I read a lot of small-town weekly newspapers on my beat covering rural Nebraska, and most of them could hardly be regarded as bastions of journalistic excellence. (There are exceptions
, of course.) For the most part, they contain the same untouched press releases, long-winded meeting stenography and "Boy grows unusual potato" feature photos that they've had for decades.
One of those mainstays is the social notes — short items each week with the news that Mrs. Richard Jensen hosted the United Methodist ladies' tea at her home on Tuesday, and Carl and Erma Miller traveled to Denver last weekend to see their grandchildren. I've usually regarded those items as useless at best and laughable at worst, an almost absurdly old-fashioned tradition that survives more because publishers are afraid to cut it than because it provides any sort of real value.
But it was those socials that Steve Buttry pointed to
last week as an inspiration for his ambitious Complete Community Connection plan at the Cedar Rapids Gazette. And Steve is onto something: For decades, those notes functioned as the local newspaper's primary means of linking its community socially. (In the rural small towns I cover, they still do that for their communities' elderly population.)
But the practice of giving others a public glimpse of what's going on in our social lives hasn't gone away over the years, and neither has the demand to find that information out. On the contrary, feeding those two habits are, of course, the essential function of Facebook. As Jason Fry put it
, "The locals were Facebook with faces. They were user-generated content when it wasn’t a buzzword."
The connection between the two goes much deeper, though. In both contexts, this public sharing of trivial social events is not just a community connector; it has value as news
. Small-town newspapers recognized this, as they paid for the ink and space to put these notes in their news sections, rather than charging for it as a paid announcement. And Facebook obviously recognizes this, too: What else is its revamped homepage if not an acknowledgement that the main reason people come on the site is to find out what's new with their friends? (OK, besides an attempt to co-opt Twitter.)
My point is that Facebook is much more than a social networking site on which news sites' content can be shared. Facebook is a news site.
It's a different type of news than traditional news sites offer, but the fundamental effect of its redesign
earlier this year — with the news feed at the center of the site's experience — was to make finding out the latest news about your friends and family its killer app. And let's be honest: For all our hand-wringing about the importance of hard news, we know that this social news is the kind we seek out most often and find most valuable.
So where do traditional news organizations fit in? As Fry noted
, Facebook's extensive reach into virtually every demographic and its "what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook" philosophy leaves news orgs in a quandary. A discussion on Facebook, even if it involves a newspaper, doesn't do the newspaper much good in brand loyalty or revenue if it stays on Facebook. But any attempt to accumulate a critical mass of people to recreate Facebook on a news org's website is a non-starter.
Fry suggests using Facebook Connect to create a "social media island" on a news org's website, similar to HuffPost Social News
, to create a 21st-century version of the local social items, with a local news org's content at the center. I think that's an excellent idea, and I'm curious to know if any local news orgs have tried that approach. I think news orgs can create value for themselves entirely within Facebook, too, by developing an authoritative yet personal voice that can embody the ethos of a city or neighborhood, along the lines of what Colonel Tribune
and my paper
have tried to do on Twitter.
Buttry's own Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection provides the best guide I've seen to this, particularly in its section on personal content and connection
. Buttry's plans are filled with a treasure trove of details, but perhaps their greatest value lies in the fact that they reflect a realization that a news organization's role is not just to inject "the news" into the social ebb and flow that makes up people's everyday lives, but also to be a part
of those social happenings that are already biggest news events of people's lives.