November 19, 2014

I recently spent two days at the beautiful offices of El Comercio, the largest and oldest newspaper in Peru. Grupo de Diarios América bought together journalists from newspapers all over Latin America for a seminar about social media. I was fortunate to be a speaker. But, mostly, I was lucky to spend a couple of days listening to journalists from news organizations I don’t read or follow. I want to share three things I heard that transcend any linguistic or regional concerns.

1. You are not in control of how people consume your content

Last year at this time, El Nuevo Día in Puerto Rico was getting 30 percent of its digital traffic from mobile devices, with the remaining 70 percent coming from the desktop. This year, according to deputy general director Benjamín Morales Melendez, those numbers have reversed. They get 70 percent of their traffic from mobile devices. It switched in less than 12 months.

What happened? First of all, it had nothing to do with any decisions or new products from their organization. That’s the point.

Last Christmas cellphone providers in Puerto Rico unveiled new offers that made it cheaper for people to get smartphones, according to Morales. They signed up in droves. So, as a result of the business strategy of a different industry, a news organization suddenly saw a dramatic and unpredictable sift in the consumption habits of its audience. This has touched every part of their digital business, and it was brought on by something they had no control over.

It’s also yet another example of how, as Benedict Evans put it, “Mobile is eating the world.”

2. Leading by letting go

Renata Cabrales is the social media editor for El Tiempo, a large newspaper in Bogota, Colombia. At the start of her presentation, she noted that they recently became the most followed Spanish language newspaper on Twitter, with more than 3 million followers. After seeing a sample of the work and approach of her team, I can understand why. Here’s one example.

She showed a Facebook post on their page that used an image to highlight the fact that Colombian actor Sofia Vergara was reported to be the highest paid actress on TV. Someone responded with a snide comment about that fact. The team discussed it and decided that this comment presented a perfect opportunity to respond by using a popular meme that had been circulating online.

The meme was a drawn image of a scowling face that was often used to playfully suggest disapproval of something someone had done or said. They posted it, and soon their reply was shown with likes. You can see a bit of the post and meme reply in the image behind Cabrales here:

This stood out to me for a few reasons. I like that they use the newspaper’s account to participate in comment threads. I like that they are willing to be playful and behave in ways that reflect the platform. I also like that they had a discussion as a group about how to respond to a particular comment.

One thing that also resonated with me was that Cabrales admitted she wasn’t familiar with the particular meme they used. As the leader, she trusted her younger colleagues to know what to choose. And as a group they trusted themselves to find a way to make El Tiempo more approachable without hurting the overall brand.

In the end, it was a nice, fun piece of engagement that fit the platform. And it demonstrated the importance of trust and collaboration.

3. The Anti-Viral Viral strategy

I spoke on the last panel of the event, but by the time I presented the challenges of verifying UGC and of correcting mistakes on social media had already been raised by several speakers. News organizations everywhere are struggling with these issues.

What I also heard was that their newsrooms have come to see the risks in jumping on anything that is out there circulating on social media. In same cases, they have been burned; in other cases they are disillusioned when they see other outlets that  aggregate, retweet or otherwise promote anything that seems like it could generate attention and traffic.

I won’t be so bold as to predict that the tide is turning in favor of restraint and verification; there will always be outlets that reap early traffic by pointing to unverified claims and content that grab attention, regardless of veracity.

But I do see a growing number of news organizations who view restraint and verification as viable counter-strategies that can deliver a different form of viral value. By waiting and checking the content they are still able to participate in these stories, and to grab some traffic. The difference is they do so by debunking false information, or underlining what is suspect or unconfirmed. It requires more thought and effort, and it means being willing to forgo quick-hit traffic.

When much of the competition is playing the short game for clicks, you can play a slightly longer game and still carve out a place in the viral content space. It was nice to see that this strategy is taking hold among some Latin American media.

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Craig Silverman ( is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
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