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No policy …no strategy, either

Tonight I attended the 14th meeting of Victoria’s Social Media Club to listen to five panelists from Victoria’s mainstream media (MSM) talk about how new media (including social media) is affecting their business.

Panelists included Bryan Capistrano (promotion director for radio station The Zone); Amanda Farrell-Low (arts editor for weekly paper Monday Magazine); Dana Hutchings (producer/ host for “Island 30” on TV station CHEK News); Sarah Petrescu (reporter and webmaster at daily paper Times-Colonist); and Deborah Wilson (journalist for CBC Radio-Victoria “On The Island”). The panel was moderated by Janis La Couvée.

blog might render photo cropped - click on picture to see original


The setting was the gymnasium of a former elementary school (now used as the University Canada West campus), hence the …well, gym-like setting.

But the setting wasn’t really the disappointing bit: it was the panelists. They all came across as very sweet people, but I left wondering just what the hell they’re doing.

The panelists (representing local heavy-hitters CBC Radio, Monday Magazine, CHEK News, The Zone Radio, and the Times-Colonist) all stated that their organizations have no specific social media policies in place.

Maybe that’s fine – but what was striking was the absence of clear thinking around social media strategy. The one glimmer of an exception was Dana Hutchings of CHEK. In the summer of 2009, while on vacation in Sweden, she received an email from her boss, letting her know that the owners were about to shut down the station.

CHEK had orders from its owners that forbade the station to report on its own troubles. In his email, Dana’s boss wrote (and I’m paraphrasing): “You’re on Facebook! What can we do?”

First, a brief digression on the history of CHEK News, which is worth knowing: see this wikipedia page for details. In brief: CHEK launched on December 1, 1956, which makes it a venerable local institution. Over the decades, CHEK underwent various changes in ownership, and by 2000 it was owned by Canwest, which happens to be the media conglomerate that owns so much of Canada’s media – including most newspapers, the Times-Colonist among them. Canwest, however, was in deep financial trouble by the middle of the decade, and by late 2009 it had to file for creditor bankruptcy protection. Leading up to this, Canwest tried various downsizing moves to save itself, including pulling the plug on CHEK in August of 2009. But by September 2009, the employees had managed to put together a scheme to buy the station and keep it in operation as an independent in Victoria.

Social media played a huge role in CHEK’s turnaround. Dana Hutchings answered her boss’s question (“You’re on Facebook – what can we do?”) by starting a Save CHEK News fan page, which in turn galvanized the local community who learned about the true goings-on at the station through the Facebook page. Before long, the page had thousands of fans.

The employees at CHEK, spurred by the support they saw pouring in through social media, worked feverishly around the clock for over 46 days, and in the end the station was saved – bought by the employees and contributors.

The point, however, is that without the resonant support from CHEK’s fans – support that would not have found a gathering spot without social media because of Canwest’s gag order on what was happening at CHEK – the employees wouldn’t have been able to muster the energy and enthusiasm to save the station.

But when asked how social media was affecting their business models, the other panelists relied on the old separation between “editorial” and “management” to absolve themselves of any strategic thinking around how the new media might save their old media bacon.

“I don’t know, I’m editorial, that doesn’t concern me,” was the gist of it. The panelists also seemed to think that the new media folks in the audience were trying to find ways to “pitch” to them, the arbiters of media truth. It was laughable.

First, people in the audience weren’t trying to figure out how to “pitch” to the MSM – they were trying to sound out the MSM to find out how they could get it to listen to them, the community.

Second, the panelists repeatedly told the audience that what would work – what they would be willing to retweet or run a story on – would be semi-sensationalist crap, like “there’s a house on fire on X Road,” or “the ferries are running late,” or “it’s snowing on the Malahat.”

Aside from sensational “news” like this, the MSM wants “human interest” stories: “how I found my true love on Twitter,” or, “my child survived bullying on Facebook,” or similar stuff.

This is truly sad. There must be more to MSM than burning buildings and true romance, no?

There were other annoying contradictions, and then also outright delusions. For the latter: the belief that bloggers are just the rumor mill, while the MSM are the arbiters of truth. Hahahaha. If anyone still believes that what is written in the daily paper is the truth, I feel sorry for them – I know for a fact that it isn’t. I know plenty of bloggers who are more assiduous about fact-checking than so-called professional journalists – and bloggers don’t mind correcting themselves. Try getting a newspaper to do that.

