By Ryan Holmes
FORTUNE — It may be coincidence that the decline of newspapers has corresponded with the rise of social media. Or maybe not.
The two industries are very different, of course: One focuses its lens on the public events that change our world; the other is concerned largely with the personal stuff that happens behind the scenes. But under the hood, social media and newspapers have more than a little in common.
Both live or die on delivering timely, engaging, and relevant content to readers. Both monetize primarily by selling ads, not subscriptions. Both compete for readers’ attention in a digital universe with an ever-expanding number of distractions.
So why is it that Facebook was valued at $104 billion in its 2012 IPO, while the Washington Post was just offloaded in a fire sale for less than 1/400th of that amount? Why has Twitter grown from obscurity to 200 million users in the last seven years, while the Post has seen its paid circulation free fall?
Working with lots of old media clients, I’ve had a front-row seat on the ascension of new social players and the decline of traditional news outlets. And it’s clear to me that old media has an awful lot to learn from social media, in particular in five key areas: relevance, distribution, velocity, monetization, and user experience.
As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, no stranger to the digital arena, assumes the helm of the embattled Post, he might consider a few of these lessons:
1) Relevance — Put people first:
Perhaps the greatest criticism of newspapers today is that they have lost relevance to their own readers. Writing on the decline of the Post, New York Times media columnist David Carr points out that “[the] days when people snapped open the daily paper to find out the things they should care about were long past …” Big newspapers, in particular, have proven startlingly inept at delivering timely, relevant news to the people they serve. So, naturally, readers have gone elsewhere, to myriad online sources that better cater to their interests.
Social media, for all of its limitations, is rarely irrelevant. The stream of updates on your Facebook page, for instance, is algorithmically engineered to be darn-near irresistible. Content is customized and interest-based, factoring in an elaborate history of your past interactions and network of friends, as well as of which updates have gone viral and which have flopped. The point is that instead of a monolithic brick of printed content — delivered more or less unchanged to all subscribers — social media offers news that is personalized and nimble. Bringing these innovations to newspapers will no doubt be a challenge, but lucky for us Bezos has a long history at Amazon of personalizing and customizing user experiences.
2) Distribution — Go digital or go home:
Step one in this process, of course, is ditching the paper’s print edition once and for all. Yes, I know there’s nothing like leafing through a thick Sunday paper over a second cup of coffee. But there was probably nothing like taking a horse-drawn carriage ride either. And we learned to live without that when the car came along.
There are serious liabilities of clinging to print, which go well beyond the obvious expense of production and distribution and the environmental impact of making millions of hard copies. From a distribution perspective, a printed newspaper is really not all that customizable, trackable, or shareable (at least, not in the same way digital content is), and all of these things are hugely important to having a satisfied and growing user base.
By contrast, a robust digital edition — whether viewed online, on a tablet or on an e-reader — can be endlessy and automatically customized to the needs and interests of individual users. It can evolve and improve over time to better accommodate each reader’s tastes. Pages and sections can be reconfigured on the fly, based on what stories are getting traction at any moment. Plus, compelling content can be instantly shared with friends and colleagues, reaching an even larger audience.
These very basic concepts have all been integral to the growth of social media. Yet when you print out a newspaper and plop it down on someone’s doorstep, you preempt these benefits. Put another way, there are very good reasons why Amazon doesn’t ship a big, fat catalogue to hundreds of millions of homes. Here’s hoping Bezos brings that learning to his latest undertaking.
3) Velocity — Put the “new” back in news:
For better or worse, when major news breaks – from the recent Boston bombing to unrest in Egypt — readers increasingly turn to their Twitter feeds for details. While information may not always be reliable, it is tantalizingly fresh, offering accounts well before traditional news sites.
There’s no way a newspaper site could ever match this pace — research, verification, and analysis take time (and this is all part of the intrinsic value of a news site). But speed is still something to aspire to. For all the talk of a 24/7 news cycle, articles at leading papers are still often written at “an almost academic pace,” to quote media blogger Josh Marshall. This has got to give.
During the golden age of journalism — the brief Woodward-and-Bernstein era when well-funded papers could produce serious investigative reports — this approach may have been viable. But that’s no longer the case. Readership is sinking, ad and classified revenue is plummeting, and these same big papers are tanking. To compete in the brave new online world, it’s necessary for journalism to return to its older and less glamorous roots — quick, short-form stories pushed out nearly as fast as the news breaks (i.e. exactly the kind of continuous news stream that online publishing is ideally suited to).
