But as local news organizations like the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press and MPR push their staffs to spend more time tweeting, updating and Pinteresting, just how much do readers actually click through to the underlying journalism?
Last week, the Pew Research Center ‘s 2012 “State of the Media” report calculated the number of news site visits from social media links. The resulting figure – 8.6 percent, was nearly matched by the 9 percent who say they get news “very often” from Twitter and Facebook. Media-watching site Paid Content pronounced the figure underwhelming, headlining its item “Twitter, Facebook Aren’t Moving As Much News As You Think.”
As it turns out, major local sites are doing worse than that. Social media referrals account for 3 percent of Startribune.com visits, 4 percent of the PiPress’s twincities.com and 7 percent of mprnews.org’s. (The PiPress and MPR did not include Pinterest or Google+, and MPR added YouTube.)
So is social networking a giant time-suck with very little journalistic payoff, an elitist conversation among the digerati taking reporters even further from the average person? Unsurprisingly, local news execs don’t think so.
First, there’s growth: The Pioneer Press’s Twitter/Facebook “share” has doubled in a year, from 2 percent of web referrals in 2011. That’s especially noteworthy since the PiPress’s overall web traffic has grown in the year since the Strib debuted its metered pay wall and new “Digital First” management took over.
PiPress Managing editor Chris Clonts says twincities.com’s Google referrals (not considered social networking) are up 200 percent from February 2011 from 2012 — as Facebook traffic grew 391 percent and Twitter traffic 1100 percent. (Part of the latter “is due to Twitter’s [new] URL shortener that makes it easier for people to share links from within” Twitter feeds, Clonts notes.)
At MPR, spokeswoman Christina Schmitt says Facebook, Twitter and YouTube referrals were 3 percent of site traffic in February 2011 – so the current 7 percent represents 133 percent growth.
Strib spokesman Steve Yaeger says sheer size is one thing keeping his operation’s share low – startribune.com gobbled up around 40 percent of local news-site traffic when I checked in late 2010. Still, the Strib earned 500,000 visits from mid-February to mid-March and claims 200,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest. The “paper” also just added social network sharing to its iPad app.
MinnPost exceeds Pew’s average; 12.4 percent of visits between Feb. 25 and March 26. Smaller scale, our online-only nature and some especially adept staff work at MinnPost World Headquarters may explain the high percentage.
Obviously, social networking traffic is not the full measure of journalism or even a digital strategy. As a tweeter since March 2008, I can attest that its promotional aspects are tertiary to newsgathering (talking to and finding new sources) and analysis (honing – and sometimes discarding — ideas in conversation with smart people). Hopefully, reporters are making better stories for all readers, not just web-focused or socially networked ones.
One reason I think most TV people rack up relatively low Twitter follower counts is they are over-the-top promotional. (“Why is this man aflame? Tune in at 10 and I’ll tell you.”) They treat a new platform like an old non-conversation.
On the business side, website referral may matter less as news sites create mobile apps designed to draw “engaged” readers as a matter of habit. (Social networking often doesn’t link to these apps, instead still going to a website.)
Also, the Strib’s Yaeger notes that large social-network numbers (like large page view numbers) don’t necessarily mean more bucks in the till.
“It is possible to overplay the social card and get lots of visits but not very good engagement,” he states. “A high percentage of visits from social channels does not necessarily indicate a strong business. The most desirable visitors are those who come frequently and stay for long sessions. This ‘core’ audience is more engaged with our content and advertising, and is more likely to subscribe. As [Strib digital vice president] Jim Bernard says, ‘We will take a visit from a core reader over a non-core reader every day.’”
I’m still of the mind that social media offers journalists a chance to demonstrate the ongoing engagement their employers want from readers; thus, it’s a pretty good (though not perfect) path forward to better information, and journalism.
Of course, it’s important not to buy into the hype – to acknowledge social networking can also distract, and not every job description benefits enough to make the digital yammering a top priority.