At the same time, every single one of the panelists belly-ached about being underfunded and understaffed, which was their main excuse for no longer doing investigative journalism.

Ok, so which is it? You can’t do investigative journalism because you’re understaffed and underfunded? Or you’re the arbiters of truth because only you are the professionals who can get at the truth?

You can’t have it both ways, kids.

While thumping their chests to claim truth-telling status, the panelists also begged “social media” to “spoonfeed” them potential news items (because, remember, they’re underfunded and understaffed and can’t get their own stories – the news are “thin” these days, as one of them put it). In other words, please spoonfeed us, but don’t think you can pitch us.

Are they nuts?

Which is it?

I could go on, but this entry is already costing me dearly in a town where everyone has to play nice and not step on anyone’s toes – and besides, it’s almost midnight and I’m on a deadline here.

Update, April 29: a follow-up post here (also noted in comments).


  1. Thanks for your comments tonight. I think you were sitting in front of me and your body language spoke volumes – now I know what was going on. I was intrigued by the evening and at points disappointed by what seemed to be hubris on the part of some panelists. My own experience with pitching to the media and having them run with stories I’ve pitched is that they don’t, as a rule, check the facts – on air live they’ve made substantive mistakes during interviews with me that I’ve had to correct.

    Comment by Deb — April 28, 2010 #

  2. You are right, this is brave of you in our small town.

    Media people have always held a rarefied place in the minds and hearts of the general public which gave them power. Their failings and eccentricity were indulged.

    Social Media is changing all that, though the average person is still in thrall, those who participate in Social Media are less so as they embrace the power & influence they can experience with a large engaged following.

    Good, insightful article – thank you!

    Comment by Cindy — April 28, 2010 #

  3. Great observations Yule. I dont think you’re the only one to feel like MSM (or even many businesses for that matter) have jumped on the social media bandwagon merely because “everyone is doing it”! These usually result in one-way “conversations” in the twitterspehere.
    There was an interesting discussion on CBC radio the other day about the increase in citizen-generated news (and its credibility as real news!) on the internet and in SM, often around things that MSM deems un-newsworthy like re-zoning.

    Comment by Janice — April 28, 2010 #

  4. Thanks for this summation, Yule. I found myself thinking on a similar, but parallel track. The panelists seemed to represent keen members of their respective news organizations who, in the absence of any guidance from their management, are striking out with their own efforts. Yes, it doesn’t say much for their higher-ups, but for many people who are trying to introduce social media into large organizations that employ them, that’s a typical scenario.

    You know how it goes. By the time you wait for a policy on Twitter, everyone has moved onto Foursquare.

    I echo Cindy’s comments on your bravery, so Bravo. I am so pleased that Twitter has introduced me to your thoughtful and trenchant views.

    Comment by Fiona — April 28, 2010 #

  5. Thanks for everyone’s comments so far (there’s feedback via Twitter as well) – I’ll respond in more detail later today when I have time. And I guess I’ll have to do a follow-up post as well. This is a huge issue. Just for starters, consider how the internet has shown that advertising is cheap (which means the financials of having advertising support a big news-co no longer apply): Rod Phillips of Liquor Plus blog (who posed the excellent question about how social media is affecting revenue, which he didn’t get an answer to) told me during the break that his company recently put an ad on Facebook, which garnered well over 2 million impressions. What did it cost? $200. To run an ad in the Times-Colonist that gets seen 2 million times, how much would he have to spend?
    Uh-huh. That’s the new reality.

    Comment by Yule — April 28, 2010 #

  6. Yule –

    This is an interesting post. Some of it I question though…

    A paper like the Times Colonist (I write for it, by the way) is striving to produce balanced truthful stories, written by journalists who have this in mind. The notion that everything in daily papers is suddenly a bunch of bunk seems to be rather overstated.

    Newspapers do run corrections. The TC does regularly. All newspapers do.

    I’m sure there are some bloggers that are more assiduous about fact checking than some journalists. But most of the journalists I know do fact-check like crazy, always dogged of course by the effort to try to get things in on a daily deadline.

    Yes, newspapers are struggling to see how they can fit in with social media. But I’m not sure why it has to be an “us against them” proposition. Aren’t we all trying to do the same thing? Report and analyse the news?

