Local Papers’ Love-Hate Relationship With Facebook Is Proving a Heartbreaker

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Local newspapers have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. They of course love all the pageviews and distribution this Godzilla of platforms can send them with just a twitch from its servers. But they hate the advertising revenue that Facebook generates — and keeps — from all the content it hosts. Unfortunately the love part of the relationship is not proving very fulfilling. Local papers are not replacing their lost print ad revenue with digital dollars.

National brand campaigns, especially on video, can be hugely effective advertising, but local papers just don’t have the numbers to give businesses the return on investment they get from other sites which can offer many more millions of PVs. The papers have their scale-focused partnerships like the nearly three-year-old Local Media Consortium and the recently founded Nucleus Marketing Solutions, but the chains that are members of LMC are not yet close to closing their print-to-digital revenue gaps. (NMS is too new to measure its effectiveness.)

What if these newspapers, instead of chasing after ever-bigger numbers, cultivated fewer but more receptive users – the kind that would be more attentive to advertising messages, especially if the messages had less blare and more flair. These publications already have a lot of users who fit that description. They are users who go to the papers’ sites directly, not on the fly from a link on Facebook or other social media. They would yield higher ad CPMS, and be better candidates for digital subs than on-the-fly users sent by Facebook.

This Pew table shows the contrast between direct users and those from Facebook and the other platforms. Direct users stay longer, go to more pages per visit and make more visits – by wide margins. They do this even though the papers don’t necessarily make them that welcome.

Here’s the homepage of Gannett’s The Tennessean in Nashville. I counted at least 150 entry points. Yet I don’t see one that tells residents of metro Nashville (as well as former residents and other who have an abiding connection to the area) something especially revealing about the city, region or a neighborhood, especially their people. This is what I’m talking about. This “social” map Baltimore shows how deeply white and minority people are divided even when it comes to how they use Twitter. Dave Troy, a Baltimore-based digital entrepreneur, talks about what’s behind Baltimore’s racial and ethnic differences – and much fewer affinities – in this TED lecture. But it would be as fascinating, and prompt many conversations, on and offline, if it were done for Nashville, which is also a diverse region.

Newspapers are supposed to be close to their communities. In previous eras, they incontestably were. But in the digital era, they’ve lost their way. The most ambitious new feature in The Tennessean is Nation Now, courtesy of Gannett’s national paper, USA Today. But this mosaic of hard and soft news contains nothing about the City of Nashville or suburban Williamson or Franklin Counties.

Across the country, the Sacramento Bee assembled a homepage yesterday featuring  a story, with a video, about the “youngest water skier in the world.” But the six-month-old girl who holds this honorific title lives nowhere near Sacramento – but in Florida.

The SacBee’s monthly unique visitors are up to  3.4 million monthly compared to 2.2 million a year ago. But the 2016 first-quarter financial report from McClatchy – which owns The Bee – shows that digital ad revenue is not about to offset, much less surpass, continuing major declines in print advertising.

What if papers changed their strategy to featuring homepages that told more about their communities – how they were really changing and why, and whether they were becoming more divided or connected – instead of featuring gee-whiz stories and videos from other parts of the U.S. or around the world?

I put the question to Ron Blevins, VP/Digital Strategy at Novus Media Inc., a division of the Omnicom Media Group:

“This is certainly feasible and would be a novel way to introduce local content to a new/younger audience. The largest hurdle would be creating content that’s valuable enough to attract and retain users when the web is littered with great ad-supported content. I think your instincts are right with the local angle being the differentiator, as few can claim to deliver authoritative local content. Ironically, the publishers would need to leverage “The Platforms” to drive traffic to such an experience.

“Regardless of how it’s executed, local publishers need to be trying everything possible to get their quality content in front of users. However, the question still lingers – can they monetize it?”

So, granted, it wouldn’t be a slam-dunk. But with their current strategy daily papers aren’t even getting close into the key. They need to pivot if they want to score digitally.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.