Archives for November 2009

The Best Way to Get and Keep More Readers

When I was in graduate school, I noticed that most of my fellow grad students, and our professors, loved to use big words and long sentences.

They tried to use the most complex words and sentences as possible in their scholarly works. Paragraphs were measured in linear feet, not number of words. And it was not unheard of to spend 12 – 15 hours writing a simple 10 page paper.

Not me, of course. I had cut my writing teeth at my college newspaper, so I wrote like a journalist: short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. (Something that would send my 7th grade English teacher screaming from the room.)

I constantly got easy A’s on my papers, while the other students were getting B’s and hard-won A’s, and spending a lot more time on their work than I did.

It never occurred to anyone in the department that it was how I wrote that made the difference, not the quality of my ideas or the way I expressed them. I didn’t even stumble on this little revelation myself until many years later.

What I learned was, if you want to be read, write simply. Don’t be flowery or use $50 words. Write at an 8th grade reading level, or possibly even a 6th. That’s where most newspapers are written these days. TV news copy is written at the 4th grade level.

The American Marketing Association even backs me up on this.

In January 2008, authors G. Alan Sawyer, Juliano Laran, & Jun Xu published the study, The Readability of Marketing Journals: Are Award-Winning Articles Better Written?

In a word, yes.

Basically, they wanted to see if award-winning journal articles were written more simply than the non-winners (we call them “losers” outside the academic walls). They ran the text through Microsoft Word’s Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level grader, and did a whole bunch of complicated stuff with statistics that I won’t even pretend to understand.

The Reading Level score corresponds to the grade of education of the reader it would take to understand it. If your score is 8.4, it’s suitable for an 8th grader. A 14.6 is suitable for a college sophomore. A score of 21 or higher is suitable for Stephen Hawking, although he may find it a little pedestrian.

Here’s what they found:

Of the 15 articles with the best readability scores, 13 of them were award winners. They had scores from 12.3 to 14.4. Of the 11 worst least readable articles, 9 of them were “non-winners,” and carried scores from 18.3 to 21.3.

(Their own article has a 13.98 Flesch-Kincaid score. This post has a 6.7. I guess I win.)

So why is a lower reading score so important? Are we getting dumber? Do we all have the attention span of a bunch of hyperactive 12-year-olds?

No, the reason is our mental bandwidth. Let’s face it, we’re all busy, harried, and are running eight things through our brains at once. And that’s on a good day. When we’re confronted with a piece of text, we want it to be as simple as possible.

Simple doesn’t mean we’re stupid, or that our brains are shutting down. It means we don’t have to devote as much time and energy to it. We can process the text easily, absorb the information, and move on. We can absolutely read something that’s long and complex. We’re all smart people, and we can certainly read something written at a 12th grade reading level. It’s just that people sometimes need the break from the long and complex. Simple writing gives that to them, and as a result, is more readily accepted.

Basically, if you want to win readers, stick with the writing style the newspapers use. Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. Most important information goes up front, least important goes last. Avoid needless words.

Otherwise, your readers will eventually get bored and go elsewhere.

(Note: If you’re a Mac user, and don’t have access to Word’s Flesch-Kincaid grader, you can download Flesh, the document readability calculator. I used it to grade this post.)

Photo: Peyri

Five Quick and Easy Blog Writing Techniques

Yesterday, I gave a talk about Blogging Basics for Job Seekers to our local Business & Professional Exchange organization, a networking group for people who are looking for new employment.

I tried to explain blog writing as simply as possible, but as I was talking, I realized there’s more than one way to skin that cat, so I thought I would assemble a few of my favorite blog writing techniques here. Use any of them when you’re stuck, not so much for what to write about, but how to write it.

