Our core (55 and over) readership now hanging out on Facebook

At first, we thought our caller just wanted to tell us about Thanksgiving at his house, but before long we realized he really wanted to make a point about Texas newspapers.

Here’s how it went down (shared with his permission):

“I left the football game and went back to the dining room for pecan-pie seconds and a cup of coffee. The women in our family were talking in small groups, and pretty soon I realized something different this year – they weren’t just catching each other up on family news, they were talking about what they had read or posted on Facebook.

“I actually counted five iPhones or iPads in the hands of those nine women. All the conversation was Facebook-related.  And not one of the nine women was under 45 – the average age was probably late 50s. So I decided to stop for a little market research.  I asked how many of them had “liked” a newspaper on Facebook.

“Not a single one had. One even asked: ‘Newspapers?  Are they on Facebook?’”

That scene, from a Thanksgiving gathering in North Texas, highlights a problem faced by many newspapers in the Lone Star State.  A few years ago, we at the Center were saying that we needed to develop a Facebook presence to reach younger readers.  But that has changed. Many young people are abandoning Facebook for Instagram and other social media.  And the largest growth demographic on Facebook is our core newspaper readership:  people 55 and over.

People used to get together and talk at church or a civic club functions or on the porch or over the back fence. All those areas have declined, and now middle-aged and senior adults keep up with their families and friends on Facebook.  As our editor friend above discovered, people who never saw themselves as computer-users are spending hours a day in front of a screen.

And where people are gathering, that’s where newspapers need to be.

But back to the North Texas Thanksgiving gathering:  Why didn’t those Facebook users know about newspapers on Facebook?  People normally discover new Facebook sites when other people share content that interests them.  And that content is only rarely hard news.  We might read the hard news story about the city council meeting, but we’re much more likely to share the photo or video or feature that intrigues us.

How do you create more Facebook followers for your newspaper?

For starters, we have to realize that Facebook ain’t print.  Print is passive; we print it, readers buy it.  The best analogy may be to a church on Sunday morning.  People sit in pews and listen to a pastor preach and a choir sing.  There are a few “performers” and a large audience.

Facebook is much more like a large Christmas party.  There is no single speaker – the party consists of small groups talking and sharing among themselves.  And people leave one group and join another.  Everybody talks, though some more than others.  People judge the quality of the party on the amount of engagement they have had with other people.

Newspapers are about publishing; Facebook is about engagement.  We increase engagement by asking for it.  A newspaper story about the weather will report where the storm hit and what the damage was.  Sources will be quoted.  But on Facebook, you talk about the storm as it approaches, while it’s going on, and after it’s over.  You report authoritative information, but you also ask people to tell you what they have experienced.  And you ask people to post pictures.  You let them ask questions of you, and questions of each other.  You interact with your audience, and they interact with other readers and with you.

And there are other techniques to boost your following: linking to other sources of information, posting pictures and videos, and encouraging people to respond.  We also need to promote our Facebook page in our print product.

Every Facebook user is looking for interesting content to repost.  And that interesting content will make its way through your community like interesting news at the Christmas party.

The Center Is always looking for great techniques that Texas newspapers have used to boost their Facebook engagement.  Let us know what’s working for you.

By Kathryn Jones Malone

Kathryn Jones Malone is co-director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism. She began her career as a staff writer at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, then worked as a staff writer for the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News; as a contract writer for The New York Times; as a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly magazine; as editor of the Glen Rose Reporter; and as a freelance writer for numerous state, regional and national magazines. She teaches journalism at Tarleton State University.