Social Media And Web Publishing: Interview With John Boitnott

As part of my ongoing series documenting and analyzing social media power users and influencers, I thought it would be interesting to learn from industry-current professionals making a difference in the space.

John Boitnott, Social Media Strategist at Village Voice Media was kind enough to answer some of my questions.  Village Voice Media owns and operates 15 of the largest weekly newspapers across the US.  John has more than 15 years experience in both traditional and new media, is a top Digg user, and is skilled at developing ultra-popular web content.

1.  Previously you were web editor for NBC 11 Bay Area and recently you’ve made the jump to Village Voice Media – two traditional media outlets which have evolved into popular web publishers.  What are the largest challenges you’ve faced when helping traditional media organizations achieve success with the social web?

Many traditional media organizations are currently suffering in ways large and small because of their lack of involvement in the social web – and they don’t even know it in many cases. Imagine a large, traditional media company as an aircraft carrier. They don’t just stop on a dime and turn. It takes them a relatively long period of time to head 90 degrees in a different direction. There’s also the fact that they don’t go particularly fast in terms of speed. There is entrenched bureaucracy to deal with. For a large corporation, which has made money a certain way for much of its existence, to put faith and trust into a series of ideas and conceptions that haven’t matured yet (the social web) — it means they will take longer to implement changes than companies that are more nimble. There’s also the fact that a traditional media organization may be but a tiny part of a truly massive conglomerate that may be one of the largest companies in the world.  How will truly massive mega-corporation QUICKLY recognize the rapidly growing value of the social web on a practical level when its main business is selling airplane or refrigerator parts. The answer is – it probably won’t.

So in this area I have faced many challenges both large and small. Most of them involved the fact that very few of the on-line journalists in the business actually recognized the fact that social media could separate you from the pack. It takes you to a completely different level. That’s a foreign idea to many.

Many journalists just think they should come to work, write their set number of articles – decide where to put it on their sites – and then head home. Adding social media to my set of tools immediately created new opportunities for my companies and allowed them to be seen by millions of more eyeballs than if I had not done it. However, your superiors (who are old-schoolers naturally) then struggle to come to terms with what you can do – and how it fits into their traditional newsgathering/disseminating models. Village Voice Media is aggressive in determining how to melt traditional practices and social media into each other. What we are realizing at my company is that one’s effectiveness as a journalist now may depend to some degree on your social media prowess. It’s absolutely a revolutionary concept – and one that many old schoolers may scoff at or ignore.

2.  How large would you estimate the journalism digital divide to be?  How can we help bridge this?

As journalists we were not trained to understand how to get page views. We were trained to do our very best in terms of gathering information and disseminating it to the public. So the chasm between old and new is wide in many areas. I hear friends who work at newspapers speak of the “dinosaurs” who scowl at them from the other sides of their large, empty newsrooms. It’s sad to hear. However, I hear from others who say their newpapers or TV stations are making massive efforts to make every staff member put their work straight on the web immediately. So the answer to your question is that the digital divide varies for each location and company.

How can we bridge the digital divide? Communicate to those who do not have “web skills” and teach them. Get them to enjoy it as much as they enjoy their older methods. In my opinion, a journalist has to know how to enter into social media communities on Twitter, Facebook, Digg and others. They have to learn how to bring their content to a larger number of people than before with the help of those communities. These skills can be taught over a period of time, but involve a lot of dedication on the part of the learner.

3.  What is your perspective on Digg these days?  Do you think the removal of shouts really matters considering the fact that so many connected users are on Twitter?

Digg is taking obvious steps to increase it’s ability to make a profit and have successful long term growth. The removal of shouts did not turn out to be tremendously earth-shattering, even though there have been differences that have been noticeable. Adding Twitter digg retweets to the equation was smart in my view, since it allows Digg to perhaps take advantage of the monumental growth Twitter is going through. The latest thing that most people in the Digg community are very happy about is the company’s plans to embed advertising among the various submissions that make it to the front page. We really don’t know too much about it yet, but many people think it is a good step.

