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Opting for Facebook

If publisher and editor Clay McFerrin is missing out on anything by not maintaining a website for the Mississippi-based Charleston Sun-Sentinel, he wouldn’t know. The newspaper has never had a website. Instead, the paper’s online presence exists in the form of a Facebook page that launched in October 2009. The Sun-Sentinel isn’t alone in this practice. A surprising number of news organizations have opted to go the social media way, and instead of the traditional website component are online only through the free and low-maintenance use of Facebook.

In McFerrin’s case, it’s because “the price is right,” he said in an email interview. The paper’s page works by allowing staff to post snippets of news stories, while directing readers to the printed edition. “But we also print announcements of importance to the community and solicit input about prominent news items,” he said. “If there is a breaking story that we feel is of immediate import to the community, we will put information on Facebook … such as when a tornado watch/warning is indicated for the area or an adjacent county.”

Other newspapers that have adopted this practice include Texas’ Castro County News, the Cavalier County Republican in North Dakota, the Booneville Sentinel in Kentucky, the Republican Valley Review in Nebraska, the Briscoe County News in Texas and the Bryant Dakotan in South Dakota. In March, online-only newspaper the Rockville Central became a Facebook-only paper when it moved its entire operation to the social media platform.

Meanwhile, newspapers aren’t the only news organizations using social media to power their online component. Louisiana-based KWCL-FM has been using Facebook as its Web presence for about a year. Station owner and president Irene Robinson said it’s easier to maintain than a regular website. The station posts sporting, promotional and community events to the site, as well as news and information from law enforcement agencies. And the ease of updating and interacting with the station’s audience are all added benefits, she noted.  It “plays a very significant role,” she said in an email interview. “It’s a way to reach our listeners of all ages.”

A website is in the works over at Carson City, Nev.’s KCMY-FM, but the station has been posting to its Facebook page in the meantime. “Quite frankly, we’re getting tremendous response from social media,” said Eddie Floyd, social media director at the station. Posts to the Facebook page include the song of the day, upcoming news and big events.  “We absolutely could exist with [just] a Facebook site, because we have at any given time the potential of as many eyeballs as we do listeners. So we could exist with just Facebook if that’s all there were,” he said.

But Ari Kissiloff, assistant professor in the Department of Strategic Communications at Ithaca College, doesn’t think Facebook alone can make for a viable Web presence. “Actual websites do still have some advantages,” he said in an email interview. “They are more likely to be aggregated as RSS. They are accessible to the entire public, not just those with Facebook accounts. They allow for design and usability customizations that just don’t exist in Facebook. Plus, the ads that are served with Facebook fan pages are generating income for Facebook, but not the news organization. Dedicated websites keep the content in the organization’s control, and allows it to be monetized in ways that Facebook currently does not support.”

However, he does admit that it’s not unusual for smaller news organizations to choose a Facebook page over a website due to limited budgets. There’s an added complexity and expense of duplicating efforts on a Web page and Facebook page. “So there’s lots of motivation to consolidate,” he said. “I could see this happening more, but hopefully news organizations will realize that both websites and social media sites have their own advantages and disadvantages, and take advantage of the individual strengths of both platforms.”

Regardless of viability, Facebook has provided news organizations that are still more focused on their traditional product with an inexpensive way to launch a Web presence. It is merely another way in which social media has infiltrated and expanded the scope of possibilities for new and old media alike.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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