  • Dear Mom: The nice thing about blogging is that it doesn’t have to be hard. It’s as easy as writing an email. And the important thing about blogging is that you make the subject matter as simple and easy as possible. “Easy enough so that your mother can understand it,” I tell people. So start your blog post like this: “Dear Mom, Let me tell you about this cool thing I learned today,” and then tell her about it. When you’re done, delete the salutation and opening line, and you’ve got your blog post.
  • What Can [Insert Movie/Song/Sport/Esoteric Trivia] Teach Us About [Industry/Job/Social Movement]: I very nearly wrote a post about “What Ultimate Frisbee Can Teach Us About Blogging” once (I was an avid Ultimate Frisbee player many years ago), but then I decided I hated those kinds of posts. Still, they’re very successful, and they do serve a purpose. They force you to do some lateral thinking, and find weird connections between your chosen song/sport/etc. and your subject matter. It also gives you a framework to start building the post, which makes the writing much easier.
  • Use the News: This one is especially important if you’re writing about your chosen industry or field. Find news articles in other blogs, trade journals, or even the mainstream news, and write a news-opinion piece about it. Talk about the basic details of the story, and then offer your opinion on how this will affect your industry, for good or bad. Spend about half your post summarizing the story (don’t forget to cite the article and link to it), and then the other half putting forth your own ideas.
  • Once Upon a Time: People love stories. We’ve been passing knowledge through stories since before we had a written alphabet. Storytelling is in our DNA. So rather than just put forth an idea in the most general, vague terms, tell a story about how you saw it used. Tell a true story, or make one up, as sort of a modern-day parable. If you need to, tell your story to someone out loud before you commit it to paper. You’ll find a story flows much more easily than just reciting dry facts and banging out 30,000 foot overviews.
  • Lists: Create a list of ideas or techniques, and give it a descriptive and persuasive title. People love lists, and they’re easily drawn to them. (Hey, it got you to read this far, didn’t it?) Plus it makes writing much easier. Rather than coming up with one really long idea, you can instead create five simple ones. A list will keep you focused and let you lightly touch on the different ideas you want to cover. Then you can expand each of them for later posts.

When you’re trying these techniques, don’t let them turn you into a word factory. Try to stick with the mantra, “one idea, one post, one day.” If you find your posts are getting too long, split them up into two different ideas, or make your post a two-parter.

Photo: plindberg

Blogging and Social Media are Forcing Professors Out of Their Ivory Towers

The unnamed folks over at Microgeist posed an interesting question in the article, Will Social Media and the Internet Kill the University System.

The answer is no. No it won’t. The University system is too firmly entrenched in our business culture, and too many businesses believe you must have a degree in the area you’re seeking a job in. Social media won’t unseat the university system any time soon. The Internet may change how we obtain knowledge, but you’ll still need a degree from an accredited university to get that job.

They did raise an interesting question however.

Will The Internet force professors out of the Ivory Tower?

We’re starting to see this somewhat. The Ivory Tower was originally the idea that professors were isolated “from practical matters” so they could work unimpeded toward “greater levels of abstraction which can then be converted via various design, engineering and business principles into something more pragmatic.”

The problem is, some professors began to see themselves as the Philosopher-Kings of society, and we unwashed masses were left to scrabble an intellectual existence out of whatever crumbs they might carelessly drop.

The Internet is starting to knock down the Ivory Tower though. Now, people are able to share knowledge with one another, without professorial filtration. Graduate students are publishing articles in blogs. Professors’ class notes and lecture videos are available online. And thousands of entrepreneurs are writing books about subjects that are making their way back to the universities, not the other way around.

It used to be that new ideas and new practices came from the university level, and were slowly absorbed into business, medicine, or the arts, as the graduates entered the field, were promoted, and the old ways of thinking died out.

Now, it’s the professionals who are writing the books and developing the ideas that are slow to catch on in higher education. Social media is a great example of this.

I’ve spoken with a few friends — social media professionals and experts — who have spoken at different college classes, and are finding that not only do students not know how to use social media (collaboration, tweetups, networking), but many of them don’t even know what tools are out there beyond Facebook. And the concept of face-to-face networking with others to form beneficial relationships? One friend said the students just stared at her blankly when she brought it up.

