We’ve all read about how the news business is changing. About the death of newspapers. It’s pretty grim.
At least it’s grim for big metro dailies and national newspapers like the New York Times. I live in a small town in Vermont and here, our local (weekly) newspaper is thriving. And in the suburbs, the local newspaper is valued. People may have other sources for national and international news. But whether we read a newspaper every week, or use a local newspaper’s website, there is often no other way for people in small towns and suburbs to get local news.
And what are we looking for? In a community like mine, people want to know what their friends and neighbors are doing: we want to celebrate their accomplishments and join them in mourning their losses. And help them through the rough spots when we can. So news about local people is an extremely valuable commodity, one that people will read and share with their family and friends.
Don’t believe me? Consider these findings from research conducted for the Suburban Newspapers of America last year. They found that suburban newspapers, even free ones, were valued and trusted sources for local news:
This is one reason that I find readMEDIA’s Hometown Newsmaker so intriguing. This service distributes news that people care about-
information about the accomplishments of students, such as academic honors and athletic accomplishments-directly to newspapers, which can easily repurpose that news on their websites and in print newspapers. Turns out news that can be borrowed from authoritative sources can be a valuable commodity.
Listening to their clients
I asked Colin Mathews, president of readMEDIA, how his company dreamed up Newsmaker:
The idea came from the colleges themselves. We had launched Newsmaker (a product that is aimed at combining traditional “local” press release distribution with high-end web/social media posting in an easy package), and some schools started asking if we could handle hometown news. I had no idea what they were talking about, so I went on a road trip and interviewed almost three dozen college media relations departments to find out if hometowners were important (yes!), if they were easy to do (no way!), and what they would do if they could wave a wand and make it appear.
Then, all I did was sort and sift those interviews down into some product requirements and then our very smart team build a beta version to try out. The things that didn’t work in the beta were my ideas—where I had added to what I had heard in the interviews. So we took that stuff out for the launch version and focused on making everything as easy as possible. Since then, every new feature comes from customer feedback.
There are a number of elements of his comment that I find compelling. One is that readMEDIA responded to a real need. Indeed, hometown releases like these were the bread-and-butter of college news offices when I was a young professional—and always difficult to produce and mail in those pre-computer, pre-Internet days. Second, their customers are driving product development.
A typical client, the Albany TimesUnion, runs Newsmaker content on its local news pages [here’s one for Schenectady] next to local news and sports events.
Content that people value—and so do institutions
Let me reiterate, for our local paper-
and many others-this kind of borrowed content is extremely valuable. When it’s posted on a website, it offers possibilities that make it extremely valuable for students, parents, families and friends: the ability for it be shared on social networks.
It’s also valuable to colleges. St. Michael’s College in Burlington, VT, has used Hometown Newsmaker for about a year and a half. Buff Lindau, the long-time media relations person on campus and now its director of marketing and communications, emphasizes the value of these humble news stories to her college:
Although most small colleges claim it, Saint Michaels has surveys of students, parents and alumni that show this college to be a remarkable community wherein faculty help students in and out of the classroom and care about their futures. Students make lifelong friends, and the rest of us feel a part of that vibe as well. Because of the strong sense of community, we are keen on reinforcing parents good feelings by finding ways to showcase their students accomplishments. Getting students recognized in print on online in hometown media outlets is just another way of enhancing these connections with the college and making parents proud and happy.
SUNY Oswego is beginning its second year with Hometown Newsmaker. Tim Nekritz, associate director of public affairs at Oswego, agrees, saying,
The main value is twofold. Most obviously, it’s great for the students and their families to have their accomplishments recognized in the local media. I have students tell me how excited they were to see their name in the local paper, which is cool. But it’s also great to get the Oswego name and message out there. And who knows—maybe someone will see someone in their neighborhood is studying, say, software engineering, at SUNY Oswego, not realize we offered a major they’re looking at and start considering us.
Lindau doesn’t confine her use of Hometown Newsmaker to the obligatory stories about academic honors and graduation. “In addition to deans list and graduation hometowns, I do stories on students who appear in a play or serve as writing center tutors, or go on a chorale tour, or serve as RAs. Ive gotten adept enough at the process that I use it frequently without spending too much time with it.” she writes. She’s careful to limit the time she spends on this activitiy, but notes that “I still think the time investment, which I carefully limit, is worth it.”
Nekritz, himself a former reporter who is now active in social networking, noted, “The media landscape is increasingly fractured, but people will never tire of seeing themselves or people they know recognized. Just when you think no one reads papers any more, you run into a student excited because their parents emailed them an article about them being on the Deans’ List. Or they end up posted on a Facebook wall, or tweeted as a link. No matter the delivery method, good news will never go out of style.”
One of Hometown Newsmaker’s clients that is showing how powerful this is is the New York National Guard. Mathews said, “They use Hometown Newsmaker to announce deployments, promotions, training exercises and the like and their Facebook traffic is terrific: each hometowner is getting ~5 additional page views via Facebook when a solider (or family member) pushes the story into their news feed.” And he told me, “We now get more referral traffic to hometowners from Facebook and Twitter than from Google News, which tells me that people are actively incorporating school-sponsored news about their kids into their social graph.”
Newspapers also benefit from this kind of traffic. Mathews said that TimesUnion staff has told him that they’ve has seen their page views double since pulling in hometowners. readMEDIA sees clickthrough rates between 5 percent and 10 percent on these stories—huge engagement rates, at zero editorial time and cost.
Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?