By: Alan D. Mutter
In launching a mobile app that enables users to graphically view the latest news of their friends, their puppies and the world, Facebook has emerged as one of the most powerful contenders yet in the rapidly expanding cadre of digital news purveyors.
Newspapers and other traditional media companies need to pay attention to this revolutionary platform because it represents the sort of compelling and personalized digital experience that modern consumers crave. We’ll discuss the urgency of updating the traditional publishing paradigm in a moment. First, here’s a look at what what Facebook has been up to.
Introduced on the 10th birthday of the reigning champion of social networks, the cunningly named “Paper” app elegantly combines content from a user’s Facebook community with dozens of other sources of news and entertainment ranging from photography and sports to food and TED lectures. With the flick of a fingertip, users can choose from brand-name outlets such as the New York Times and the Atlantic to customize feeds delivering all the news that’s precisely fit for them.
The value proposition is spelled out in a promotional video (www.facebook.com/paper) featuring such fetchingly retro scenes as a pair of 20-something hipsters reading (gasp!) a newspaper. The money quote in the video is this: “Share the stories that matter the most—your own.”
Thanks to the unimaginable trove of self-published personal information that Facebook aggregates around the clock and around the world, the Paper app for smartphones has the unprecedented and unmatchable power to become the ultimate personal news source for the growing number of consumers leveraging the power of mobile and social media to individualize the media they get—and give.
Thus, Paper has the potential to emerge as a one-stop smartphone destination for many of the 1.2 billion users of the Facebook ecosystem—an audience that would make Facebook the third largest country in the world, if it were a country.
So, where does that leave traditional publishers?
Even though newspapers and most other legacy media companies launched their first websites well before Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg hit puberty, the senior citizens of digital publishing never thought, nor sought, to create the sort of personal engagement that makes Facebook the stickiest destination on the Internet. While consumers spend an average of 30 minutes in every Facebook session, the typical visit to a newspaper website is 3 minutes or less, according to Alexa.Com.
Further, and more frightening, newspapers have failed to connect with consumers under the age of 45. Researcher Greg Harmon of Borrell Associates says the average age of a print newspaper reader is 57 and the average newspaper web visitor is 51. Saying the industry’s aging demographics ought to have “everyone’s hair on fire,” Harmon notes that newspaper readers have been getting a year older every year for more than a decade.
To be sure, one of the reasons younger readers don’t connect with newspapers is that the so-called “millennial generation” is broadly disconnected with many traditional institutions. After years of researching the millennials, the Pew Research Center found the under-40 set to be less religious, more politically independent, less patriotic, more socially liberal and less economically secure than the generations preceding them.
At the same time millennials have turned away from traditional institutions, Pew found that they have embraced digital technology as a way to express themselves, build community, share information and arrange transactions ranging from dating to car sharing. While the average millennial has 250 friends on Facebook, Pew says the typical baby boomer has 98. Although 55 percent of millennials have shared selfies, Pew reports that only 9 percent of boomers have done so.
“Online social networks are the building blocks of social interaction for many young adults,” concluded Pew in a study released in March (http://tinyurl.com/pewmin). “These tools have enabled them to create wide-ranging networks of ‘friends.’”
The unprecedented use of social media to enable and execute a full array of social and commercial interactions is one of the most significant ways that the digitally native generations are differentiated from their elders. Paper is but one of many emerging platforms that facilitate the sort of individualized, if not to say intimate, experiences that modern consumers expect—and respond to.
The lesson that legacy media companies can, and must, take from Paper is that their products have to be far more personal, social and, yes, emotionally engaging, than they historically have been.
Newspapers cannot, and should not, carry stories about everyone’s new puppy. But editors can look for stories with powerful emotional appeal, can tell them in compelling human terms and then can engage the community in reacting to them.
If the legacy media can’t make authentic and sustainable emotional connections with younger readers, they will lose them. It’s just that simple.
Alan D. Mutter is a former editor and Silicon Valley CEO who today advises media companies on technologies and tech companies on media. He blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur (www.newsosaur.blogspot.com).