Why newspaper execs need to chill out and friend up


Grey-suited newspaper executives of the world take note. Those who believe social networking is just for funky young things who use it to waste time – usually at work and on the company dime – really need to strip off the tie, take a chill pill and start getting down with what all the hip kids are up to. After all, that's what their own parents are doing.

The average age of Facebook is getting older. In fact, over-55s now make up the fastest growing segment of new users on Facebook. In Australia, computer training classes in social networking for pensioners have waiting lists, as wrinklies queue up to learn the technology that will help them keep in touch with the grandkids.

In marketing terms, it's a sign that the technology has now truly gone mainstream. Facebook, which so bamboozles traditional newspaper executives, has moved through the early adoption phase and is now as accepted as e-mail and common as café latte. It's so easy, even a 60-year-old can do it.

Its combination of connected communities, a powerful database, rich seams of personal information, and targeted and sticky advertising with transparent tracking is creating a compelling business case – it's certainly more sophisticated than ruling a piece of paper into grids and selling off acreage based on a guestimate of readers, their preferences and makeup.

Facebook is truly new media, sharing thoughts, ideas, gossip, news, video and photos between groups of friends – and the ability to play and share games – in one central, always available website. But, hey, you already know that, right?

Yet so many senior media executives claim they intrinsically don't “get” Facebook, that it's a young person's tool, fairly pointless and that they don't have time to bother with it. Hey, we've got businesses with a fundamental monetization and structural issues to address. As they don't understand where the profit margin comes, why bother?

But wasn't that our initial reaction when the internet first came out – that we didn't need to worry too much because it would never replace print? Until we realised that “oh hell, this thing has legs and it's running” and suddenly we were in the race to stay relevant.

International social networking commentator Laurel Papworth says many older users and non-users are frightened of Facebook, thinking it will expose them to stranger danger and an online world of psychotic internet pederasts perving on the photos of their children.

Facebook, she explains, is fundamentally different to MySpace in that while MySpace is designed to broadcast and give everyone their 15 minutes of fame, Facebook is a gated community that only connects people who give each other permission to belong.

Being permission-based, Facebook can manage behaviour. If friends behave stupidly or negatively, they can be spoken to, or cut off. The past history of newcomers can be seen in a “paper trail” of comments. In this way, it is even easier to manage than blogs because everyone's engagement is visible to everyone involved.

Facebook is different to a newspaper site in that you go to a newspaper to read, but you go to Facebook for something to do “ and often in the doing, we find more news, more interest, and a greater appreciation of the humour and dry wit of friends that we have not physically had time to catch up with for years or due to distance.

I discovered that Michael Jackson was dead on Facebook. Several of my friends had posted that they couldn't believe it. Neither could I and went straight to my newspaper site, where sure enough, the reports were there. My next point of call was straight back to Facebook to engage with the debate. Within minutes, links to newssites were posted, as were YouTube clips of his songs, photos and lyrics. In newspaper terms, it was a Page 1 do-up in real time.

For the record, I don't think Facebook will replace print. Just as radio didn't kill us, nor TV. What it is doing, however, is changing what news consumers expect from media and how they behave which if we don't get our brains around, will.

Media is no longer just about reading or watching something important. It's about engaging, playing, having fun, connecting, sharing, teasing, catching up, listening and learning.

Newspapers should be doing more with Facebook and social networking than we currently are which in most instances is just about mining its photos for background information on the dead, the outrageous and the oppressed. Back in the day, newspapers used to reflect their communities back at themselves “ the true change can now be seen by the communities setting themselves up outside our influence. They dip into our field of vision only on occasion to link to an article and take it back to the group because in too many instances, that's all we're offer them.

The lesson of social networking to newspapers is that reading is not enough and that we need to engage accountably in real time.

So if you're a newspaper executive of a particular era looking for inspiration on what direction you should be moving the business, pull on your skinnies, fire up the laptop and friend-up. Who knows, you might find your oldies hanging out with your teenagers in cyberspace.

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