Social media provides challenges, and opportunities, for online news

The fact the Internet has allowed the audience to become active creators, rather than simply passive consumers, of content is well documented. But with websites such as MySpace and YouTube commanding multimillion-dollar deals, reader-generated content has become big business as well as a social phenomenon.

That’s what drew more than 500 people today to the EconSM conference at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California. Rafat Ali’s ContentNext Media put together the conference, which sought to explore the economics of social media.

Conference panels addressed the intersection of social media with marketing, movies, television, music, and, yes, the news. But as conference panelists expressed enthusiasm over this new era of public conversation, there remained few answers to questions about how news organizations ought to enlist social media to improve journalism… as well as their bottom lines.

“Follow the audience,” urged Vivian Schiller, vice president and general manager as “The more noise there is out there, the more need there will be for authoritative quality journalism.”

“All of these new platforms have opened new ways for us to get our journalism out and to start conversations with the public,” Schiller said.

But Topix CEO Rich Skrenta reminded that people cannot talk about stories that are not reported.

“There’s no paper in my hometown,” Skrenta said, citing a lack of local coverage for his Bay Area community from the two major newspapers in the area, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News.

“All sorts of shenanigans are going on, and nothing’s written about it anywhere,” Skrenta said.

“As the print classified dollars that used to pay for print journalism go away, how do you come up with a new model?”

Skrenta described how Topix, which is 80-percent owned by newspaper companies, recently reinvented itself as a social media company to pursue its goal of providing neighborhood-level coverage for every zip code in the United States.

As a news aggregator with a small staff, “we had to find a way to get the cost of obtaining this information down to zero,” Skrenta said. “We turned to social media.”

National Public Radio CEO Ken Stern warned against relying on the public to do journalists’ work.

“”A civil society depends on news, not just information,” Stern said. “But there’s a sense at many newspapers that we can get rid of reporters because we can get information from people off the streets for free.”

“The economics behind serious journalism are pretty brutal right now,” Stern said. “There is a demand for it, but the expense of producing that is immense. That’s a real serious challenge.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Kara Swisher suggested that journalists and readers can, and ought, to work together.

“The problem with journalists is that, at the beginning of blogging, they got all snotty about it. But there’s still a place for well-sourced news to go hand in hand with this,” Swisher said. “And I think the feedback system in the Internet helps protect coverage better than some people think.”

Swisher cited the microsite that she and the Journal’s Walter Mossberg have just launched as a model for news business faced with shrinking revenue.

“The cost of putting up our site is so low that if the WSJ online ad staff can’t sell to cover that, we should go out of business,” Swicher said.

Swisher cited conference organizer Rafat Ali’s as an example of a start-up that can report well-sourced news of high quality without racking up crushing expenses.

“If you can keep the [reporting] costs down, then it is is easier for the sales staff to make that nut they have to make,” she said.

Skrenta challenged newspapers to reevaluate long-standing business practices in an effort to better thrive online. As an example, he described the frustration some managers feel in seeing their staff’s content duplicated on other websites, some of which might rank higher in Google News and in search engine result pages, taking away readers – and revenue – as a result.

“Syndication made a lot of sense in print. But it doesn’t really make sense to do online,” Skrenta said. “Now is that Google’s fault, or maybe you should reconsider your online redistribution strategy?”

Swisher wrapped up the session on a positive note.

“People are hungry for this content. And that means there’s an opportunity for people with high quality standards to jump in here and provide something great.”