Local News Gets New Resource Center With Special Focus on Social Media

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A Local News Resource Center to give publishers direct expertise on the “challenges and opportunities” of social media and other issues that confront the embattled industry has been set up at the Local Media Association. Funding is coming from the Facebook Journalism Project, which is financing several other initiatives to aid local news.

The first director of the center is Emilie Lutostanski, who held top product and editorial positions in her six-year career at Community Impact Newspaper, whose websites and free print monthly editions cover more than 40 communities and neighborhoods in the metro regions of Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, and Phoenix.

The center’s resources will include regularly updated product information and test results from Facebook, Instagram, and CrowdTangle, a platform that “helps publishers identify great stories, measure social performance, and identify influencers.” Members of the LMA, serving 3,000 newspapers and other local media properties, and the Local Media Consortium (75 publishers of 1,700 digital properties) will be able to tap into those resources on a “one-on-one” basis.

In this Q&A, Lutostanski details what she and the Local News Resource Center are doing since they went into business yesterday.

What does the new Local News Resource Center and your new position as director mean to you, and what do you see as the benefits to local news providers and the communities they serve?

For me personally, this is a thrilling opportunity because I am very passionate about helping local media thrive. I hope what we build the Local Media Resource Center into will become a vital resource to social media managers and people in similar roles. They’ll have a place to ask questions, collaborate with peers, and discover new tools and ways to tell stories that resonate with their audience.

The Local Media Resource Center will be an industry commonplace for ongoing conversations about social media-related challenges and opportunities.

There is a lot of ongoing discussion and debate about the future of local news, even if it will be around, as we understand it today, in another decade. What are your thoughts?

I’m optimistic about the future of local news. When I was in journalism school, hard hits to the newspaper business were happening regularly. I knew I was getting into an industry that was at a critical point, and it would be facing many more challenges in the near future. But I’m hopeful for a lot of reasons, including investments from the private sector and nonprofits.

Through this kind of strategic support and funding, like Facebook’s local news subscriptions accelerator, we are experimenting, learning from, and adopting new business models that are sustainable.

Local media is innovating and producing more creative and impactful content for readers as they get to know them better than ever before. I think a big key as local media organizations continue to forge ahead will be to learn as much as possible from other industries, how they reach their audiences, how they use technology and data, and how they build a strong brand loyalty.

What, exactly, do you see the resource center and you as director doing?

Specifically, the purpose of the Local Media Resource Center will be to connect local news organizations with the resources and education they need to be successful with social media. I’ll be working one on one with social media managers to answer questions, brainstorm creative solutions to big challenges, and connect them to existing resources, including their peers.

I’ll facilitate general discussion about social media trends and news and keep everyone updated on the latest product announcements from Facebook, Instagram, and CrowdTangle. I’ll work with local media to experiment and find ways to use these platforms to tell great stories and accomplish their goals.

Some of this will be done by hosting monthly webinars and publishing reports on successful and interesting social media projects I discover along the way.

Could you give an example, from your own journalistic experience, where a local news room has worked productively with social media that is an example of what you and the resource center will be doing?

At Community Impact Newspaper, at the time there were nine local publications in the Houston area when Hurricane Harvey hit last fall. The reporters and editors really did amazing work covering news of flooding, road closures, evacuations, school closings, in some instances providing life-saving information to residents who were by-and-large completely overlooked by the big metro TV stations and websites.

Some papers were using Facebook Live during press conferences from emergency management officials. Updates were pushed out to Facebook continuously, which led to not only record-breaking social referrals to the site but exponentially higher traffic overall. The social sharing also reached a huge audience on social media that we might have never reached otherwise, leading a lot of people to discover the paper’s digital presence for the first time. We had previously done a lot of work to improve the content to make it more shareable, like ensuring images are used, tweaking headlines and story formats, and optimization on the backend, and I had led trainings on social media messaging, scheduling, how to handle updates to stories, things like that.

So, the combination of quality, optimized content plus harnessing the power of social media made a really big difference during the Hurricane Harvey news crisis. I imagine, with smaller local newsrooms especially, I’ll be able to similarly train on breaking news best practices as it pertains to social media and help identify ways to amplify reach with strong social messaging.

Can social media be used to help local news providers make connections with underserved parts of the community, especially minorities?

Absolutely, and this is one of the biggest opportunities I see to reach untapped audience. That’s the benefit of a platform with millions of users. It’s a prime channel to reach new people.

Is there room for local providers to make more connections with audiences, actual and potential, through SMS texting, notifications, messaging apps, and other communication tools?

One big trend for local news publishers right now is Facebook groups, and that along with all one-to-one connections like messaging apps can be really useful at connecting with the audience. Groups build affinity for the news brand without it being a blatant solicitation, as long as the publisher isn’t really asking for anything. But I think equally or more important is the chance for readers to connect with one another, especially over news content or just local current events and interests.

Local media organizations that can provide a venue for discourse—hopefully informed discourse—through groups and focusing on smaller niches have seen meaningful interactions and general support for their efforts.

If providers help to build connections among readers, won’t this build more trust that’s missing between the users and the providers?

Yes, I think that’s part of the benefit of helping connect readers to one another. Local media especially has an advantage in building trust with users. Cohorts of people organize around their shared ideas, so when news can be used as a part of those conversations and actions, it benefits publisher and society as a whole.

Facebook is creating more opportunities for its Groups to share information with local news providers. Do you see this as being mutually beneficial?

Of course, any time there is a two-way communication channel opened, both sides stand to benefit. Some of the best story ideas I’ve seen come from journalists comfortable being among the audience, not just reporting about them or asking something of them. They get to know the people who follow their stories and in turn, the journalism and often the town are better for it.

For readers or viewers, getting, and in a lot of cases providing, news is empowering and can build a sense of community. With Facebook creating more chances for meaningful interactions between local media and the local people they serve, I think more interesting stories and stronger connections will be able to surface.

If the Local News Resource Center fulfills its mission, what impact do you see this having on the local news industry making a successful transition to consumer revenue, especially digital subscriptions?

I am hopeful the resource center will give local news publishers more insight that they need to make the best decisions for their newsrooms and companies. Social media is only one tool but serves many purposes for local media.

So, as far as digital subscriptions, it’s promising that Facebook recognizes how vital consumer revenue is to publishers and is actively working to find ways to make the subscription process easy for the user. As director, I’ll be following the participants of Facebook’s Subscription Accelerator to help publicize what’s working for them.

It’s particularly interesting for me to see how many different ways data is being used to target potential subscribers and identify the ideal content to show. I think the sharing of information and insight will be incredibly valuable to the local news industry.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.