    And yes, it is difficult to do investigative journalism when staff levels are low. That’s because reporters are expected to do the daily, nuts-and-bolts reporting no matter what. So the longer, more in depth pieces, which take considerable time, must be done in the journalist’s “spare time.”

    Comment by Adrian — April 28, 2010 #

  7. Thanks Yule, I had really wanted to be there but couldn’t get out of another commitment. I really appreciate your overview of the night. I attended the MAGNet conference last year, and I’ll be going again this year – I found a similar response there. I think people in MSM would like to figure out SM but some are very slow to see its value and that slows the whole industry…

    Comment by Kim Lear — April 28, 2010 #

  8. Yule:

    Let’s share the first cab out of this town.

    Comment by Peter — April 28, 2010 #

  9. To be perfectly honest, I too applaud the bravery of your commentary, Yule…and I was a panelist! While I don’t necessarily share your views, I’m a firm believer that the only way to learn about something is by looking at it from all sides.

    After the meeting, I spoke to many wonderful people who came up to me with positive comments and genuinely nice things to say and what I was really waiting for was for someone to present the very passionate opinion that you have presented in this blog. I too noticed your body language while sitting up on that panel and I was excited to read what you had to say.

    Now I appeared to be somewhat of an outcast from my fellow panelists as I am not – and no where near as smart enough to be considered – a “journalist”. The purpose of our station’s programming is entertainment. We play music, discuss music, make the occasional funny…and then play more music. And so I use social media a bit differently than some other forms of MSM.

    As I had so nervously mentioned at the beginning of the panel discussion, our station (like many other MSM outlets) does not have a policy sent from above. What we’ve more so set in place (internally, mind you) are goals – the main goal of which is to be able to provide more interaction between our listeners and our “personalities”. Social networking tools such as our facebook page and twitter accounts have allowed us to further interact with listeners who may not be so included to call us up. I’ve mentioned that radio stations can sometimes get into an easy habit of talking AT a listener and not TO a listener. The social media that we use has allowed us on a number of occasions to be an ear and not just a mouth (I thought of that while walking back to my car last night and kicked myself for not saying it)! If that’s not considered a strategy, I would at least consider it a good starting point.

    Also, I’m not saying that it will never happen, but for the time being social media has in no way affected our medium’s revenue stream. Advertisements are still being purchased on the radio…we even welcome our spots directing our audience to commercial clients’ facebook or twitter pages. I, myself, budgetted for a Facebook ad campaign to further promote the radio station. And I definitely don’t discount that advertising method’s effectiveness. But the reality is, businesses are still advertising on radio, television and print. And from a radio perspective, I don’t see that dwindling any time soon. Especially with an opportunity to have a promo dude like me put together a kick-ass added value promotional campaign for you! 😉

    All in all, I also echo Adrian’s sentiment in that I don’t see why this has to be “us versus them”. While a lot of MSM outlets are still trying to figure out the most effective use of social media, many others have been able to create a successful synergy between the two. I for one enjoy the ability to integrate social media with my job.

    But again, thank you so much for saying what you said. If anything, I’m more than willing to take suggestions from you or other social media enthusiasts on other effective ways to use (and embrace) this fun and addictive practice!

    Comment by Bryan — April 28, 2010 #

  10. Ah, no response….

    Comment by adrian — April 29, 2010 #

  11. If you were to read my blog, you’d have seen last night’s entry. It was a brief note about losing my internet connection around 3pm Wednesday. It only came back this afternoon (via Twitter, Cindy – who also commented here – told me there was a submarine cable break off Point Roberts?), and consequently I’ve been offline (except for several excruciating minutes on dial-up, to check Twitter) for 24 hours.
    That’s the main reason for not responding (yet) – plus, I have other (IRL) commitments.
    Not sure what you meant by your “ah…,” but …well, maybe I’ll get around to posting a response tonight.

    Comment by Yule — April 29, 2010 #

  12. […] address) just …um, remarked that I haven’t yet responded to the comments thread on my No policy …no strategy, either […]

    Pingback by » Some resources for Victoria’s MSM Yule Heibel's Post Studio © 2003-2010 — April 29, 2010 #

  13. I wrote a follow-up post this evening, Some resources for Victoria’s MSM. Check it out.

    Comment by Yule — April 29, 2010 #

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