Chris Boutet’s desk at the National Post would be completely unassuming if it weren’t for the towering, narrow monitor in the corner, swarming with activity. Its sole purpose: to display TweetDeck, a program that monitors Twitter feeds. Boutet, who follows 1,600 of them, needs it to stay organized. “I have that unblinking eye staring at me at all times,” he says, laughing. He’s categorized the chaos into 20-odd columns: National Post feeds, other big media outlets, social media experts, etc. The monitor is updated multiple times a second. In its shadow is his other computer: an Apple laptop about half the size. The Post’s homepage is on its screen, but he leans forward and points to the lower right-hand corner. This computer alerts him when new tweets are posted as well. The Big Blind

Boutet seems the perfect figure to head the paper’s web team. Wearing a dark blazer and square, thick-framed glasses, and sporting a hint of stubble, he’s young but not too young, cleancut but Silicon Valley casual, professional but enthusiastic.Even though social networking is only one aspect of Boutet’s job as the Post’s senior producer of digital media, it takes up a hefty chunk of his workday. “We’re not a large newsroom,” he says. “We have to be really careful about how we parcel our time.”

The Post’s web team is probably the scrappiest and most experimental of any mainstream Canadian media brand, judging from the way websites like Mediabistro, SocialTimes and the Nieman Journalism Lab cover its web activity. The Post currently maintains more than a dozen Twitter feeds, an extensive network of blogs, a busy Facebook page, and occasionally reporters live-chat with readers. The Post is also experimenting with Instagram, the iPhone photo-sharing app, and other mobile social networking tools. Whenever the web team sees traffic flooding to a Post article from an aggregate site like Reddit, they embed a banner in the body of the story: “Welcome Reddit readers!”

In 2010, the web team branched out into Foursquare, the location- based social networking site that lets users “check in” at real-world locations (like city hall or Starbucks) to tell their friends where they are. Then members can read tips and upload photos related to the venue. The person who checks in the most often becomes a location’s “mayor.” Boutet and his staffers started playing with the platform in May 2010, when it was just over a year old, creating imaginary venues and leaving silly tips. (According to Foursquare, the National Post’s headquarters is home to “Chris Boutet’s Soul,” which is described as the finest theme park and hookah bar in Toronto.)

Office games aside, Boutet saw enough value in Foursquare to establish an official partnership in which the Post provides reviews and news stories about locations that Foursquare users visit. “We’re not doing it because we think it’s cool,” he claims. It’s unclear, however, how the Post can benefit from a service that doesn’t have all that much to do with its national audience. Foursquare is a relatively tiny service, with only 6.5 million users worldwide (Twitter has 175 million; Facebook has 500 million) and, as the Post discovered, it has its limitations. Much of the content that the web team is able to publish is Toronto-centric—a problem that has stopped other publications from jumping on board. “I think it’s very exciting,” says Jennifer MacMillan, communities editor for The Globe and Mail. But based on where the Globe’s readers are, it hasn’t adopted Foursquare. For now, it’s sticking to Facebook and Twitter.

But like the bosses at many news organizations, those at the Post are hungry for innovation. “If we don’t do things differently, then we’re just not going to survive. People want to get their news when they want it, on the platform that they want to receive it on,” says Paul Godfrey, Postmedia ceo, during a keynote speech at the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ annual conference last November. The event was titled “Media in Transformation: Harnessing Today’s Digital World,” and Godfrey believes that social media is a big part of that transformation. But the Post’s web editors take on new projects largely based on interest, with few formal policies and little top-down direction.

Boutet says the approach has been “shotgun-blasting content everywhere” to see what works. On Foursquare, his team posted up to a dozen stories every day from July to January, at varied venues like Roy Thomson Hall and Dairy Queen, but they’ve scaled back to five or fewer. According to Boutet, tips like “Try the cappuccino!” often drowned out breaking news that the Post was pushing. Their reviews also saw limited return in number of readers. “It takes nothing— basically nothing—for us to put them up, so we still put them up,” he says. “But we don’t see a lot of actual trackback on that.”

The Post made a bigger splash in January after it revived its presence on the blogging platform Tumblr. The Post’s “Trenta graphic — which showed that the newest Starbucks coffee cup is actually larger than the average human stomach — spread rapidly through social networks and blogs, ending up on cnn the same day. Its success was partly due to the team’s “brute force” strategy: after tagging a post by subject, they find all the online social channels related to that topic and “just hit follow, follow, follow, follow, follow,” to try to catch tastemakers’ attention. They believe that by paying attention to the people who set the online conversation, they will reciprocate and help spread the Post’s message. “It’s a very manual, laborious process,” says Boutet.

