Archive for June, 2011

Ad Age interviewed Jill Abramson on Thursday after she was named to be the next executive editor of the New York Times, and to me the most instructive of all of her comments were in the answer to the very first question listed: “What did you learn during your six-month stint last year diving deep into the online side?” Read it for yourself, but in summary the key things I see there are: She realized that the Times has been slow to get rolling online in the morning; editors at the Times remained so print-centric that they held back stories that were ready to go only because they wanted better play in print than they would get on that particular day; and the only competition that the Times traditionally had taken note of each night, when comparing what stories others were using, were the Washington Post and perhaps (so she says) the Wall Street Journal, but Politico, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, among others, needed to be in the mix.

Pointing this out is not to indict the Times. Remove the proper nouns and each of Abramson’s realizations probably has a parallel in pretty much any traditional newsroom, print or broadcast, across the country. If you don’t have any of them in your own newsroom, it’s probably a relatively recent development. How early each day (and how often) is your site breaking its own news rather than relying on wires or news culled from other sites? If you don’t have room in the next day’s paper or on the next broadcast for a story, do you hold it back entirely? If you hold it, how long are you willing to keep holding it to get the play you want? Do you ever put something on the website when you know the story is being held back from your traditional platform? What competitors do you keep track of? (Wrong answer: “This is such a small market, we don’t have any competitors.” You may not have competition for ads and professional competition for news, but everyone has competition of some kind for attention and local information, even if just personal blogs. If you don’t know who/what those are, you are missing your competition.)

To that I would add another set of questions. Abramson’s interview with Ad Age apparently didn’t touch on social media, but here also — although there are individual exceptions in the newsroom — the Times, like many traditional newsrooms, tends to lag. Until less than two weeks ago, for instance, the main Times account on Twitter was an automated feed. What does your newsroom do on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Digg, etc.)? Is there a single designated person, or do a number of people in the newsroom do it? Do you just send out links to your stories, or do you have exchanges with people?

It’s good to recognize how the Internet has changed the news cycle (your deadlines) and the news ecosystem (your competition), but unless you also have changed how you think about your audience and your approach to your audience, you still have a few steps to go.

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A great little anecdote on a blog by Sarasota reporters about particularly odd news tips they are receiving from a reader, created ransom-note-style by cutting letters out of the newspaper to form words. If I were getting them, I’d kind of hope not to ever meet the tipster.

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At 1:22 p.m., my work was interrupted by an email-arrival notice; the Washington Post had sent out this breaking news alert: “Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced Thursday that he will seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.” This raises the issue of just what it is journalists are trying to accomplish when sending out a breaking news alert. It is technically true that the Post’s announcement was “breaking news” — Romney officially launched his run for president. He pulled the trigger. The paperwork is filed, and now he is subject to all the election requirements of a declared, official candidate. … However, is there any sentient individual not only on Earth but within interstellar range of the Earth’s television signals who feels the slightest twinge of surprise at this news? Any? … No? Then to my mind it’s not worth an alert, and I would wager that a great many other recipients of the alert are thinking the same thing. (For example.) If the Post made a habit of broadcasting this level of “news” via email alerts, a good many people would wonder whether it was worth the subscription for emails that interrupt work or make their phones beep/vibrate to alert them to utterly obvious or expected developments.

If you have any responsibility for such alerts to consider your own emails, before sending one you have to ask yourself: Will your audience consider them to be news that is worthy of the interruption? You send alerts to reinforce your identity as a source of fresh information important to your area (or topic). When you send out things no one really considers to be news, you convey the opposite message.

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Twitter post
Mallary Jean Tenore of poynter.org collected tips for how journalists can build a bigger, more engaged audience. They are good for reminding journalists how the online world differs from the traditional worlds of print and broadcast news. For instance, you include the names of sources in tweets and Facebook updates about your story; if that seems to grate on your traditionalist nerves, think of the traditionalist parallel: names and places, as in getting local names and local places in the paper makes the paper inherently more interesting to local readers. And the tip to tweet follow-ups, even (or especially) if your follow-up is online later in the day that you first tweeted about the story, is a reminder that the online news world is always in motion, and your potential audience is moving in and out of the social network through the day.

However, some of the tips make me cringe at the potential of some journalist somewhere thinking all the tips apply equally to all stories. For instance: “Let sources know about your story, ask them to share it.” It probably would not be a good idea to e-mail Councilman Smith and ask him to tweet about your story quoting Councilwoman Jones calling him a pig and including his paraphrase of Dan Aykroyd’s line to Jane Curtin from the old Point-Counterpoint skits on “Saturday Night Live.” Similarly: “Comment on stories that have been written about the topic, and include a link to your story” does not mean you are encouraged to spout your opinion on whatever ongoing story you are covering; any comments you make should adhere to common sense and news guidelines on social media (or, as John Robinson of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., put it, “Don’t be stupid.”)

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