Monday, March 23, 2009

How newspapers can learn from Obama 2008

In considering how newspapers are to regain relevance through online channels, recent efforts to mobilize local communities for political campaigns provide an interesting case study.

Ranjit Mathoda, quoted in the NYT, describes a timeline of presidential proficiency in media,

Thomas Jefferson used newspapers to win the presidency, F.D.R. used radio to change the way he governed, J.F.K. was the first president to understand television, and Howard Dean saw the value of the Web for raising money, but Senator Barack Obama understood that you could use the Web to lower the cost of building a political brand, create a sense of connection and engagement, and dispense with the command and control method of governing to allow people to self-organize to do the work.

The changes the the Obama campaign ushered in for politics mirrors changes newspapers are facing with the Web.

  1. Having to shift from a top down approach of disseminating information and opinions to dealing with an audience that expects a conversation.
  2. Enabling people to self-organize under your banner.
  3. Trying to get people to care enough about what you are telling them to get them to open their wallets.

There are several resources on the Web explaining how to apply these techniques to enterprises. However, newspapers have a greater stake in this social media strategy, as community mobilization and generating conversation about social and political issues is more within the domain of the newspaper than that of commercial enterprises. The following includes lessons for applying these techniques to the newspaper's social media strategy.

  1. Enable involvement of friends. The “email this” function is common place, however this barely scratches the surface. Available information about people's extended networks and shared interests, political affiliations, business connections, supported groups or causes, allow newspapers to initiate deeper levels of peer involvement into stories. For example, Obama's campaign used social networking and contact lists in mobile phones to enable people to find friends in key states and contact them on independently.
  2. Be a platform for organization. This goes beyond event announcements. If a mother wants to mobilize other moms to petition a school to change it’s lunch program, why shouldn’t the local newspaper provide the digital platform of such a mobilization?
  3. Crowd-sourced news categories. Work with your audience to divide news into categories locals care about and let those categories lead coverage. Have your own journalists dig deep into those topics, host user generated content under those topics, and allow audiences to filter news streams by the issues they care about.
  4. Have a participatory agenda. Newspapers often have agendas that fall along party lines. The purpose of a political party is to allow various interests to pool resources to win elections. However, Obama's use of social media to connect with people directly rendered many of those resources obsolete. Rather than become an obselete extension of partisan agendas, newspapers need to have participatory agenda--an agenda where the newspaper works to enlist citizens to use its platform to further their own agendas, the end goal being a plurality of participation that is representative of the whole community. It is remarkable how much bipartisanship disappears when national coverage is traded for coverage of local community issues.
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