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Can Chat Apps Help Local Papers ‘Talk’ Their Way Out of Distress?

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Local newspapers keep grasping for the giant numbers that Facebook dangles in front of them: millions upon millions of unique visitors, and billions of pageviews.

With such numbers, the partnerships between the newspapers and Facebook are supposed to be a “win-win.” But the results are proving to be quite different. The chart below shows who has been the consistent winner through these experiments over the past couple of years.


Over the past two years, Facebook’s stock price has risen more than 38%, while the prices of three major chains of local papers have fallen from 17% to 68%. (Gannett is not included in the chart because its newspaper group wasn’t spun off from other media properties until June 2015. But the new all-newspaper Gannett company’s stock is down 21% since the spinoff one and a half years ago.)

This poor stock performance alone doesn’t mean that newspapers should quit working with Facebook or other distribution platforms. Without them, the papers would lose access to most of their potential audience. What they have to do is turn just a fraction of those millions of Internet users into readers on their own digital real estate.

Esfand Pourmand, SVP of Hearst Newspapers Digital, defined the challenge and opportunity in a recent Q & A with  “The New News”: “There is definitely value in the scale of the audience,” he said. “We know Facebook, Google and Apple will be critical for us in driving reach and engagement. Monetization of this audience is trickier. We know if we can convert a small percentage of the traffic back to our premium sites there is potential for revenue growth.”

But do local dailies, overall, have a strategy to turn that “small percentage” of in-bound traffic into engaged readers – the kind who will attract advertisers and sponsors and who may opt to become digital subscribers? The stock-price chart suggests that the answer is, at best, “not yet.”

What’s missing? For me, it’s the failure of most local newspapers to make fast enough progress in marrying their editorial content to technology. If papers did that better, they’d have a good shot at capturing and converting what Pourmand calls the “small percentage” of those millions of users that originate on Facebook and the other distribution platforms.

The marriage of editorial and technology is called, in Silicon Valley lingo, “product.” We’re not talking about Twinkies here. Shailesh Prakash, the Chief Information Officer of the Jeff Bezos-energized Washington Post, defined product in a recent Q & A in the Columbia Journalism Review: “[Journalism] is part of it….But everything else is as important: the features on the product, can you save a story for later, is it on the platforms, the speed, the crash rate.” In short, product is editorial content that is optimized for users. Product’s goal is to create positive “experiences” that convert users into connected readers.

A product-focused strategy is paying off for the Post as it continues to pivot 180 degrees from being a local publication to a national one. It’s now profitable enough to hire  “more than five dozen journalists.” Before Amazon founder Bezos, a product apostle, bought the Post three years ago, the paper, for all its Watergate-crowned aura, was limping its way into the new digital era as forlornly as scores of other big-city dailies that had lost their print Edens.

Local newspapers do have a bigger challenge than a national paper like the Post. Their primary audiences are confined to their regional markets; they can’t roam the entire globe. Unlike the Post, local dailies have to focus on news close to home.

But that shouldn’t be a disadvantage. While most local dailies compete with “pure-plays” and the digital sites of broadcasters, they generally have resources which – if properly used – could create products that have a good chance of turning users into connected readers.

But they have to exploit their resources not only more creatively but also more daringly. One way they could do this, I think, is by using messaging apps to build more connected audiences.

Messaging, or chat, apps have surpassed social platforms in numbers of users globally, as documented in the recent report by Empirical Media, “Why Chat Matters as a News Medium?” But as big as chat apps have become, local newspapers in the U.S. haven’t yet embraced them – not anywhere close to what the BBC has done with some of its local Web programming in countries like India. Messaging apps are also widely used in Africa, East Asia and Latin America.

Messaging apps would be the ideal medium for U.S. dailies to capture committed readers in the emerging era of the “New Localism.” Behind this trend, as the Brookings Institution noted, are “new bottom-up, city-led approaches to the training of workers, the education of children, the mitigation of climate change, the financing of infrastructure, and the development of affordable housing for our workers and quality places for our young and elderly populations.”

With the Trump administration in Washington taking over on Jan. 20, you can add to New Localism the local impact of the potential arrest and jailing or deportation of up to 3 million undocumented immigrants, how hospitals and other health-care providers and millions of patients will cope with the end or at least significant cutbacks to Obamacare and how low-income, inner-city blacks will fare when the new President Trump unveils the particulars of his “new deal” for them.

The big advantage of chat apps is that publishers can send questions and other “push” notifications to subscribers that promote high levels of engagement. If and when President Trump carries out his pledge of mass arrests of undocumented immigrants for alleged crimes, a publisher whose community has many Hispanic immigrants could ask app users questions like, “Has anyone in your family been arrested? “Where are they now?”, “Do you have a lawyer?”

Push notifications could also be aimed at the millions of families and individuals who could find their health care threatened by the repeal of Obamacare, which both Trump and Republican-controlled Congress have pledged to do.

Messaging apps won’t magically lift the stock prices of local newspapers. Dailies will have to experiment with the variety of available apps. For example, the Hispanic immigrant community might be best reached with WhatsApp, which is widely used in Latin America.

I went to the digital strategist who is, arguably, the top expert on messaging apps, the BBC’s Trushar Barot, co-author of “The Guide to Chat Apps,” and asked him if local dailies should get moving on the apps in 2017.

“Absolutely,” Barot told me. He said papers don’t have to wait for local impacts to what the Trump administration does about immigration, Obamacare and other hot issues. “Messaging apps become particularly valuable when you want people to contribute content directly to you  — for example, a demonstration or town-hall meeting.”

This would be crowdsourcing writ large, giving local newspapers a powerful and pervasive new source of content coming directly from their communities – content that could help dailies create exciting, compelling “product” that would enliven their digital real estate — and make it more attractive to advertisers.

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.