Basically, colleges and universities are going to have to realize that life has gone on without them, and knowledge has grown beyond them. They’re going to have to climb down from their ivory towers and catch up with the rest of us. Start spending time in the real world. Hang out. Learn from the people you were teaching 5, 10, 20 years ago. They’ve got a lot more they can teach you now.

What other information is getting shared outside of the University’s influence? What new knowledge is being spread— or have you spread — without them? And what can the universities do to keep up? Leave your ideas in the comments section.

Bloggers Are Citizen Journalists

A common complaint I hear from big-J Journalists about bloggers is that we’re not “real” journalists. That we’re somehow beneath their contempt and notice.

I first saw this attitude when I worked at the Indiana State Department of Health, and a few of my colleagues said we would never deal with bloggers because they only wanted to put out bad information. And in dealing with other Journalists, they almost seemed to say “blogger” with a sneer. As if “blogger” was something they stepped in on their way to the office.

As a result, many Journalists don’t believe things like Reporter Shield Laws should apply to us. For example, if an environmental blog were to uncover environmental violations by a large corporation, that blogger could be forced to reveal who his or her sources were. But if a newspaper wrote the same story, the reporter would not.

The biggest question comes down to who is a journalist. In the Branzburg v. Hayes case, Justice Byron White said

“Freedom of the press is a ‘fundamental personal right’ which ‘is not confined to newspapers and periodicals. It necessarily embraces pamphlets and leaflets. … The press in its historic connotation comprehends every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.’ … The informative function asserted by representatives of the organized press in the present cases is also performed by lecturers, political pollsters, novelists, academic researchers, and dramatists.”

— Quote from an article by David Hudson of FirstAmendmentCenter.org

Even back in 1973, when Justice White threw open “The Press” to anyone who produced the printed word, technology has widened the definition to anyone who writes for blogs, the 21st century’s electronic pamphlet.

In his article, Hudson also cited Kurt Opsahl, the staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who mentioned a couple examples where bloggers outperformed the big-J Journalists

“Bloggers hammered on the Trent Lott story (Lott’s comments about Strom Thurmond) until mainstream media was forced to pick it up again,” he said. “Three amateur journalists at the Powerline.com blog were primarily responsible for discrediting the documents used in CBS’s rush-to-air story on President George Bush’s National Guard service. And the list goes on.”

Cox lists several other national-headline stories affected greatly by reporting from blogs, including: Dan Rather and the Texas Air National Guard memos, the White House giving press credentials to James Guckert/Jeff Gannon, the resignation of CNN news executive Eason Jordan after publicity surrounding his remarks at the World Economic Forum and the John Kerry-Swift Boat Veterans for Truth controversy.

Or to put it another way, the big political scoops in the last 5 years have not been by the media, but by bloggers. Also called little-J journalists.

So, other than an overwhelming sense of elitism by the men and women of the dead-tree media, what really separates us from being real Journalists?

Is it the medium? Many former newspaper reporters and columnists have left the printed word, and gone on to start their own blogging career:

  1. Ruth Holladay who is serving brilliantly as a cheerleader for traditional media and a thorn in the side of her former employer, Gannett
  2. Lori Borgman the former arts columnist for the Indianapolis Star
  3. Columnist Saul Friedman who retired from Newsday rather than let his column go up behind a paywall

(I’m curious what their colleagues think? Have these writers somehow fallen from grace, and are no longer “good enough” to be considered Journalists? Are they now mentioned with the same sneer I heard three years ago?)

Maybe the pay is the issue. The fact that bloggers don’t get paid as much as newspaper writers (who, frankly, are not known for their lavish pay and glamorous lifestyle) may be the deciding factor. However, there are some online writers who make a lot more money than most successful businesspeople, let alone Journalists. So that argument doesn’t seem to hold weight.

Maybe it’s the training. The aforementioned paper-turned-pixel writers notwithstanding, Journalists seem to think they have the super-secret training that makes them a font of reliability and trustworthiness. Yet I know a lot of journalists who can’t spell, don’t know grammar, and in some cases, just plain can’t write. I took several journalism classes in college, and I can tell you they don’t teach anything extra special that someone with a penchant for the written word couldn’t pick up.

