Maybe I shouldn’t even write this column. Maybe I should just crush the basic premise of the column into 140 characters or fewer, tweet it to the 300-plus followers of U.S. 1’s Twitter page — princetoninfo — and let them retweet it to their followers. Along the way someone might throw some hash tags — # # — around some keyword or another and put it into the Twitter swirl that is part of the new social media.
This Internet-enabled, viral crowd sourcing might then come up with an answer to my simple question: Why, after several months of slavishly following a score of Tweeters (Twitterers?) and Facebook posters, have I not been infected with the same enthusiasm that all of the people I follow seem to have?
And if I could encapsulate that question in 140 characters — the space limit for posts on Twitter — then the social media crowd would certainly be able to encapsulate a response. I can imagine the following Tweet: “Publisher, with lots to lose, takes on Twitter. Must B afraid of online challenge.”
Maybe a quick response could be had in those 140 characters. But the bigger picture is going to take more than that. So I am going to forgo the Tweet, and knock out a mini-series of old-fashioned columns dealing with social media, and its impact on the Princeton media scene.
For the past four or five months I have been following the tweets and RSS feeds of about a dozen of my friends and competitors. The friends might dismiss my lack of enthusiasm as just, well, a lack of enthusiasm. My competitors might say that, of course, an old-fashioned newspaper columnist will take a dim view of the new social media — they are going to put the “journo” out of business.
Not so quick. For now let’s forget the evidence that suggests that social media will not eliminate old media, just as movies didn’t kill theater, as television didn’t kill movies, as touch-screen keypads haven’t put keyboards out of business.
For argument’s sake let’s pretend that the social media — in our case a potpourri of bloggers and tweeters across the Princeton landscape, a “mass of niches” as Jeff Jarvis envisioned in his influential book, “What Would Google Do?” — puts us and other print publications into oblivion. At that point we would become one of the new niches, and we would thrive.
It’s easy to fall in love with the concept. An online presence means no printer, and no rigid deadlines tied to the rolling of a massive press in Philadelphia. No printer means no delivery, and no 5 a.m. phone calls from the deliverer whose car has just broken down on the side of the road.
It gets even better. The online publication won’t require an office. No commuting. In fact it won’t require a staff, just freelancers weighing in from home. Ad sales are handled by Google, which cuts you a monthly check based on how many clicks are registered by your online viewers. And here’s the icing on the cake: It will be an interactive world, and your readers will provide much, if not most, of the content. And who says it has to be a small niche? In the back of every blogger’s mind there is the story of Arianna Huffington and her Huffington Post, with more than 13 million online visitors, all engrossed in commentary provided by 3,000 (presumably unpaid!) bloggers.
Eventually, of course, you realize that this is one of those too-good-to-be-true moments. Then the realities set in. Based on what I have seen over the past four or five months, I would argue that, in terms of building and retaining an audience, the social media face all the same challenges that the traditional media face.
Audiences build far more slowly than you think. U.S. 1 started out with 3,000 copies of its first issue. and then grew over a period of seven or eight years to its present circulation of 19,000. When our deliverers first introduce themselves to a new company, the person at the front desk often says “no, we don’t want to subscribe to any newspaper.” It can take years before they view the paper as their paper, not ours.
The online enthusiasts will argue that online is different — everything happens faster. Take the Huffington Post, for example. But that helps prove my point. Huffington started the Post having already established a huge Internet following, thanks to an Impeach Bill Clinton website, and then a more liberal website to support her run for California governor. She had both sides of the political spectrum covered.
Habits form an audience as much as flashes of editorial brilliance do. At the paper we are continually praised for our comprehensive event listings and only occasionally cited for our compelling articles (as we like to think about them). The frequency of publication is also important — people who love U.S. 1’s weekly visit to their office might take a different view if it came twice a week.
The social media elite will argue it doesn’t matter. People will follow their favorites at whatever time and whenever they please. Really? Why then, in the age of TiVo and DVRs, did it matter whether Jay Leno broadcast at 11:30 or 10 p.m.?
Finally people’s eyes glaze over when they see codes. Here’s a Tweet sent out recently by social media guru Jeff Jarvis:
jeffjarvis: RT @nicknotned: IPHONE WRAPUP Gawker lawyer: http://bit.ly/aybK3E DoJ veteran: http://nyti.ms/bNM9fL Guild: http://bit.ly/aDXxK5
A good portion of that Tweet consists of three URLs that are linkable when you view the Tweet on your computer. But link to what, where? If you are in love with the online media, you will cheerfully click away down any virtual alley.
But, while it I find it useful and see value to the social media, I am not in love with it. After these busy months of Twittering (and frittering) away, I review my notes and find myself in possession of very few nuggets of knowledge. Mostly I am exhausted. And that’s the exact moment I discover that Jeff Jarvis himself, one of the seminal thinkers in the social media movement, will appear at an informal dinner and discussion at a Princeton University dining hall. The local media, including us old-fashioned columnists, are invited.
Next week: What will Google do to us?