Thursday, June 18, 2009

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind

I come from a simpler time, a time when wicked meant, well, wicked. It meant the opposite of good. Then my children started to use it to mean the opposite of wicked. Suddenly it meant good. And then today I heard it used in a completely different way on the radio when someone referred to a wicked problem ... which I find defined on Wikipedia as a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise.

This definition appears to have been around since the 1960s and is usually reserved, apparently, for discussions on social planning but I intend to borrow it to describe the way I feel about the challenges facing newspapers as they consider the digital future. In contrast to the web itself, which changes at an incredible speed, we take time to consider where we should be going and even more time to implement any decisions we take. It's easy to be sucked into a feeling that we should be constantly trying new things, that the creators of great services on the web know exactly what they are doing, but for every Google, or Amazon, or Facebook or Twitter, there are a thousand, no, probably hundred of thousands, of ideas that fell flat on their face with barely more than a handful of people hearing about them.

We don't have the resource - or may be it is luck - to take that many risks.

One issue that I worry about is our place in the conversations that go on in a community. Traditionally, we have played a key role in local conversation. The Leicester Mercury has been the main source for local news for the best part of a century and a massive amount of conversation is based around news. Don't get me wrong - the Mercury still has more than 150,000 readers every day and probably well over 200,000 every week and we can - and do - still put ourselves at the centre of many conversations.

But there is no doubt that social media has enabled a whole new set of conversations and, at the moment, most newspapers are not part of those discussions, or, if they are, it is at the edges. We have a limited amount of social interaction on our sites, usually in the form of comments on news articles, but we are constantly looking for ways to be more involved and you can find examples of newspapers setting up sites which are largely fed by user-generated content and the interaction of users with that content and each other. Perhaps the best example that I have been involved in is Lasting Tribute - a site based around the death announcements from our newspapers, but which relies almost entirely for its success on the content of its users.

However, the more I look at this issue, the more convinced I become that the mistake that we often make is that we attempt to bring our readers to our sites to create this content when we should probably be going to the places where they are already having these conversations, eg Twitter and on blogs. Why would somebody who habitually uses Twitter come to our site to say something that they have already told all their friends elsewhere?

Which is how I came to be sitting in a room in the Institute of Creative Technologies at Leicester's De Montfort University this afternoon surrounded by people who go online under names such as CaffeineBomb, Sleepydog and Solobasssteve. There were about 40 people in the room, gathered for an event run under the NLab badge which was ostensibly looking at how social media could be used to build resilience in small businesses.

In fact, the conversation was much wider and was looking at how social media could be used, for example, to empower individuals to have a better say in government, both locally and nationally.

I am sure that newspapers like the Mercury have a large part to play in these discussions because:
  • Social media is not universal and we are already looking at a digital divide between the haves and have nots
  • Information overload is already an issue - it is easy to be swamped and there is something to be said for somebody helping to filter data and conversation
  • Social media is by its nature fragmented - it is not easy to follow dozens of conversations going on in dozens of different places. Simply because you write online doesn't mean you will be read - there may well be a role for an organisation that can help give visibility
  • There is clearly still a very large number of people who want to read a newspaper
  • We are skilled in activities which are vital whatever the distribution platform, not least of which are journalism and sales.
I've already mentioned that we have 200,000+ newspaper readers every week, but we also have more than 20,000 unique visitors to our news websites every day and many times more than that to our various other sites, such as Jobsite, Findapropery and PrimeLocation.

I don't know where we fit in the equation online, but I am sure we have a role to play.

What do you think?