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Can legal publishers retain their relevance and readership in the digital age?

Do we have a graying population reading legal periodicals and publications in print and online? If the newspaper industry is any guide, we sure do.

Veteran newspaper editor turned media executive, Alan Mutter (@newsosaur), writes that newspapers’ failure to leverage social is resulting in an aging readership – in print and online.

Though newspapers have been pretty good over the years at growing traffic on their websites, they are shockingly bad at capitalizing on the social power of the digital media to broaden their audiences.

Audience diversification is important, because the typical newspaper website is read, more or less, by the same senior citizens who take the print paper.

How bad is it? Mutter cites Greg Harmon of Borrell Associates, who has been tracking readership trends for more than a decade.

[T]he average print reader is a female nearing 60, when the average age of the national population is 43. The user of a newspaper website is a little less female than the print subscriber and just over 50 years old. Our research shows that print and web readers are basically the same people – and that the average age of the online newspaper audience keeps getting one year older every year.

How are news publishers doing at diversifying their audiences via the social power of digital media to build audience and community? Just awful, per Mutter.

Per a study of 300 Chicago news sites by professor Rich Gordon of Northwestern University, small news sites garnered a high percentage of social links to their sites while traditional news publishers garnered the majority of their links from their own web properties.

Whereas the smallest news sites in the survey drew 48.1% of their traffic from links on Facebook, the newspapers and other big sites got only 14.5% of their in-bound traffic from Facebook.

The outcome, per Mutter,

While there’s nothing wrong with using internal links to illuminate readers and expand advertising inventory, the heavy reliance on self-referential readership means that newspapers are not expanding beyond their core audience to capture younger readers. As print inexorably wanes, the lack of differentiation in the digital audience will be an obvious impediment to publishers seeking to sustain their relevance, readership and revenues in the digital age.

Granted this blog is a small news and information site. But I’ve grown readership across all age groups by being social. I regularly share and link to others content whether on this blog or on Twitter. I’ve built community, trust and readership.

Mutter sees newspapers broadening and diversifying their base by doing the same.

One way for newspapers to broaden their base is to be far more avid about aggregating and linking to third-party content than they have been to date. While these practices seem to be anathema to many journalists and publishers, they not only enrich a website’s content offerings but also have the side benefit of encouraging third parties to link more generously to publishers.

ALM with Law.com, the ABA Journal, the state bar associations, and various legal trade associations, such as the Legal Marketing Association, have done a nice job getting online with their websites. But I question whether any of these publishers are achieving anymore than newspapers when it comes to social.

  • How many of their links are coming from Facebook and other social media?
  • How much third party content do they share via social media?
  • How many publishers, editors, and executive directors of these enterprises are active and effective users of social media?
  • Are these enterprises building a culture of social becoming the primary source whereby people receive their news and information?

I am not casting blame on legal publishers and legal associations. I just wonder if legal publishers can retain their relevance, readership and revenues in the digital social age.

If not, lawyers, law firms, and companies serving the legal industry better be ready to publish their own news and information and be effective in their use social media. Guest writing for traditional publishers and getting quoted in their publications via public relations’ efforts will no longer be relevant. Advertising in such publication will be worth little.

Seem far fetched? Look at the last 4 or 5 years. Citizen publishing by companies and individuals has gone through the roof. The published product is increasingly circulated through social as opposed to pushing content or waiting until readers come to a website.

Imagine where we’ll be 5 years from now. News publishing and circulation will be done in ways we could have never imagined.