Even the Washington Post isn’t immune from bad writers. Meanwhile, there are several outstanding bloggers who produce some outstanding prose that would make any big-J Journalist green with envy.

Maybe it’s because the media is trustworthy and bloggers aren’t? You know, trustworthy. People like Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Ruth Shalit. Of course, Shalit is back in journalism, Blair is a life coach in Virginia, and Glass is now a multi-millionaire, thanks to the book and movie deals he has gotten.

Admittedly, these three are the exception to the rule, and not the rule themselves. But my point is there are bad apples in blogging and bad apples in Journalism. Still if you’re going to accuse bloggers of not telling the truth, you need to look at the journalists who make stuff up too.

I just don’t see what the big difference is, other than bloggers don’t kill a lot of trees to get their message out through a dying medium. Yes, there are bad bloggers, but there are bad journalists. Yes, there are bloggers who lie, but there are lying journalists as well. (Some people might say that term is redundant.) Yes, journalists are trained as writers, but there are a lot of trained writers who use the electronic medium instead of newsprint.

If the U.S. Supreme Court opened up the definition of Citizen Journalists to pamphleteers and leaflet-writers, then they can certainly open it up to bloggers. And as bloggers, we need to make sure we can meet that expectation. We need to take on the mantle of Citizen Journalist ourselves, and then make sure we live up to that standard. (I’ll discuss that more in the future.)

So what do you think? Are bloggers journalists? Or are we a bunch of cranks sitting in our parents’ basement under bare light bulbs, writing about conspiracy theories and Paris Hilton sightings?

Stacks of newspapers photo: John Thurm
Ann Arbor News photo: mfophoto

Five Punctuation Errors Exploded

We had such great success with our Five Grammar Myths Exploded post, and I’m such an attention whore, that I wanted to follow up with Five Punctuation Errors Exploded. Plus, I’m a bit of a Word Nerd and Punctuation Prude (but not a Grammar Granny), that I wanted to talk about a few of the punctuation errors I see people make over and over.

Unfortunately, a lot of these errors are perpetuated by Microsoft Word’s Grammar Checker. Others are perpetuated by English and writing teachers who are still teaching the same errors they learned when they were writing their lessons on slate tablets. And still others are inexplicable. No one knows why they do it, but they do it.

Here are the five most common ones I’ve seen.

1. Don’t use apostrophes for anything but possessive pluralization: This one sets my teeth on edge, more than any other. An apostrophe is absolutely, positively, without exception used to show possessive or contractions. It is never, ever, ever used to show plurals.

With one exception. (More on that in a minute.)

First, don’t write things like DVD’s, CDs, CEO’s, 1990’s, or any abbreviation or acronym. The proper pluralization is DVDs, CDs, CEOs, and 1990s. No question.

The one exception is if you are pluralizing a single letter. The Oakland A’s, five Model T’s.

So the rule for apostrophes is just to leave it out for plurals, unless you’re pluralizing a single letter.

(Update: More than a few people pointed out that apostrophes are also used for contractions, which I knew, but forgot to mention. Thanks for the reminder, everyone.)

2. I give a f— about the Oxford comma: This one is actually optional, but I love the Oxford Comma. So if you were to ask me the first line of the Oxford Comma song by Vampire Weekend, the answer is “I do!”

The Oxford comma — also called the Harvard comma or Serial comma — is the comma that appears before “and” in a list. Red, white, and blue. Moe, Larry, and Curly. That comma there before “and” is the Oxford comma.

There are some writing styles that forbid it, like AP Style. Others allow it, like MLA and APA.

The problem is some Oxford comma-haters will remove it as a knee jerk reaction. See an Oxford comma, yank it out. That leads to problems, like the famous example of the book author who wrote in his dedication, “To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.” Or the gay church in Dallas that has “3,500 members, a full choir, a violinist and long-stemmed roses in the bathroom.”

Punctuation is designed to make language more readable and understandable. And sometimes removing a comma just because you’re “supposed to” can make the problem worse.

