Why Don’t Local Newspapers Engage Readers with Social Media?

 

Three incidents have left me frantically searching for news alerts and updates about police and fire activities in my neighborhood. Each time I find myself in the middle of the crossfire, I wonder why our local newspapers are not taking advantage of social media to keep us informed.

It’s no secret that social media offers instant news-gathering and news-disseminating communication channels at little cost. Web sites, Twitter handles, Facebook and LinkedIn business pages can keep residents (and subscribers) updated on the fast-breaking news their beat reporters are gathering. Most of that news will be stale if it waits for tomorrow’s paper.

Debates rage on about whether newspapers, and journalism will survive an era that glorifies bloggers and citizen journalists who need little more than a computer and an opinion to get started. To me the answer seems obvious.

A Means to Thrive, Not Just Survive

If local newspapers are to survive (or thrive), they must embrace the new communication channels at their fingertips. I don’t mean that their marketing, advertising and subscription departments should use social media because they often do. What I mean is that their editorial departments must embrace social media as a vital tool of the trade. It may prove to be the best way for local newspapers to win a younger readership — one their Gutenberg-inspired printing presses have failed to do. 

In every editorial department the world over you will find journalists with Twitter handles or Facebook pages. But these are often independent endeavors. How many news organizations have editorial policies that guide and inspire good journalism with cutting-edge social media techniques and tools throughout the editorial department?

News departments are shrinking as advertising budgets get tighter, but even if newsrooms were not feeling the pinch, it would be impossible for staff journalists to cover every local event. Welcome to the 21st Century.

Social media can collect information from the people at the scene who with their smart phones and home computers are wired to the world. Reporters on the scene can file instant news updates about what they are seeing and hearing. Yet the newspaper world has refused to cede any editorial control. Twenty-four hours is simply too long to wait for news updates that have to wend through a coterie of editors.

This news void has spawned hyper-local Websites such as Topix.com whose tagline is “Your Town, Your News, Your Take,” and AOL’s Patch.com that claims to be “your source for local knowledge you can’t live without.” Hmmph. Where were they in my hour of despair on April 19th? These sites simply rehashed newspaper stories that were eventually published.

This is my personal story…

 

As a CHP helicopter circled our hilltop home for 30 minutes and police sirens screamed up and down the road below, I was all thumbs as I punched into my iPhone search terms like “Local news twitter marin county.” I couldn’t think fast enough.

I had no emergency sites bookmarked on my browser or Twitter handles readily at hand. Fortunately, several neighbors at the bottom of the hill, whom I had never met, were tweeting updates. One linked to an article in The Marin Independent Journal that explained it all: Armed heist at San Rafael pot club prompts massive search effort. It seems that a few hours earlier, four armed men had robbed a medical marijuana dispensary 7 miles away. A sheriff caught sight of their car in China Camp State Park and chased them all the way into our bucolic neighborhood. Now our neighbors were adding their own comments about what they were seeing after a SWAT team moved in.

That is how I came to learn that the police department was telling people to stay indoors and lock up. That’s also when I realized how serious things were. Up until that point I had been planning to lace up and go for a run through the very area where these men were hiding out.

I was impressed to see that The Marin IJ had a reporter by the name of Jessica Bernstein-Wax (Twitter handle @jbwax for Jessica B-Wax) actively tweeting updates and gathering information as the manhunt unfolded. She was not the reporter who filed the initial story. But she was using Twitter to ask for further details. She is one of the smart journalists who are using Twitter and Facebook to troll for leads, find sources and gather information as material for their stories. As far as I can see there’s very little downside to social media when used in this way.

Sure there’s always the chance that public information about the police whereabouts could tip off the criminals. But  if those fugitives are using their cell phones then surely they will be so much easier to find. The upside is that such news can save lives, and the most popular social media tools cost almost nothing to use in their most basic forms. Social media is also the answer to engaging a younger generation who look for their news exclusively online.

The Marin IJ’s Bernstein-Wax saved the day for me with her use of Twitter to gather and provide information as the events unfolded.

I am also thankful to Gary Klien, the reporter who wrote the story and to his editors for getting the story online so quickly. The next day Klien wrote a follow up article with Nels Johnson entitled: Fourth suspect still at large in San Rafael pot club robbery.

So what could our local newspaper have done better in this case?

Imagine how helpful it would have been to see a Twitter feed next to the Marin IJ story. The neighbors were providing invaluable in-the-moment information on Twitter about what they were seeing and what they were being told by the police. Clearly there was no consistency in the way information was being shared by the police. A few neighbors spoke to the police as they ran across their doorsteps, while some received phone calls from the police department advising them of the severity of the situation. Others turned to Twitter for updates or just let their imaginations run wild.

As I end this post, I am still waiting to get an update about the fugitive that was last seen in our neighborhood.

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