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?