Forging New Paths to News in Alabama
Wants And Preferences In Mobile Delivery
By Caitlin Bonner
Knight Fellow in Community Journalism, University of Alabama
[Download the research report]
When Oxford senior Erica Deramous was suspended for wearing a prom dress that violated her high school’s dress code, she became a multimedia phenomenon.
The story, written by Patrick McCreless and published in The Anniston Star’s print edition, also was featured on The Star’s website, Twitter and Facebook feeds, and garnered 157 comments on the website. Follow-up tweets from readers kept the story alive on the website for six weeks.
Multimedia director for The Star, Justin Thurman, said it is one of the most shared stories the paper had in early 2010. “We pick the things we think will have the farthest reaching audience or will generate the most discussion. Anything strange or controversial will get linked a good deal from our Twitter and Facebook sites,” Thurman said.
What this story highlights is the changing environment of newspaper readers’ interactions with their news delivery. Many people may have read the Anniston prom dress story because it was linked to from a friend. A study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in 2010 reported that news is becoming portable, personalized and participatory. It found “37 percent of news consumers contributing to the creation of news, commenting on news, or disseminating it via postings on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.” The study describes the ability for news users to “filter, assess and react” to their news through social media sites.
So what is it that Alabama newspaper readers really want from their news outlets? Do they want different things depending on what format they access the most? And how can newspapers use this information to meet those wants?
A new online survey of almost 1,000 Alabama newspaper readers, conducted by the University of Alabama Knight Fellows in Community Journalism, found that the preferred format for a newspaper reader (print, online, or alternate delivery like social media) influences what they want from that outlet. For example, people who preferred traditional formats also wanted to read in-depth stories, whereas users who are accessing news through more mobile formats, preferred breaking news and weather updates.
The survey found that 13 percent of those who volunteered to answer the survey prefer getting their news from alternate types of delivery and are interested in types of news that can be updated quickly through their mobile devices.
Because more than three-quarters of Americans now own cell phones, it seems likely that the number of people using alternate news delivery will continue to grow as well, as the Pew Research Center predicted in a 2008 report. It’s important to pay attention to this group of news consumers because they are well-educated and access the news more often throughout the day than traditional users. While the Knight Fellows’ Alabama survey found a relatively small slice of participants now prefers alternative delivery, the trend Pew describes already is influencing Alabama newspapers and their decisions to use social media to interact with readers.
Writing a Letter to the Editor doesn’t always guarantee a published voice. Website comments and sharing and discussing news through social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook allow readers to engage in a conversation with the newspaper, the writer of the story, and other readers. The prom dress story is a clear example of an issue that readers wanted to discuss, and did.
According to the 2010 Pew Internet study, “75 percent of online news consumers say they get news forwarded through email or posts on social networking sites, and 52 percent say they share links to news with others via those means.” Social media sites can be updated quickly and easily and help connect the readers with their paper in an online forum, that study noted.
While people are still getting daily news from print and online editions of their local and national newspapers, the trend is moving towards sharing news through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. While much of the news sharing seen now is related to popular culture, many newspaper readers are beginning to share more in-depth, hard-hitting stories. The Pew Internet study in 2010 found that 37 percent of online news consumers have done at least one of the following: commenting on a news story (25 percent); posting a link on a social networking site (percent; tagging content (11 percent), creating their own original news material or opinion piece (9 percent), or Tweeting about news (3 percent).”
Internet-capable phones such as the iPhone and Blackberry have revolutionized the way consumers interact with news. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites have become an embedded part of today’s culture. The power to quickly spread news updates, stories, and information is constantly available and stories have the opportunity to become viral. Alabama newspaper websites like al.com are aware of this; The Birmingham News section of al.com, for example, has about 4,000 subscribers that receive instant and automated text and e-mail alerts for weather, breaking news, and sports.
University of Alabama Knight Fellows’ Survey
The Knight Fellows surveyed Alabama newspaper readers to ask about their wants and preferences in terms of mobile delivery. The participants, who volunteered to take part, were asked what types of news content were important them, how they prefer to get their local news, and how they prefer to get their news in general, among other things. For this article’s analysis, survey participants were broken down by which format they prefer to get their news: in a printed newspaper, online or through alternate delivery (e-mail, text alerts, RSS, Facebook, and Twitter). These groups were based on categories in a 2008 Pew Research Center study.
The Knight Fellows’ survey found that there is a demand from Alabama newspaper readers for news content that is suited for updates multiple times a day. The survey found that people who prefer getting their news online or through alternate delivery want different things from their newspapers than traditional print users. While 43 percent of users prefer to get their news through the printed paper and 43 percent prefer the website, there is a third group that is using alternate delivery methods because they are more accessible and personalized. The less traditional users (about 13 percent in the Knight Fellows’ survey) tend to want news stories that can be updated multiple times a day and can be accessed on-the-go.
