Commentary

The New York Times And National Public Radio Get Social

While you were busy watching the economy tank in late September, two major news outlets launched beta versions of online communities: The New York Times and National Public Radio (thanks to David Griner for the NPR tip).

Now for a thought I hope somehow neatly melds together the financial crisis and the media world: I've actually been spending a lot of time thinking about how the financial crisis will affect the already-alarming trend downward in the newspaper business (and to a much lesser extent, things like radio), and, on a personal level, hope that, in building stronger social media tools, analog media will be able to have its digital ventures pick up a little more of the slack created by sagging audiences and ad revenue.

I feel confident -- if that's the appropriate word -- that the financial downturn will speed up some scary trends that we're already seeing. This is depressing even for someone who has tended, in recent years, to read newspapers and listen to iTunes via her trusty laptop.

When NPR launched its community last month, its digital editorial director was quoted as saying, "NPR is late to this game, to be blunt." In some ways, that's true, as the launch of the community also marked the first time NPR.org offered comments, but in other ways it has leapfrogged media that offered this most basic of social media functions some time ago. Much of the NPR staff seems to be part of the community, which communicates to NPR devotees that they may have some impact on helping NPR create content going forward. To use a favorite Internet word from the late 1990s, that should make the site "sticky."

There are also some more common features, such as rankings of the most commented-on and recommended NPR stories. All in all, the community is a window into what will be increasingly de rigueur for media sites from now on: they will simply be expected to have a community and lots of social media tools. Traditional media has long had trouble with letting the rabble in, as the slow acceptance of a commenting feature on many of their Web sites indicates, but things like  CNN's iReport are slowly changing that dynamic.

Which brings me to TimesPeople. It's an expansion of already-existing community features that should help Times readers interact better with one another. (In other words, don't expect it will be ground zero among Democrats who want to convince undecideds to vote for Obama.) People within each other's TimesPeople network can share and recommend Times content en masse; there's also a Times People toolbar that keeps members updated on what their friends are doing within the community, enhanced by a Twitter-like feature that allows registrants to follow one another. (Other routine site activity is not monitored.)

However, so far, there's not mass buy-in within the Times, and for the network to really work that needs to change. TimesPeople will have to include not only interaction amongst the paper's readership but also among reporters, editors and even business-side characters. Otherwise, it's a community that could just as easily be started up by any interested reader on Facebook or MySpace, where Times passionistas could talk amongst themselves. (BTW, Times People has also authored a Facebook app.) I searched for roughly a dozen reporters, editors and business-side folks on TimesPeople, and of the group, only executive editor Bill Keller and senior vp/digital operations Martin Nisenholtz had created a profile. Nothing from Maureen Dowd, Bob Herbert, or anyone bearing the last name "Sulzberger." While the nytimes.com has for some time now hosted a feature where readers ask reporters and editors questions, putting such efforts in a deeper social media context, and getting broader participation from Times staff, should be the obvious next step.

Although both communities have a ways to evolve, I'm glad the Times, and NPR, are doing this; expect competitors to soon follow suit. Neither site is quite teeming with ads yet, but, in giving readers and listeners an outlet for their opinions, they're moving themselves -- and their audiences -- into the social media age.

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