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To survive, media must see readers as contributors—not just consumers

As the news industry contemplates the latest upset (Newsweek or Washington Post, take your pick), here’s a question more people need to be asking: Why are the most passionate and informed debates on their content taking place away from their sites? Why is Twitter the default source for live commentary on breaking issues or Facebook the logical place for users to share longer articles?

The media see themselves at the vanguard of the truth—the polishers of the finished article. Social plug-ins and message boards are modern-day necessities, but the fundamental relationship between the media and the reader is the same—readers are consumers rather than contributors.

This pathway, where content is simply shared or sensationalized, is redundant. Media can’t simply create content (whether in the form of news or other media) and expect readers and subscribers to follow. The media need to build a community around their readers by both curating and creating content.

If readers can establish an identity with the media and become contributors, build links with like-minded individuals, and have incentive to stay involved, then the media companies will be able to monetize their product the right way.

The social panacea

While Facebook and Twitter are taking away some of the capacity for old media to organize and monetize their readers, there are valid questions over the social media business model. Users and usage may be increasing, thanks to mobile devices, but social networks are remarkably passive.

The latest numbers from Facebook look impressive—users and overall usage is up. There is a debate over the amount of time that people actually spend on the site. When users are polled, they respond by saying that they are spending less time, suggesting that their involvement is impulsive or a habit. Users are checking what is happening, but they are spending their time elsewhere.

If the social networks have a harder job to attain sustained engagement, this leaves room for other offerings to emerge that could do this more effectively. This approach would turn consumers into contributors and allow socializing as well as sharing online. The key—where the old and new worlds collide—is where communities of interest are formed around content.

More broadly, media companies need to radically reorganize where and how they involve their readers. One simple step would be to increase the options for contribution, from comments, crowd-sourcing sentiment, pictures and audio, all the way up to written articles. A bolder move would be removing anonymous commenting and to enact complete social identities, which would allow communities of interest to form and ultimately generate a more complete relationship between the reader and the media.

The social networks need to consider the MySpace conundrum where you are only as cool as your latest contributions. If people don’t share, they rapidly stop to care. The social networks are prone and vulnerable to the passing interests and tastes of their users, unless they help define that interest.

Social networks need to consider what they allow, but also what they provide in terms of content. MySpace dated exponentially when people stopped uploading music or images. If you are effectively outsourcing your content engine to outside parties, as Facebook does by simply providing a platform to share, you leave yourself exposed to the whims and fashions of your user base.

It seems that the best solution—for old and new media—is a blend of rich content driven professionally and by user contributions. Perhaps Jeff Bezos already has combination in mind, giving people an addition reason to stay involved with Amazon with targeted content from the Washington Post?

So far the social networks have been painted as winners, but they need to think about the longer-term content prerogative as well. Content and sociability is the answer for both sides of the social media equation: media companies need to think more about involving readers and social media need to consider how they keep their users.  At this stage, the only certainty for all sides is change that both excites and involves the reader.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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