According to the Pew Research Center in 2008, groups with different preferences on how to get news have characteristics that set them apart.
In this Pew study (which served as a basis for categories in the Knight Fellows’ survey), the oldest and largest group was the traditionalists, who rarely get news from the Internet, and rely on traditional television and print news. This group, 46 percent of the public, also keeps to a traditional schedule as opposed to viewing news many times throughout the day. Based on a TV news format, they consume news during the morning, dinnertime, or late at night.
The second group, or the Integrators, are at the intersection of traditional vs. online news debate and spend the most time with news on any given day. This group is typically highly educated and affluent, and comprises 23 percent of the population. Demographically, the Integrators are middle-aged, and almost half log onto the Internet for work purposes. The Pew Center found that these media-users enjoy keeping up with the news, especially national news, politics and sports.
The third group of consumers is the Net-Newsers, a typically younger group (median age: 35), which turns to the Web primarily for their news and is using new technologies and other new media. This group is a much more educated segment of the population and, on average, reads an online newspaper twice as much as the printed-paper. The interesting thing to note is that most Net-Newsers consume online media throughout the day and will seek out occasional traditional media like television, during late night. Although this is the smallest of the classifications, this is the group making strides in technological advances, seeking out video, blogs, and social media and is paving the way for a larger new-media audience.
Alabama newspapers, Facebook and Twitter
Not all Alabama newspapers are using Twitter and Facebook to share news with their readers. A recent content analysis of the Alabama Press Association member newspapers conducted by the Knight Fellows found that of 97 newspapers with active websites, 47 had RSS feeds, 29 offered e-mail alerts, 28 were using Twitter, 26 were using Facebook, and 15 offered text alerts. However, when these newspapers were split into daily and weekly categories, the numbers said something different. Alabama dailies are using social media extensively — 21 out of 23 are using at least Twitter or Facebook, with 16 using both. In a content analysis comparing national community newspapers and Alabama community newspapers, Alabama newspapers are using Twitter (28 percent vs. 24 percent) and Facebook (27 percent vs. 15 percent) more than their national counterparts.
It is not surprising that al.com, which serves the newspaper readers of Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile, has gathered the largest amount of Facebook fans (4,071). Al.com also has separate Facebook pages for sports and entertainment, as well as individual pages for each of the three affiliate papers.
Other newspapers are not far behind. The Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, Ala. has more than 2,800 Facebook fans in just six months of operation and updates select news links multiple times a day. Recently, the Eagle reported a missing person on its Facebook page. Facebook users posted information to the story that helped find the person later that day. The Eagle also has had a large amount of feedback on the Alabama bingo stories, with one story receiving 79 comments from Facebook fans.
Other newspapers, like The News Courier in Athens, Ala. are beginning to see the potential in social media news sharing and are giving prominence on their websites to Facebook feeds.
Unfortunately, the newspaper readers who want to get this type of breaking news content through mobile delivery are not necessarily going to their local news sites. The Knight Fellows’ survey found that more news users go to Facebook to access news in general, but are less likely to use their local newspaper’s Facebook page. This means that news users are reading and sharing news through Facebook, but are not going directly to their local Facebook page – if it exists. One reason may be that some newspapers were late to the social media scene and are just starting to realize its potential.
Whether it is Ashton Kutcher, or the editor of the local newspaper, it seems that everybody is using the online updating tool called Twitter. Many newspapers are using Twitter to tease story headlines before the story is finished or published on the website, thus driving additional traffic to the newspaper’s website. Twenty of the 23 Alabama dailies are currently using the social media tool, each to varying degrees. The Anniston Star has a main Twitter feed with 1,200 followers and displays it in a prominent location on the front page of their website. Anniston also has four sports-related Twitter accounts. Editors and reporters contribute to The Star’s main feed, and also keep up with their own personal accounts.
Using new media tools like Twitter is easier for smaller, privately owned newspapers, Justin Thurman, of The Star, said. “We don’t have a lot of limitations – we can be more creative, try new things. There’s no permanent record of it, and the cost is fairly small. If it fails, it isn’t that big a deal,” Thurman said.
Al.com is also using Twitter and has 5,240 followers from Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile. Each city covered by al.com also has its own Twitter feeds. The website includes instructions and information on what Twitter is, how to use it, and how to follow each paper. This is important for a population slow to use Twitter and who may be deterred by the learning curve.
Michael Keaton, Production Manager of The Daily Mountain Eagle, said the decision was made for their newspaper to use Facebook instead of Twitter because the majority of people can use Facebook more easily than Twitter. Also, he said, “Twitter takes a lot more time and we’d rather have our reporters working on something else than dedicating their time to Twitter updates.”