Bottom line: Using the Oxford comma isn’t wrong. It’s strictly a style issue.

3. Hyphens are dying: Some people say the hyphen is old-fashioned. Others would say it’s old fashioned. Either way, the hyphen is falling out of favor with most grammarians and editors. In fact, the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, editors removed hyphens from 16,000 entries. An article in the BBC said words like fig-leaf, pot-belly, and pigeon-hole are now fig leaf, pot belly, and pigeonhole.

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue is very thorough on the subject of hyphens. They have eight examples of when it should be used. The three most important are:

  • Use a hyphen to join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun:

a one-way street
chocolate-covered peanuts
well-known author

  • However, when compound modifiers come after a noun, they are not hyphenated:

The peanuts were chocolate covered.
The author was well known.

  • Use a hyphen to avoid confusion or an awkward combination of letters:

re-sign a petition (vs. resign from a job)
semi-independent (but semiconscious)
shell-like (but childlike)

Unfortunately, there’s no one rule that will explain all hyphens. If you’re not sure what to do, check Purdue’s OWL.

4. Proper use of the en (–) and em (—) dash: I love dashes. More powerful than commas, but not as sentence-stopping as a period. An em dash — which is the really long dash; so called because it’s the approximate width of the letter m — is used to separate parenthetical thoughts in your writing.

The en dash — it’s the approximate width of the letter n — is used to show a range between numbers.

I will be in Orlando, Florida from January 21 – 28.
Admission is $3 for ages 4 – 12.

Create the em dash with SHIFT+OPT+hyphen (Mac)/CTRL+ALT+hyphen (Windows). Create the en dash with OPT+hyphen (Mac)/ALT+hyphen (Windows). You can also turn on “Create em dash” in Word; anytime you type a double dash (–), Word will replace it with an em dash.

The other question I see a lot is whether to put a space between the em dash and a word. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on whether to do it or not. The Chicago Manual of Style says there shouldn’t be any spaces—like this—between dashes and text. But the AP Stylebook — which is correct in all things except my beloved Oxford comma — says it’s okay to have a space between dashes and text (like I just did there).

The basic rule is the em dash is used in text, the en dash is used to show a range between numbers.

5. Punctuation always goes inside quotation marks: This is a simple one, but one that people don’t always understand. Basically, all punctuation goes inside quotation marks when you’re writing a quote.

“Where are you going?” she asked.
“None of your business!” he said.
“Jeez, you’re always such a jerk,” she said.

The punctuation in the last example is the one that usually trips people up. The entire sentence actually ends with “she said,” which is why the period goes at the very end. The actual quote — Jeez, you’re always such a jerk — ends with a comma, which goes inside the quote.

Now, if she says something else afterward, that’s actually a separate sentence, and doesn’t need a “she said” to go with it.

“Jeez, you’re always such a jerk,” she said. “I don’t know why I married you in the first place.”

Even other quotation marks will go inside the final quotation mark.

“And then I said, ‘that sounds like a load of BS!'” he shouted over the music.

Notice the use of the single quotation mark around ‘that sounds like a load of BS!’ That’s how you show you’re quoting something within another quote. But then if you look very closely at the end of the example, you’ll see the single quote and the double quote mashed together. It’s a little sloppy and hard to see, but that’s just how it is.

Bottom line: All punctuation goes inside a quotation mark, including other quotation marks.

(Special thanks to Bil Browning of the Bilerico Project for recommending this final item for the list.)

What about you? What are some of your punctuation pet peeves? What bugs you, or what do you struggle with? Leave a comment, and we’ll do a followup post.

Apostrophe photo: Melita Dennett
Comma photo: Leo Reynolds

Social Media & Internet Creating Communities, Reducing Isolationism

I was an early adopter of AOL. In the 832,000s. They hadn’t even cracked a million by that time.

And as the Internet grew more popular, people started worrying that this was destroying communities, increasing isolationism, and making it too easy to shut ourselves off from the outside world.

I was talking with my friend Lalita Amos one day about this idea, and she pointed out that it wasn’t the Internet that destroyed communities, it was television. If anything, the Internet has restored community.