And these are changes Bezos — the uncontested king of logistics — is well equipped to bring. “Bezos will come up with technological solutions to help reporters and editors be speedier and more efficient because that’s what he has done at Amazon so well,” notes Greg Sandoval, a former reporter at the Post now with online-only news site The Verge. Indeed, Bezos has already expressed a strong preference for email newsletters and brief reports, a hint that shorter-form stories — already prevalent at such venerable papers as the Wall Street Journal — may be coming to the Post.
4) Monetization — Make ads better:
Early in Facebook’s trajectory, Mark Zuckerberg was notorious for his refusal to monetize and his head-down focus on user growth. But when the moment did come to cash in, he turned to a time-honored approach: advertising. Ads now account for 88% of Facebook’s revenue, or $1.6 billion last quarter alone.
The irony here is that selling users’ eyeballs to advertisers is something that newspapers have done forever. The formula has always been fairly simple: Give readers engaging content for nothing (or next to nothing); then charge companies to put their ads next to articles. The better the content you offer, the more users you’ll get. The more users you get, the more ad revenue you make. It’s not rocket science.
But Facebook and other social networks have taken this simple approach and elevated it to a new level. Those ads on the sidebar of your Facebook page are precision-targeted, based on the wealth of demographic information you volunteer to the site everyday. Meanwhile, a new breed of native ads — those “Sponsored Posts” and “Promoted Tweets” that look a lot like ordinary updates from friends – are popping up in news streams more and more. While they may seem gimmicky, native ads have shown to be up to 15 times as effective as traditional banner advertising.
My point is that newspapers might be well served by playing to their strength and doubling down on advertising. Rather than fixating on paywalls and pay-to-play models that alienate users, they should work to better target ads to readers and experiment with new models, from native ads to pre-rolls. The problem of dwindling ad revenue is not an easy one — It has kept some of the best business minds busy for much of the last decade. But here’s guessing that Bezos might have a new trick or two up his sleeve.
5) User experience — Embrace digital, don’t fight it:
Usability has been a cornerstone of the social media revolution. Facebook spread like wildfire partly because anyone — from tween to grandmother — can log in, open an account, and start connecting with friends, all with a minimum of fuss. Everything about the site is engineered to get people to stick around, from the percolating newsfeed to the endless shared photos and YouTube videos to the games. Proof: The average American now spends 6.75 hours every month on the site.
By contrast, lots of newspaper sites look an awful lot like printed papers posted online. (TheWashington Post happens to be among the worst offenders.) In tech speak this is known as skeuomorphism, when new technology apes old design concepts for no clear reason. The result on many news sites is an interface that’s clunky and cluttered, busily trying to cram everything “above the fold.” Online presentation has opened up countless new ways to showcase information and engage readers, but traditional news sites have thus far been embarrassingly slow to embrace these changes. Even their iPad apps sometimes seem little more than “mini” papers.
There are exceptions, however. One news site taking steps in the right direction is the New York Times. Over the last year, interactive graphics have allowed readers to explore the path of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction, browse through annotated YouTube footage of the conflict in Syria and map out possible outcomes of the U.S. presidential election. All of these projects required lots of back-end work, but they show the added value that a news site can offer and represent the kind of content that will draw readers in and keep them engaged.
News sites might also do well to take a few design cues from apps and services like Tumblr, Flipboard, and Feedly. All of these present stories in highly engaging, visual formats, with articles organized into fluidly scrolling streams that invite browsing and exploration. Among the news sites that have embraced this formula most effectively is gadget site Gizmodo.
Jeff Bezos doesn’t face an easy task in righting the Washington Post. The paper’s annual revenue is down 39% from 2005. Over the last decade, weekday paid subscriptions have been nearly halved to 481,000. Yet, despite criticisms in recent years, the quality of the paper and its reputation remain high. The issue now is finding better ways to get the right content to the right readers.
This is a challenge that social networks have been confronting and that social media management companies like mine have been getting better at solving for years. With a digital native at the helm of the Post — one who has made a $25 billion fortune by getting millions of customers the stuff they want, when they want it — the paper has a golden opportunity to integrate these learnings and serve as a new model for the traditional press.
Holmes’ original article can be found on the Fortune website.