The hope is that all of this effort, including hours steeped in analytic software, will help the newspaper find a solvent place in the digital era. Yet for all of Boutet’s enthusiasm, it’s unclear exactly what the Post gains from the web team’s hard work—and that’s dangerous. The Post is investing a lot of staff time and energy (and thus money) that could go toward other projects. In a world of shrinking newsrooms and unprecedented competition, where investigative journalism, fact-checkers and copy editors are often dismissed as luxuries, a news organization needs to be able to justify every strain on its resources. If a dollar value can’t be found, then they’re wasting their time just as much as a teenager surfing Facebook at the back of the class.

It’s not just the Post that’s gone crazy for social media, of course. It’s described in messianic terms almost everywhere. “I think it offers the key to survival,” says Mathew Ingram, senior writer at GigaOM, a technology blog that covers everything from iPhone games to biofuel. It is listed among the world’s top blogs by tech-news and reviews site CNET and the leading blog directory Technorati. “I don’t want to overstate it, but I think that’s the only thing newspapers have going for them,” Ingram says. Businesses of all kinds have embraced the future: according to a 2009 survey of over 500 American companies, 86 percent are using social networks for business purposes. Amongst the news media, there are few holdouts, says Jay Rosen, press critic, writer and professor of journalism at New York University. Rosen is known for supporting citizen journalism. In February, he was selected as a member of Postmedia’s new digital advisory board. “There is a dwindling number of curmudgeons that says journalism is journalism, and that we don’t need any of this new technology,” he says. “They’re slowly disappearing and they have no influence.”

By now, the business uses of social media are fairly well understood. It can help push your content out to the masses and reach people outside your core audience. By using Tumblr, for instance, the Post has tapped into a younger, female demographic. Social media can help build loyalty to a brand by encouraging repeat readers. And when the newspaper model is often dismissed as obsolete, it’s useful to be perceived as tech-savvy and progressive. But so far, newsrooms have banked on the conventional wisdom that if you build a big audience, advertising dollars will follow; soon, they hope. Unfortunately, you can’t pay your staff with your reputation. The question is whether social media is capable of paying off in real dollars and cents.

“If you want to really do community and social media properly, it costs money,” says Ingram, who served as the Globe’s communities editor until January 2010. “It takes resources and time. The only thing worse than not doing it at all is doing it in a half-assed way because that actually can make your reputation worse.” However, Ingram’s thoughts on how to make a return on that investment are still fuzzy. “There is no clear value chain between responding to someone on Twitter and some tangible net income. There just isn’t.” Even with the availability of analytical data like what sites readers came from, or how long they spend on the page, the monetary value of social media is frustratingly vague. Ingram argues that this shouldn’t matter— many news outlets’ priorities are just as intangible. “What’s the return on investment of having fewer mistakes in your newspaper?” he asks. “The reality is that people read newspapers that are riddled with mistakes all the time, and they don’t seem to care.”

But in an era of diminishing revenues, media owners need to care. The reality is that online advertising is so cheap that it may not be worth the effort—and the rates are only getting cheaper. In 2009 the average cost to reach 1,000 viewers on news sites dropped 10 percent from $11.40 to $10.26 in just half a year, according to Adify—now known as Cox Digital Solutions—an organization which helps maximize revenue for advertisers, agencies and publishers. ComScore, an Internet marketing research company, reports that the low cost of advertising on social networking sites could be to blame for cheapening online ad sales overall. Its figures suggest social networks dragged down average rates by as much as 18 percent between mid-2009 and mid-2010.

One former newspaper executive is skeptical of how much social media can deliver in terms of driving page views. “Look at how much traffic Facebook and Twitter really contribute,” says Ken Maclean, who until August 2010 was vice president of digital media for Postmedia’s eastern properties. “The most important traffic driver you’ve got is making sure you rank high on Google. That is going to drive a lot more traffic than a lot of the activities you do around social media.” Take the Vancouver Sun, for instance. According to Maclean, the Sun has achieved tremendous success by using its man-hours to go deeper into stories than anyone else, striving to reach the top spot on web searches. “If you look at the sheer volume of page views that you can monetize,” he says, “Google at this stage is at least as important, if not more so, than social media.”

