The most undervalued, and perhaps most important questions for social networking, esp. around news are:
Hint: it's got a little to do with the software's usability and a lot to do with who's interacting with The People.
Far too often in social networking projects launched by Big Media outlets is the assumption that The People will just come in because the content is so cracking, and will feel an overwhelmingly desperate need to leave comments--and create profiles so everyone will know who they are and desire to communicate with them.
Well, not really. The People nowadays have many ways to comment on the news as well as ways to build community and interact with others who are interested in the News. We've got Digg, and Newsvine and NewsTrust (among othes)...of course, we still have our own blogs, where we can profusely comment and draw in others by linking and other strategies....and if we want to we can even use our Facebook and MySpace pages to leave snippets of our opinions for our friends to see and to leave comments.
So, perhaps the social networking and news combination doesn't fit for Big Media--especially if Big Media (like USA Today) sees itself only as the Provider of the Platform--a Big Daddy overseer that expects The People to mix and mingle while keeping a safe, objective distance from the goings-on.
Now, Steve Yelvington's learned with Bluffton Today that in some small towns in certain parts of the country, people do indeed like to come onto the site of a small local paper, put up profiles, and network with one another, sometimes around the news, sometimes while writing their own....
And at Assignment Zero, we learned that even if you have a site that's got some seriously user un-friendly features, that People will become passionate if they know there are other People with whom they can interact--when there are folks involved with the publication or project where ideas and thoughts and concerns can be exchanged.
There has to be a kind of editorial involvement as Howard Owens put together for the Bakersfield.com.
Editorial direction--a clear stated purpose for People to leave information about themselves on a site, and for the content that outlets want people to talk about--is more important than some thing. As we saw with Backfence.com, adequate community outreach is difficult to maintain, as well as it is difficult to create strong editorial direction in an open participation environment.
Take a look at Jonathan Weber's NewWest site to see how strong editorial direction helps build community involvement.
So, the implementation of good social news by a newspaper isn't about sitting back dispassionately, providing cracking soc. networking software, and just letting folks have a go at it without any direction or committed staff can potentially lead to nothing happening. People now expect folks involved with a project that incorporates social networking to be involved with the community--not just be traffic cops monitoring for nasties. That means leaving comments, answering emails, moderating boards and communicating. That's what's gone on with Newstrust, and Newsvine, and even sometimes at NowPublic and Digg and even Netscape's not-as-successful social news feature.
If the lights are on and nobody's home, you can bet that people will be curious...but they'll eventually say "that's nice" and move along....
And maybe that's what we're seeing in this graph comparison of USA Today, NewYork Times, and the Washington Post...
An explanation of the figures from Techcrunch: Here’s the Compete.com data, showing monthly visitors down from 14 million in March to about 10 million today, a 29% drop in unique visitors. I added in the New York Times and Washington Post for comparison purposes - both are at about even levels with March....
But nobody asks People to be as involved with NYT and WaPo as was being asked with USAT. Some have speculated that it's a content-quality problem. The only way to tell if that's a valid consideration would be to see a graph of the three outlets before social networking/news was implemented at USAT. I'd still hedge, though, from the troubles with Backfence and the successes of Bakotopia and BlufftonToday, that there's much more to my theory about editorial team involvement (and to editorial direction of the social side as well) than there is to the type of content and software.
Just my $.02
Update: Mark Potts has an excellent post on the Shorenstein Center's look at web metrics (and their flaws) and makes this important point:In the end, uninspired Web sites face the same fate as uninspired print products: irrelevancy and disappearing readership and advertising. If newspaper Web sites are to be the future of the industry, they need to get truly serious about their local focus and step up and take advantage of the latest technologies to deliver what readers expect from a Web site in 2007...
and Webomatica adds his casual user's perspective on some of the problems with USAT's site (not just with the lack of people-presence over there.) Jason also point to an instance when someone from USAT got involved in a conversation--and, yes, USAT could use more folks like that!