Somewhere within the cusp of February 12 and February 13, 2009, the Detroit Free Press learned a valuable lesson about the changing demands of news reporting in the age of social media.
At 10:20 pm on February 12, Continental Flight 3407 crash-landed in a Buffalo, Newark neighborhood killing 50 people, including a 9/11 widow and a resident of the home on which the plane had landed. By the time the Detroit Free Press received word of the tragedy, it was too late: the following day’s paper had already gone to press. The tragedy of Flight 3407 was the story, and on February 13 readers would be able to find information about it anywhere…anywhere with the exception of the Detroit Free Press.
Freep.com was still able to perform its role as a news source by publishing an article before the clock stuck twelve, but the absence of the print edition was what Detroit Free Press web editor Mark W. Smith referred to as “a huge wakeup call.”
At last week’s #tweetea (3/30), Mark W. Smith joined us to discuss how the Detroit Free Press makes use of social media, the struggles and successes of integrating social media into the traditions of the newsroom, and the shifting state of journalism at large as it negotiates it’s place in the new information economy. As the web editor, Mark is responsible for the entire freep.com website and all of its associated social media accounts. Together, these are known as the “web desk,” which is the information hub of the entire newspaper. Running the web desk is a hot seat position–Mark begins working as early as 5:00 am and rarely takes a break, even to eat. Mark’s main responsibility is to direct web traffic to freep.com. In fact, 70% of his job evaluation is based on site traffic. This is where social media comes in.
Fact: Each morning the first thing Mark does is check Google Trends.
Currently, the Freep operates roughly 40 Twitter accounts, has 10-12 Facebook pages, operates a mobile alters service, and maintains several blogs, including Detroit Metromix and the Browser Blog, which covers social media in Detroit. The main use of social media at the Detroit Free Press–and the web editor’s primary responsibility–is to direct readers to the main freep.com website, or as Mark put it, to “bring people in off the search engines.”
Fact: 98% of Tweets from Freep accounts send out links to stories posted on freep.com.
Despite the Freep’s span of occupancy on popular social media platforms, Mark struggles with ways to actualize the full potential of social media for the Free Press. He broadly noted that it is difficult to see social media for something in and of itself because it can’t be monetized. Two specific problems are a lack of engagement (despite earnest efforts) and an ineptitude in farming content from readers. The Free Press did, however, have mentionable success covering events like the Detroit Auto Show and the 2010 snow storms. One of the more successful stories this winter began when a tow-truck driver Tweeted the Freep that he he was stuck in the snow. The Freep retrieved the man’s phone number via direct message, conducted an interview that provided the base material for a multi-platform story.
Fact: The most popular news story is almost always the weather.
The challenges that social media present to the Detroit Free Press are common to all traditional media companies. Mark’s #tweetea talk and the discussions spawned by it provided a pragmatic and fascinating way to look at social media, the way it is being used, and how it is altering the information landscape. This post only covers a portion of what I learned from Mark, and I will soon be posting on other issues that sparked my interest, including media consolidation and the internet’s effect on journalism at large. For now, I have come to the following four conclusions:
- The position of “web editor” eclipses that of “editor in chief” in terms of control and authority in producing news content.
- The launch of Google’s realtime search validated the relevance of social media as a source of information.
- The launch of Google’s realtime search necessitated the utilization of social media for information companies.
- Google determines the news.