Think about it: Back before the days of TV and radio, you had to rely on everybody else to survive. It took a village just to get through a year, let alone raise a child. You were close to your neighbors, family lived nearby, and you took care of each other.

Then radio and TV came along, and people started spending more time inside. Pretty soon, we were in our houses being entertained.

“Our shared experiences were what we saw on TV,” Lalita said. “It wasn’t what we did together, it was what we all saw on TV and talked about the next day.”

As we got more channels, and as technology advanced, people had more things to watch, with fewer things we held in common.

Now, thanks to things like Facebook, Twitter, and specialized sites like Smaller Indiana, we’re getting connected in ways we never could. We can find people we have odd things in common with. People who like independent coffee shops. People who write radio theatre plays. People who collect marbles. There’s a community for everyone just based on your interests alone.

Or there are mini-communities within geographic communities. I belong to a community of networkers, a community of social media professionals, and a community of Indianapolis Colts fans.

In fact, I met Lalita Amos strictly because of Smaller Indiana and Twitter, two online communities. We never would have met if it hadn’t been for those online communities.

And what do we talk about when we get together? Our shared communities, not television. Thanks to social media, we’re no longer sharing what we watched passively; we’re actively doing things, creating content, sharing ideas, and talking about that.

To all the naysayers who think the Internet is destroying our communities, look again. Sign up for a Facebook account and see if you can find people you went to high school with, used to work with, or have something in common with. Create the community you want, rather than being stuck with the ones you live with.

How Small Newspapers Can Use Social Media to Grow Readership

Originaly published at the DeckersMarketing.com blog.

I’m not going to repeat the same sad-but-scary stories of how newspapers around the country are folding up like, well, newspapers. No stories about the Seattle Post-Intelligencer going online-only, the Rocky Mountain News, the San Francisco Chronicle. No stories about how Gannett is hemorrhaging all over the place, and their only response is to cut the one thing that brings people to their newspaper: local news reporting, and get their local information from an out-of-town national source.

I don’t have to tell you any of this, because if you’re in the newspaper business – and God bless you for it – you know all of this.

But I’ve said for the past year that while the big city newspapers are going under, the smaller newspapers are in a better position to be able to weather the storm. The smaller newspapers I know, especially the weeklies, are not even messing with national news, because the dailies and TV news have it sewn up. Their advertisers are local merchants who don’t have to choose from a plethora of advertising outlets. There’s one game in town, and the newspaper is it.

That’s not to say everything is sunshine and roses for the small newspaper. But, like I said, they’re in a better position to come out of this alive.

One thing that’s going to help them succeed is to start participating in social media. You’ve heard the term before. The mainstream media is talking about Twitter, you know people who are on Facebook, and you’ve finally learned that a blog is not what a blumberjack gets when he chops down a btree.

Social Media is a Boon to Readership

I’m sure your first reaction is going to be, “But most of our readers are over 50, and they don’t use the Internet.” That’s true, they are and they don’t. But what about your readers who are under 50, and are online? Or better yet, what about the teenagers and 20-somethings who are online and aren’t your readers? Where do you think they’re getting the news from? The New York Times online, The Associated Press online, and of course, your closest metropolitan daily newspaper (at least while they’re still around). Why shouldn’t you try to go to the place where they’re getting their news too?

Because they’re going to be 30, 40, and 50 one day. And if you’re not providing them online news now, you won’t be around to play catch up later.

So how can you, the small newspaper editor, use social media to stay afloat, and possibly even grow?

If you look at the social media landscape, you’ll be overwhelmed with choices and terminology. I’ll try to explain a few of the basics, and you can go from there.

1) Put your newspaper online. Most dailies have a website, and some of the weeklies do. If you don’t, find a way to get it up there. You already lay the paper out on the computer, so it’s no extra work to paste the same article in an online window and hit the Publish button.