4.  Many bloggers/independent content producers are reading this – can you offer your three best tips for creating popular content?

These ideas are simple but pretty important:

1.) Design of a site is a key component. It is more difficult for a presentation that is considered amateur-looking or ugly to become viral. I sounds simple but I see lousy presentation constantly.

2.) If your content includes writing, ask yourself: Is it well written? So much of what I run into is just simply not in that category.

3.) Is there something more than just writing to your post? I need pictures. I need video. I need an “infographic.” So does the public.  Look at this – people love those things.

5.  What are some qualities an organization – whether a publishing company or a marketing agency – should look for when bringing on board a social media strategist?

In order to be a good social media strategist – you have to be a diplomat. You have to understand how to communicate one way with someone and a completely different way with another. That is an art and it is damn hard to do when you are talking constantly to a hundred different people.

The person who becomes a social media strategist has to have some sort of a track record in more than one of the popular sites. They have to be able to demonstrate their ability to bring eyeballs to whatever content they represent.

One of the most important things I am looking for in a strategist is the level of joy they find in doing what they do. I would want someone who spends much of their time interacting with Digg or Stumbleupon to actually value those commmunities – even love them — and not simply view them as marketing tools or something.

6.  Do you think print media is still relevant?

I have two thoughts on this:

Anyone who works or has worked at a TV station in the existence of that medium knows that quite a bit of what appears on the evening news is a re-worked version of what was in the paper that morning. It was like that 20 years ago, and it is still like that now. So, in that one huge aspect, newspapers continue to be relevant.

Having said that — it is undeniable that TV and the Internet – especially the “real-time web” that is now emerging through social media sites such as Twitter – make the newspaper look tremendously out-of-date. If Barack Obama just gave a speech in Cairo, we all know that the speech is being instantly tweeted and retweeted by someone. Then Rachel Maddow is doing 7 minute-long interviews an hour later. By the time the newspaper shows up with it’s articles the next morning, I have moved on to something else and so have millions.

7.  What’s your favorite social community on the web right now (large or small) and what makes them special?

This is going to sound bizarre but my favorite is Skype. It is the glue that keeps all my social media activities together. That is where many of my friends and co-workers are. That’s where we talk to each other. That’s where we strategize. We can actually hear each other’s voices the way they would sound if they were in the room with us, do free conference calls and even video chat if we feel like it. The various chat programs on gmail, aol, yahoo, msn and all the others are fine too…. but Skype is where it’s at as far as I’m concerned. I know one person who talks to their mother in the Phillipines using it. I communicate with my web editors using it – and I actually look at the expressions on their faces as I talk. It’s revolutionary and wonderful.

I like Twitter too these days – but only if I am using Seesmic Desktop, Tweetie or Tweetdeck, to “translate” the flow of what is happening everywhere among all the people I know.

Be sure to follow John on Twitter @jboitnott


Recent web stats on Village Voice Media include:

  • 40 percent of pageviews comes from the blogs on the sites, up from 20 percent a year ago.
  • The weeklies are essentially guides to local nightlife, and nearly all of the advertising is from local businesses (restaurants, bars, concert venues, clubs, local shops). In fact, 90 percent of the online ads across the network are local.
  • They are getting $7 to $12 CPMs for local ads and $14 CPMs for geo-targeted ads.
  • They are on track to bring in $20 million in online revenues this year, nearly double from 2008.
  • Although this represents only a little more than 10 percent of the company’s total revenues, it is growing fast. Local ad revenue alone grew 140 percent last year. Content pageviews across the network are on track to top 500 million this year, versus 318 million last year. (Or, an average of 42 million pageviews a month).
  • Total pageviews for the year are on track to hit 4 billion, with the vast majority of that coming from Backpage.


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