Facebook: A newspaper's best and worst friend

Guest blog by Ryan Chartrand The problem

Newspapers have made some pretty desperate moves in the last few years. They've cut pages, cut staff, cut paychecks, but then decided to try to add social networking to their Web sites.

Sure, it was a great idea; the problem was they were too busy cutting and scrambling to notice that it was just another desperate attempt at "innovation."

The turning point

And as much as I didn't want to believe it, the turning point came in May 2008. When the once-messiah of digital journalism Rob Curley jumped ship from Loudon Extra, the forerunner in innovative community sites attached to a newspaper Web site, newspapers started to rethink the idea of community sites.

I work at a major newspaper in a major California city that felt the effects only a month later. Our community site hadn't even left its "beta" stage before the paper abandoned it...partially (there are still some advocates left in the building, likely to be laid off soon anyway).

The saddest part of this little memory in digital journalism history is that a lot of people thought community sites would be what saved newspapers.

Bringing the community together in a fully-interactive space where they could have profiles, post pictures/video, talk to people with similar interests, become more politically active, etc. were all possible through these community sites once they got off the ground.

Sadly, "off the ground" was a marketing dream that eventually turned into "buried in the ground."

The blame

So who's to blame for newspapers' last hope? The site that already offered all of this, of course: Facebook.

Newspapers rarely hire the right people for the Web, and they suffer because of it. At my paper, the technology used to develop the community site was clunky, bland, and not nearly as robust as Facebook.

Facebook has always been and always will be clean, easy to use, consistent, and very robust in its capabilities.

With that in mind, here's what people wanting to get involved with social networking were faced with:

While newspapers had a lot of features to offer similar to Facebook (not nearly as many, of course), it seemed silly to join a social network that had 10 people while all of your friends partied in the Facebook castle next door. There's simply no way to compete with these massive networks that have already claimed the territory.

Some newspapers were semi-successful in their attempts at generating communities, but the costs of maintaining these sites rarely exceeded the gain.Should newspapers completely abandon this innovative idea then? Is it truly hopeless? Once again, the answer lies in the beast that is Facebook.

Giving in

If you can't beat 'em, you might as well join 'em. I really think newspapers are focusing their efforts in the wrong part of town, and if they actually went to where the people are, they'd have the potential to bring in the community they desire.

Should newspapers actually make the switch to Facebook, they're going to need developers to build them applications. CNN and New York Times have a few cute applications, but nothing that really helps engage people, as they're mostly RSS-generated info. (Although I must say, CNN's public forum connection to Facebook is quite brilliant).

Considering the amount of information a newspaper receives daily, coming up with innovative ideas for applications should be simple; finding people to develop them, however, won't come easy.

The future

But just imagine applications like the Washington Post's blog Buzz Map (a map that geocodes keywords from blogs and news stories and places them on a map according to the keywords) that would also pull data from what its "fans" are saying on walls and notes. If a newspaper offered a dozen of applications like this on its profile and distributed them to fans' profiles, people would actually be interested in connecting and "friending" a newspaper (which seems impossible, I know).

Or an application that shows breaking news or live blogs on your profile. People want ways to make their own profiles come alive, let alone the newspaper's profile. And just to make advertising happy, how about an application that feeds off of the paper's classifieds, showing the latest jobs or private party cars posted?

These are just a few random ideas, the point is that there is plenty of room for creativity and rethinking the newspaper and how it can be applied into a social network.

Online journalists think that because they've made poor replicas of Facebook that they're being innovative and saving newspapers. What we need to do is put newspapers into an actual social network with actual people and see where truly innovative ideas can take the industry.

The idea of online communities merging with newspapers shouldn't be abandoned quite yet; at least not until it's tested in a real, populated social networking environment.

I think we could see a much stronger connection develop between newspapers and their communities through this relationship with Facebook. If we could just leave the tent outside and go where the communities really are, if we could just serve people the way they want to be served and where they want to be served, rather than trying to take them away from their networks, newspapers really could still have hope online.