The Internet has definitely changed the way we deliver our news. When I first joined the Public Affairs Division in 1996, our news releases were faxed out at the time of release to about 300 media outlets. The fax machine would beep and buzz all afternoon sending the news across the state and beyond. We also mailed our releases in batches at the end of the week to the weeklies and radio stations. Friday afternoons were spent on the office floor as we stuffed hundreds of envelopes with our press releases. Our mailing list was north of 600 addresses.
Now that most weekly papers have e-mail access, we send out our news releases via e-mail and follow up with a fax to a list that still includes most of the major papers and some smaller ones. We are saving a lot of money on mailing costs, but it’s really hard to say how this has affected our coverage in the weeklies. We used to subscribe to a clipping service, but budget cuts throughout the years have eliminated the ability to track how often our news releases are picked up.
Last month we started a Twitter account (@NCAgriculture) to share news and information about the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. That means we are now disseminating information in a wide variety of ways: traditional news releases sent via fax and e-mail to our news partners and other interested parties, a newsroom on our ncagr.gov Web site, In the Field blog, Facebook Fan Page, Twitter, YouTube and photos posted to Flickr.
I’ve seen a lot of discussion recently on social media return on investment. It’s a bit different for us. We aren’t selling a product. Our goal is to increase awareness about the department and the services that we provide. I think we are successful in our efforts, and our number of followers for each service is increasing each week. I think we are providing fresh content and interacting with a whole new audience – an audience that we need to help spread the word that agriculture is important to North Carolina. While North Carolina has its roots firmly in the soil, much of the population doesn’t understand the connection between the farm and fork. If we want to continue to enjoy a fresh, safe, affordable and local food supply, we must keep farmers on their land.
An article that ran in the News and Observer this week about rural Internet access (“Largely rural N.C. ranks 40th in Internet access,”) got me thinking about our new efforts and how government agencies can’t totally switch over to new media and electronic-only publications yet. With the state budget bad and getting worse, it is tempting to cut publication budgets, but doing so would be at the expense of a large portion of the population. As a resident of the Triangle, it’s easy to think of North Carolina as a technology-savvy state. According to the N&O article, about seven in 10 residents can connect to the Internet at home. In talking to people who call to inquire about the Agricultural Review newspaper, I often ask if they have Internet access. A lot (probably more than seven out of 10) reply that they don’t. The Agricultural Review is a paper that the department has published since the 1920s. The legislature has looked at cutting it from the budget several times. Sure, we can – and do – publish it online, but also recognize that a significant number of our subscribers don’t have access to the Internet. An online-only publication would alienate the very people we are trying to reach – those in rural areas who most benefit from news from the ag department. We have more than 10,000 online-only subscribers of the paper, compared to about 40,000 print subscribers.
So in short, I think we need to forge ahead in our social media efforts and continue to reach out to new audiences and engage people in conversations about agriculture. However, we can’t do this at the expense of our core audience – farmers and rural residents who need the information and services provided by NCDA&CS. So we’ll continue doing what we’ve been doing to reach them through traditional methods while also exploring this fun new world of social media.