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Filling in the Gaps: Takeaways from Alex Ihnen’s ON TAP Talk

This past Wednesday, I attended another exciting Social Media ON TAP event. This month our speaker was Alex Ihnen, owner and editor of the wildly popular news site, nextSTL. His site is completely run by volunteers and yet it has been cited by the Wall Street Journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and many other reputable news sources. Whether you couldn’t make it to the event or had a little trouble keeping up, here are jWeb’s takeaways from his talk.

When You Find a Gap, Fill It

Even though Ihnen writes almost exclusively about St. Louis, he is not a native St. Louisian. However, when he attended his first Forest Park Southeast meeting, the representatives and citizens discussed several major projects happening in the community.

“When I left, I thought, ‘I can’t wait to read about this in the [St. Louis] Post-Dispatch.’” Ihnen laughs with the crowd at his past naiveté. “Of course, no one covers neighborhood meetings. So how do you learn and get involved in the community when all that’s cover is who got shot and if the Cardinals won? That’s what traditional news has turned into.”

Ihnen found a hole in his local media source and decided to fill it. His early blogs were “like Twitter. Just three sentences and a video.” But his current site features local, community-centered news from writers all over St. Louis.

Change the Way You Think About Success

nextSTL gets over 3,500 site visits a day, but there’s never been a lot of money involved. “There’s enough to keep it going. Media is struggling everywhere,” he admits. He warns that companies need to change the way they think about news, social media, and an obsession with profit.

Once upon a time, businessmen believed that the number of tweets you received translated into a certain number of dollars. In reality, traffic on social media is “no indicator of success. You can’t be fake [on social media] and you can’t buy [success]. If you do, your not getting the attention of people that care.” Recruit people who want to write the news because they love to write the news.

That said, “Everyone should be paid–and paid well–for their writing.”

What Is the News?

So what is “The News” in the modern age? “How does a Twitter account differ from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch? I sometimes make fun of so-called ‘breaking news’ that I’ve known about it for awhile,” Ihnen laughs. He goes on to explain that the difference between professional journalists and your average blog writer comes down to journalistic standards. And with a degree in journalism, Ihnen is well versed in what is expected.
“Even if I write a post about a new building going up in the community, a newspaper will make sure they get a quote and permission to publish it from the contractor.” This differentiation may mean that “traditional” news sources may never go away so long as sources and readers prefer the long way around.

Curation is More Important than Ever

“Nowadays, people expect to have information for free.” Inherent in Ihnen’s talk was the knowledge that not only do people want free information, but they expect there to be an answer to any question at their fingertips. The latter expectation means that anyone who knows the answer can provide the information online.

However, “there are no barriers to bringing new voices in. So we need curators to tell us what’s important.” Many news sites—including nextSTL—act as a filter to help people figure out what they should be reading with the free minutes they have in their day.

In Ihnen’s case, his curation usually targets projects he believes his community will care about on a personal level. “As a citizen you can’t act unless you have something to aim at and our whole system is designed to keep it that way. And we’re comfortable about it. If you’re angry about something, I try to point you to who you should be mad at.” Providing this unique curation service to the community is responsible for his site’s wild success.

Websites vs. Social Media

When Ihnen first started blogging about his community, social media sites had not yet featured places for long-form articles. Blogs were the only way to go. Today, more social media sites offer users and businesses opportunities to publish articles straight to their platform. “Websites are still valuable,” Ihnen specifies. “Your putting an anchor down. But they’re being replaced by social media.”

The downside to social media articles? “No longevity. Social media is just a tool.” However, Ihnen was inconclusive on how to use this tool consistently. “It’s really hard to keep up. By the time you’ve mastered [one social media platform], people have moved on.” Perhaps that’s why websites are still so essential. At the very least, user behavior is more predictable on a website than on social media.

There’s a limit to what social media can do

When asked where he draws the line between journalist and advocate, Ihnen responded that he has “found the limits of social media.” You may expect that if you have 300 followers, you’ll always have 300 people on your side when things get messy. Eventually, you’ll find out “not all your followers are going to sign your petition.”

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