By Taylor Sheridan
As news organizations National Press Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) leave Twitter, the idea of using social media to distribute the news is in question. Experts gathered during the International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) made it clear that moving away from depending on social media platforms to reach their audiences will help reach audiences in oversaturated online environments.
The April 15 panel “Newsletters, podcasts, text messages, push alerts: Are news orgs moving out of social-media dependency?” was moderated by Sara Fischer, a senior media reporter and author of a media trends newsletter at Axios. Panelists David Cohn, chief strategy officer and co-founder of Subtext at Advance Publications, Coleen O’Lear, head of curation and platforms at The Washington Post, and Zainab Shah, director of engagement and audience at THE CITY, discussed how they see the push for more individualized approaches to attracting readers and viewers.
Panelists discussed multiple ways for reaching their audiences and how to best use each method. These include text messages, push alerts, podcasts and newsletters. Fischer shared that it felt like they were in the era of not relying on social media.
In response, O’Lear expressed that in this era, organizations should work to create their own products and applications that stick. There was an agreement that by doing these things the dependency on social media, as well as aggregation, will lessen as more individualized approaches are used.
“Get really, really creative about what other places you could meet audiences and how you can continue to develop, build and maintain direct relationships with them that don’t depend on necessarily the algorithm of an aggregation app or the algorithm of another social media platform,” Shah said.
One individualized way to reach audiences is through text messages. According to the panelists, text messages as a way to communicate with audiences can help break through the oversaturated email inbox as well as push alerts and, as Cohn put it, the performative nature of social media. Cohn also shared that there is a 95% open rate for text message approaches.
Panelists also discussed newsletters as a way to reach audiences. O’Lear talked about how at The Washington Post, their newsletters have evolved to continue to meet the needs of their audiences and offer something different. By keeping this focus, newsletters can push through cluttered inboxes.
“I think that all of our products should be living and breathing. Like, I think that we can’t sort of think that we have always hit it out of the park with everything. Even things that are working, we should inspect and reassess,” O’Lear said.
Podcasts also have followed this route of evolution, but overall they were considered to be a good way to reach audience needs. O’Lear discussed how listeners of podcasts feel as if they are talking with a friend, which is a reason for their success.
As podcasts can have a larger barrier to entry, Shah expressed the importance of serving audiences first and worrying about the production quality later.
Push alerts were also discussed as a way to reach people. Even as panelists agree that push alerts have become oversaturated themselves, there is value in the push alerts even if the user does not click them. O’Lear expressed how they work to build trust and relationships with users.
The panelists also discussed how breaking news alerts are not the alerts that received the most clicks. Shah shared that push alerts that focus on explaining issues and practices to their audiences are more favorable.
It was suggested that while social media and aggregation apps give news organizations access, real engagement from audiences comes from more unique individualized methods of interacting with the public.
“It is great, and it sounds great to have a billion eyeballs,” Cohn said. “But I think what the news industry has learned is that it’s actually maybe better to have 10,000 brains instead of a billion eyeballs.”
Twitter and social media are not seen as a good place to meet and maintain audiences, according to the panelists. Meeting the audience where they are is more significant, a point made by Shah in regard to why these individualized methods are important to consider.
“You have to inform them in formats and ways that they prefer. There’s just too much information, too many platforms, too many ways of talking to people out there for you to afford to not be doing that,” she said.
Taylor Sheridan is pursuing a Master's degree at the University of Texas at Austin, where she researches empowerment and empathy within photos of trauma and the photojournalism field.