HOW:You can turn your paper into a blog (there are some great WordPress templates that lend themselves to newspapers, or you can get one of the newspaper-website software packages, like TownNews.com. (The Greenfield Reporter in Greenfield, IN uses them. Full disclosure: they publish my Laughing Stalk humor column in four of their satellite newspapers.)

BENEFIT:Here’s the great thing: an online newspaper can be another source of revenue for you. Advertisers who are appearing in your print edition may be interested in paying a little more to also appear in your online edition. Businesses that might not be able to afford an ad in your paper may be interested in the lower ad rates of the online version. You can track the performance of their online ads, and use those figures to show how effective they are, and charge the appropriate rates.

2. Join Twitter and use it. Twitter is a micro-blog (as compared to a regular blog), because you only have 140 characters to convey an entire message. That message can be straight text, or it can be a link to a website, blog post, or a headline and link to a story on your website. If you’re on it, you can follow me at @edeckers.

I follow several Twitter feeds from national and local news sources, including the New York Times, NPR, WTHR (Indianapolis’ NBC affiliate), and Toronto’s Globe and Mail (hey, I like to feel sophisticated). While I tend to ignore most of the tweeted (a Twitter message is a tweet) articles, there are times one of the headlines catches my eye, and I click on it. There’s also @BreakingNewsOn, which has tweeted news stories before the mainstream media even showed up.

HOW: This one is simple, go to Twitter.com and sign up. Use your paper’s name (set up a separate one for your personal use). Download TweetDeck and Twitter Local. You’ll send and receive Tweets on your TweetDeck application, but you can search for local Twitter users through TwitterLocal.

As you follow your local people, they’ll follow you in return (it’s an unwritten rule). Then, just feed your news headlines and links to them as they come up (you can even automate this process at TwitterFeed).

BENEFIT: People will come to rely on you as a source for news. They’ll retweet (forward) your articles to your friends, and you’ll start attracting readers from outside your fair city or town. I’ve had visitors to my blog from as far away as England and Australia just because of Twitter.

3. Join a social network. This one is a little tougher. There are thousands of social networks out there, so the question is which one should you join. Again, you want to stay local. Does your chamber of commerce have one? Or a local social organization? Maybe there is not even one in your community. That’s great! You get to be the one to start it.

HOW: Go to Ning.com and start one for your community. Advertise it in your paper and on Twitter. Get people involved in the community and with each other. Post some of your stories on the network, and get people to contribute their own. Now you’re not only a source for news, you’re helping to build your community.

BENEFIT: I’ve been involved in an Indiana-based network called Smaller Indiana>/a>, a social network for people who live and work in Indiana. It has resulted in some great opportunities for its members (I landed my job as a blog manager because of Smaller Indiana), and people have formed some profitable business relationships and fulfilling personal relationships because of it. We have become a voice for social, business, political, and environmental change in our community. Now imagine what it would be like in your community if you were responsible for creating that. What would that mean for your newspaper?

The best news of all of this? With one exception (TownNews.com), this is all free. You can get a blog for free at WordPress.com, join Twitter for free, and create a social network for free.

The only thing it takes is time and know-how. Since you’re already busy putting out a paper, and you probably don’t have the technical knowledge to jump into this with both feet, you have a couple of choices. Build it slowly and learn as you go along, or hire someone to set it up and teach you how to do it.

If you take the build it option, start with a free blog at WordPress.com, and set up a Twitter account. Publish your top story and an editorial on your blog, and promote it through Twitter.

If you have the money, hire a social media and content marketing expert to get it all started for you. You’ll spend a few thousand dollars in the beginning, but if you manage this right, it will pay for itself for years afterward.

Last year, Wired Magazine editor Kevin Kelly said in a speech that the Internet as we know it is only 5,000 days old (5,300 by now). 5,000 days ago, we didn’t have maps, TV, news, photos, records, government forms, or entire libraries online. Now we do. Now people get their information this way.

What will the next 5,000 days bring? Or the next 1,000? Or even the next 10? What new social media technology will let people get news and information? And what will this do to you and your newspaper? Will you be a part of the next 5,000 days? Or will you be the thing the teenagers in your town learn about during their unit on local history?