One would expect that with so much talk, so much promise and so much at stake, news organizations would track social media closely, developing long-term action plans and figuring out how this will help them survive. For Postmedia at least, that doesn’t seem to be true. “At least in the environments I have worked in, there wasn’t a really consolidated social media strategy,” says Maclean. The activities didn’t get their own budgets, for instance, so the return on investment was unclear. “I don’t know too many folks who have really taken it to that level yet.” This seems to be the standard—a 2009 survey found that only 40 percent of companies using social media had budgets for them, and only 16 percent were trying to track the return on their investment.

So why have news organizations been so quick to adopt social media? “There’s a certain level of pressure to chase the shiny cat toy,” says Maclean. The omnipresent hype has pushed people to get into these new channels without clearly thinking about the why— they just feel they need to be there. Maclean compares it to the proliferation of iPad news applications, which are often rushed out by publishers who don’t know how they’re going to make any money off them. “I’m a big believer of ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,’” Maclean says, “and I would apply that to everything, but social media is the one place where it really is not that well defined. Everything else, every dollar we have spent, every activity we undertook, I would always look at it and say, ‘What is this actually delivering in terms of something we can monetize?’ But I would say that for social media, people are not tracking it well and they don’t really understand what the benefit is versus the effort that’s being put into it.”

Somehow social media has been absolved of the burden of proof. Analytics services can provide nuanced data about readers, who are much easier to track online than off. But even though the tools are there, they aren’t always being used effectively. “There haven’t been any direct requests about specific social media campaigns, per se,” says Ali Shah, a web data analyst for Postmedia. “I think we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg.” Shah creates general week-by-week reports that include some social media metrics, and content producers have access to statistical data on their own, but no one’s really asking for the richer detail and the analysis that the research team can provide.

The Post team prefers to watch its own analytics—after all, the paper acts semi-autonomously from Postmedia and was the first to take full responsibility of its web presence. The organization as a whole is missing what Shah calls a “culture of analytics,” something he’s seen at previous employers, where people relied on the data to gauge performance and guide business decisions. “That is not happening,” he says, chuckling. “It’s more looking at it in aggregate: ‘Facebook: Is it going up or down?’” Most editors aren’t interested in the nuanced data; they only want to know if it’s driving traffic. But often web initiatives are started without tracking codes in place, so response isn’t even measured.

“When people have to be responsible for the numbers, there’s an element of fear,” Shah says. “When numbers go down, they’re accountable for it. When you bring in more accountability, backed by numbers, it kind of makes the situation a little scary.”

All of the buzz around social media is a by-product of unrealistic expectations. “The days of expecting your readership to come to your website are long gone,” claims Boutet. “They expect news to come to them.” But consider Twitter, the current paragon of social media. A Pew Research Center study done in June 2010 found that just 17 percent of American Twitter users regularly get news from the service. Just one percent of those surveyed called Facebook one of their top sites for news. Compare that with the full third of the general public that is using search engines at least three times a week to get their news. Apparently Twitter’s not that crucial to most people in terms of news gathering. Another Pew study, released earlier in 2010, found that “being able to follow the news site through social networking” ranked dead last in a list of eight features important to users, falling just behind “interactive content like graphics and quizzes.”

The reality is that social networking is not an absolutely essential component of a media brand—at least for now. “Has Malcolm Gladwell not being active on social media affected the sales of his articles in The New Yorker, or his books? I would think not,” says Mitch Joel, president of digital marketing agency Twist Image, whose clients include Air Canada, TD Canada Trust and Microsoft. “There’s not a hard and fast rule that says this is the way it has to be. You can look at brands like the Economist—people will pay for that which they have defined as being valuable. Social media doesn’t really change that.”

It’s unfortunate that social media has had the role of saviour thrust upon it by a desperate industry. It has real, valuable applications in the newsroom, but working miracles is not one of them. “People see it as a zero-sum game, where if social media isn’t going to save you then there’s no point in doing it,” says Joel. “And that’s not true.” News organizations need to step back and reevaluate social media as a tool, not as a cultural trend. “Unless you have that core strategy in mind, just to do any of this stuff in the hope or prayer that it’s going to save you is insane.” It’s unknown what the Post has to gain by being the coolest kids on the digital block. But it’s all too clear what it has to lose.