News, in 140 characters or less

Published 4:35 pm Saturday, January 23, 2010

I don’t expect everyone who starts reading this column to finish it.

In fact, both my mother and my wife, when they get to the next paragraph, will roll their eyes and turn to the next page. But that’s OK; I’m used to being ignored at home.

My wife and my mother are both proud Facebook Refusers and Twitter Deniers. They say the services are a waste of time and cannot understand why people don’t just call each other on the phone — or maybe write a letter if they feel like sitting down at a keyboard to communicate.

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They’re not alone in snubbing social media, but surveys show that a larger percentage of Internet users each year turns to such services for everything from news about family and friends to real-time, on-the-scene updates on breaking news events around the world. Twitter, for example, became famous for the updates that Iranian citizens posted about the brief uprising that followed that nation’s elections last summer.

In fact, a recent survey by IBM’s Media and Entertainment group found that online readership of newspaper Web sites had decreased among 18- to 24-year-olds from 2008 to 2009, falling by about 15 percent during the period.

Many of those people turned to social networking sites for their news. Fortunately, for those of us who spend hours every day composing 300- or 500-word stories for print and the Web, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of people older than 55 who access newspaper Web sites, so we won’t soon be abbreviating all of our stories to fit into Twitter’s text-message-friendly 140-character format.

Still, trends in the business world are ignored at the peril of the businesses they affect. Think of the American automakers that were caught with their V-8 engines down during the late ‘70s.

Savvy media outlets are working day and night to understand how to be relevant to a new generation of potential news consumers, and social media seems destined to be a big part of the mix.

Here at the Suffolk News-Herald, it wasn’t all that long ago that we measured our readership by the average paid circulation of print newspapers. Today, we talk about “reach,” defined as a combination of paid subscribers, newsstand sales and electronic contacts each day. Lately, we’ve taken to breaking down that electronic component into Web site visitors, email newsletter subscribers, Twitter followers and Facebook fans, and we update the number daily.

You’ll notice in the weeks and months to come a sharper focus on those electronic components as we work to catch up with the online trends. We’ll be updating our Twitter account ( more frequently, we’re renovating our Facebook profile and we’re always working on our Web site.

None of this will get my wife to start sending tweets on Twitter, but maybe our grandkids will learn to be interested in the news by something they see on Facebook one day.