Hootsuite to schedule posts for Facebook and Twitter, and Jeff estimates they spend 15 minutes a day on that task. That’s it. They also use the Pages app on their phones to track activity on the Facebook page as they go about other work.
— Jeff and Brad accept friend requests from community members, which allows them to tag people in photos, thereby showing up in subjects’ feeds and inviting them to interact. It makes the people part of the conversation, and they often come back and like the page.
— The fact that people use the page to talk to each other (a practice that is really picking up, without a specific invitation from the newspaper) means the journalists benefit from the peek into what people are talking about. They get story ideas and hear a lot of community information that way.
— With Facebook, the weekly newspaper can be a daily, hourly or minute-by-minute news source. Training the community to continually check the newspaper’s website is a daunting notion, but taking the news to them as it’s happening is seamless with Facebook.
“We are able to put our brand and our information out there to them in a free setting, where people are already gathering,” Jeff told me. We can “reach out to them in their living room. We can reach into their personal lives and get their attention.”
It would be awesome, of course, if more of this traffic and conversation were happening on the paper’s website, which has a metered pay system and which generates ad revenue. One of the goals of the Facebook page is certainly to drive traffic to the site. But being THE source of information for the town is looked at as a positive, even when it’s happening largely on Facebook.
Jeff said the newspaper hasn’t experimented with sponsored Facebook posts, though they certainly have the reach to make a case for it with advertisers.
Facebook Insights (the built-in analytics) can let brands know who they’re reaching. In the case of the Houston Herald, the fans of the page are 71.2% female and 28.2% male. Click the screen grab to see how that breaks down by age, and also where the fans are geographically.
At one point during Friday’s workshop, we had a conversation about market share, reach and demographics. Many community newsrooms are not seeing drop-offs in readership or circulation. But looking ahead, they’re wondering how their relationship will translate to the next generation of readers. When I asked them who they wished they could reach, and where their greatest potential for growth was, many of them talked about the youth market.
The Houston Herald’s Facebook page is a fantastic example of staying relevant, using social media as it’s intended to be used, and taking the news to the community instead of expecting them to come to you.
To see a bit more of what Missouri community newspapers are doing on Facebook, see the slideshow below.