Alabama weekly newspapers have only scratched the surface of Twitter’s abilities and have yet to break into the “instant updates” scene. A look at Alabama’s weekly papers found that of those that are using the tool, only a few have pursued its full capabilities. When newspapers are new to Twitter, it is common for them to transfer a large group of Web stories at the same time onto their feed. When this happens, there is generally no editorial decision going in to the process. Newspapers may also choose to limit the ability to reply to tweets, which discourages interactivity or discussion with readers. The less interactivity that is available, the harder it is to keep followers interested.
People at your paper have to want to engage in this type of thing, Thurman explained. “It only takes a little bit of time and it’s free. We’re not going to push anyone working here to use Twitter or Facebook. It’s the people who are already interested in doing it that keep up with it,” he said.
Student Media Advisor and professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., Kenny Smith, believes there are many uses for Twitter beyond pop-culture updates. Smith explained that while he was watching the weather on television news, he was able to get more information about bad storms in and around Birmingham through his Twitter feed updates. “Twitter has the ability to be hyper-local, more ‘boots-on-the-ground’ type of information, especially for breaking news,” Smith said. Twitter was built to be mobile, and allows users to contribute to an on-going conversation about news updates for anything from weather, to traffic, to breaking news, he said.
Start the Conversation
Twitter and Facebook are referred to as “social networking” sites. While they have evolved over their few years of existence, the label says exactly what they can do, especially for newspapers. With the use of Twitter and Facebook, newspaper readers can engage in conversations with reporters, editorial staffs, and other readers interested in similar things and create an open network.
Kenny Smith believes that contributing to the conversation is the primary role of Twitter when it comes to newspapers. “Newspapers can step in as that ‘opinion leader’ role by being responsive to their audience and nurturing the relationship with the readers,” Smith said. “When someone from the newspaper sends a reply comment or a re-tweet, that means something to the reader. Social media are tools to serve the community through on-going conversations,” he said.
The News Courier out of Athens, Ala. has been very successful in nurturing this relationship through Facebook. The newspaper features its Facebook feed prominently on the front page of its website, and has over 2,000 “fans” (as of May 2010). News stories are posted to the Facebook page daily, and many stories will receive comments from fans.
Before Mother’s Day, The Courier asked, “What one word describes your mother?” More than 50 fans responded. A more hard-hitting news story about the new Arizona Immigration law drew comments from 22 Facebook fans. When The Courier congratulated Athens and Ardmore high schools for their softball championships, 41 fans hit the famous “Like” button.
Justin Thurman, of The Anniston Star, agrees that the conversation is important to effectively using social media sites, especially Twitter. Some newspapers, he said, make the mistake of simply dumping an RSS feed of their news stories onto Twitter and Facebook. “When they copy every story onto Twitter, most likely they’re not using it as a two-way communication. No one is there to monitor it or to reply to questions. That’s a big mistake. We made that mistake at first, too. We couldn’t get any followers,” Thurman said.
The Anniston Star was the first news outlet in Alabama to use Twitter, even before al.com. “Then, we started making our Twitter a little more personal. We only put up a few select stories that could possibly start a discussion, and we opened up that line of communication,” he said. This is when The Star saw a jump in number of followers and replies, he explained.
“Do what you do best and link to the rest”
One of the criticisms of using social media to share news or updates is that it only gives the reader a headline, but not enough information to fully understand a story. Smith calls this the “depth vs. breadth” of information debate. This debate also arises when social media sites are used to link to other news outlets, like posting a headline to a story on Twitter. However Thurman and Samford’s Smith see the upside that social media brings to websites.
Thurman and The Anniston Star use a tool called Publish2 to link to other news sites in Alabama that may cover that area in their “Around the State” section of the website. “Do what you do best, and link to the rest,” said Kenny Smith, quoting Jeff Jarvis, the Buzzmachine.com new media blogger and author of What Would Google Do? “If it’s a local story for Huntsville, they already have the resources, the reporters, and the local knowledge to write the best story,” he continued. By linking to other news outlets, the reader gets the most locally written story.
“If it brings traffic to our website in the long run, I don’t mind. I don’t go (directly) to many websites any more, either.” Thurman said. “They come to me through RSS feeds. You have to give people what they want on the platform they want, that’s the key.” By posting story headlines on Twitter, the readers get a tease of the story, but ultimately, it links the reader to the full story on the newspaper’s website. “We’re the long-form journalism that they’re getting linked to. They’re still coming to our website, and I’m OK with that,” Thurman said.
Smith does the math for Twitter followers. If you have 1,000 followers on Twitter, and even a quarter re-tweet that story, you can consider that a success, he said. “It’s a trickle-down effect, once those 250 followers re-tweet your story, you never know the reach it can get. Twitter has the opportunity to make news stories viral, similar to YouTube videos,” Smith said. Although Twitter is a potent tool for spreading news, Smith also cautions things to watch out for, like posting a story or headline that has yet to be verified.
At the Palm of your Touch-Screen
According to the 2010 Pew Internet study, “the overwhelming majority of Americans (92 percent) use multiple platforms to get news on a typical day, including national TV, local TV, the Internet, local newspapers, radio, and national newspapers.” Further, some 46 percent of Americans say they “get news from four to six media platforms on a typical day. Just 7 percent get their news from a single media platform on a typical day.” One of the reasons that this is changing is that there are formats, like mobile devices, that can deliver multiple news outlets in a short amount of time and deliver news that is hyper-personalized to the consumer.
(One researcher argues that the Internet, mobile devices, and subsequently social media through mobile devices, are becoming so embedded in the daily routine that it is bordering addiction. In an article arguing the DSM-V classification of Internet use as an addiction entitled, Mobile Phone Addiction: A Point of Issue, Mariano Choliz argues, “the mobile phone has many attributes and characteristics that make it very attractive for its use, particularly in adolescence.” When the user becomes so dependent on the mobile phone, there can be negative symptoms. Some of the most characteristic symptoms of dependence were the following: “(a) excessive use, (b) problems with parents associated with excessive use; (c) a gradual increase in mobile phone use to obtain the same level of satisfaction, as well as the need to substitute operative devices with the new models that appear on the market.”)
The addiction question aside, mobile connectivity is a great source of information. “I love it. I have more information at the palm of my hand than anyone in the history of the world has ever had,” Thurman said. “If there’s a disagreement, there’s a way to look up the right answer,” he continued.
Mobile delivery has afforded technology like Twitter and Facebook to be so widely successful. Newspaper readers can keep up-to-date with things that lend themselves to multiple updates through the day, such as weather, traffic, and sports. Many times, users may go to Facebook or Twitter for social reasons, but end up seeing a news story inadvertently. The Pew Center categorizes this type of use as “news-grazing.” As more people share news through these outlets, news will become a part of this embedded culture.
Some University of Alabama students and athletics staff use Twitter in a very specific way on Saturdays in the fall. Twitter-friendly football fans who attend Alabama football games use Twitter to keep a running commentary of the game for fans who can not be in the stadium. This type of ongoing sports commentary is sports talk radio and online game-casting to a new degree.
Newspapers like the Star and AL.com are using this type of technology to update high school and college football games as well. The Anniston Star uses an updating stream that is “very close to a play by play” according to Thurman. The Star tweets for Alabama, Auburn, Jacksonville State, and some high school football games. Through Twitter, the user can get these text updates directly to their mobile device.
By adapting social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to mobile devices, newspapers and readers are able to interact in a way that is immediate and relevant for those who want it. The growing numbers of users that are accessing newspaper Facebook and Twitter pages represent the trend in Alabama and nationally. The Daily Mountain Eagle has gained more than 200 fans in about a month. The News Courier has seen similar growth. While the majority of users still get their news through a printed paper or online at the newspaper’s website, the trend is to make instantaneous news available for the reader.
It is important for newspapers to engage in these tools as a way of communication and conversation. It may not be long before the majority of the population is completely connected at all times to the Internet. When this happens, it is likely that newspapers, as a whole, will have to respond to this and adapt. “Twitter and Facebook that are just another way to reach out to your community. It’s just another way to share your content,” Thurman said.
This article relies on original research undertaken by the Knight Fellows in Community Journalism in spring 2010: a content analysis of offerings of Alabama newspapers and an online survey of readers. Other sources for this article include:
Choliz, Mariano. (2010). Mobile Phone Addiction: A Point of Issue. Addiction. 105 (2) 373-374.
M. Keaton (personal communication May 5, 2010). Interview with Production Manager of The Daily Mountain Eagle. Discussed the ease of Facebook over Twitter in a small newspaper setting.
McCreless, Patrick (2010). What Not to Wear. The Anniston Star. Retrieved from http://www.annistonstar.com/view/full_story/6892751/article-What-not-to-wear-? 2 May 2010
Pew Research Center (2008). Key news audiences now blend online and traditional sources. [Data file]. Retrieved from http://people-press.org/report/444/news-media.
Pew Internet & American Life Project (2010). Understanding the Participatory News Consumer. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Online-News.aspx?r=1 28 April 2010.
K. Smith (personal communication, May 8, 2010). Interview with Student Media Advisor and professor at Samford University concerning the conversation aspect of social media for newspapers. Discussed how the interactivity of social media improves the connection between the newspaper and the reader.
J. Thurman (personal communication, April 20, 2010). Interview with multimedia director of the Anniston Star concerning their use of Facebook and Twitter. Discussion about early challenges, benefits and future of social media for newspapers.
The University of Alabama’s one-year Master’s Program in Community Journalism, or ComJ, encourages students to think critically about the role news plays in community and to explore new ways to serve communities through the evolving practices of journalism.
Read more about the ComJ program.