Archive for August, 2011

Virginia Tech seismograph, WSLS
Tuesday’s earthquake was a perfect “example of a breaking news story that called for audience engagement to be at the center of news reporting,” as Matt DeRienzo, a group editor of Journal Register Company’s publications in Connecticut, wrote in a blog post describing his company’s new-gathering efforts. I quote him mainly because the Journal Register currently is pointed to as a digital-first model, which a heavy emphasis on the Web and on social media, and yet as I read what DeRienzo describes I was struck by the parallels with what I knew had gone on at a number of the properties in my own Media General. JRC gets plenty of positive press, we don’t, so I’ll point out a few of the success stories.

In the most detailed story I have received so far, Ike Walker at WCMH in Columbus, Ohio, describes a big success using Twitter — and key to it is something mentioned a few months ago in a post by The Lost Remote:

“Within a minute of the quake hitting here our email inbox was filled with people asking what had happened. We tried to answer as many of them via email as possible but immediately switched our strategy to social media. Within a few minutes we had started the hashtag #columbusquake and were asking for people to share their stories and locations. The #columbusquake hashtag generated a large number of submissions and made it easier to track conversations in real-time with our users. Lesson learned: when you have a big event like this and you want to dominate the conversation at least on Twitter start a hashtag.”

Beyond Twitter, he has more often-repeated lessons — have staff dedicated to Web-first efforts, pay attention to what people in your audience are saying, and respond to them:

“As people continued to send us stories we used them on air and then created a Google map with pinpoints to map all of the stories showing how widespread the reports were. Because the reports were coming in so fast we had to dedicate a person to handling the map. I don’t know yet how many people clicked on the map however the story got almost 30k page views.

“The conversation continued on Facebook with our staff jumping in and engaging users.”

Kevin Justus at WSPA in Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C., says his station was soliciting information from the audience via social media 20 minutes before others in the market:

“Immediately after we felt the tremor we sent out a simple ‘Did anyone else feel that shaking?’ on Facebook and Twitter. Within 10 seconds we had more than 50 comments, so we knew it was an earthquake. We continued to cover the story on social media as the information came in. Our Facebook wall became a forum for our user’s experience with the earthquake.”

And cross-promote your online and social efforts, not only purely as promotion but also because during a news event such as this, phone lines and websites might be overwhelmed. Kari Pugh, the interim managing editor at the News & Messenger/insidenova.com in Prince William County, Va., just outside Washington, says she heard from readers that the phone and Internet were so overwhelmed in the region that the only news they were getting at times was from text relaying the updates to the insidenova.com Facebook page:

“We gained about 300 Facebook fans yesterday, and we were the only news source for people because Internet and cell and landline phone lines were clogged. They said they were able to get our FB updates via text. We posted continuous updates about damage, traffic, evacuations, aftershocks from the time it happened til about 1:30 a.m.”

(For a refresher on tips for “mastering live news,” have a look back a post on the subject at Steve Buttry’s blog.)

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A survey from Ad Age shows why news sites — or any content provider — need to be concerned about comments on the site and ways to engage the audience. In my own experience, people my age and older often seem baffled that anyone even bothers to comment on things they see on the Web, and that is reflected in the survey:

“Fully half of the 1,003 households that took part in our online survey said that adding more tools for engagement would have zero impact on the likelihood that they would visit a news site. Add in the 13% who said they would be less likely to visit and you get nearly two thirds of site visitors seemingly uninterested in having comments, photos and videos from their peers mixed in with the news content from the staff reporters and editors.”

But breaking down the numbers changes the picture substantially:

“Younger millennials (18- to 24-year-olds) are three times as likely as those 55 and older to say that engagement tools will make them more likely to visit a site.

“Almost 80% of the 55-plus crowd said they rarely or never comment on stories, compared to only 24% of the 18- to 24-year-olds and 27% of the 25- to 34-year-olds.”

As Matt Carmichael sums up in the Ad Age post, the younger generations “aren’t building the same news habits as previous generations who are keeping print afloat.” Online, where your organization’s future is, you have to pay attention to the habits those groups are developing.

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Having said in the past that while I was not entirely comfortable with using “brand” as the modern term of discussion for a journalist’s reputation but accepted it as the term already in wide use, I find myself now saying I’m not ready to make a similar leap to describe the online interactions between journalists and their audience as “transactions,” as Lewis DVorkin does at Forbes. He explains:

“Now, journalism is not commerce and it’s not advertising. But the Web’s impact on the news media is not dissimilar. No longer is the journalist addressing the abstract notion of ‘the reader.’ On the Web, the author connects one at a time with individual readers, right down to the IP address. That means journalists now must engage, or ‘transact,’ accordingly.”

Although I can acknowledge it’s just a degree of a semantic difference, and we may both be looking for the same end result, “transaction” doesn’t feel quite human enough to me.

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New York Times logo
Felix Salmon makes the case for the New York Times’ version of a paywall, which in the Times’ case is a “leaky” wall, not hard to avoid and, as Salmon points out, not even trying to block a great deal of traffic. The argument is that letting access remain fairly easy encourages frequent visitors, and then the paywall reminds them of how they can pay for this thing they like so much. Though to me that sounds like putting up a sign on an open park saying it costs $5 to enter the park, then hiring a bum to carry a jar around and poke people while asking if they’ve paid yet. If the argument carries water, why not have no paywall but have a prominent button on every page where people can choose to pay as much as they like? If they WANT to pay to support the Times because they love it so much, that should work, shouldn’t it? Have Sally Struthers record a video intro. “Just $5 a day can feed an investigative reporter who otherwise would sit home in his underwear and blog. He’s waiting.”

Not that I’m against the idea that people should pay for news. I’m just on the fence myself on the topic of paywalls. I can see merit to the argument that paywalls inevitably will turn news sites into niche products targeting a wealthier demographic rather than general-interest sites benefitting the public at-large without regard to payment. However, that’s kind of what newspapers have become anyway, while television (free news) has become the main place most people get their news. There are varying approaches to paywalls. As I said a couple days ago, the experiments continue.

8/16/2011 UPDATE: At Poynter.org, Jeff Sonderman makes an excellent point about “leaky” paywalls — that essentially is the same pay model as is used for the print edition. More:

“The Newspaper Association of America has long claimed there are 2.3 readers for every print edition circulated — which means more people were picking up a loose paper at their kitchen table, coffee shop or subway station than were buying one. And when someone drops a quarter into a newspaper box on the street, you could get away with taking an extra copy (or all of them).

“So, if it’s always been possible on any given day to pick up the local paper somewhere for free, why did people ever pay? Not because they had to, but because it was easier to get it placed on their doorstep every morning (convenience), because they felt if they were going to read it every day they ought to pay (duty), or because they wanted to support the institution and people that produced it (appreciation).

“Those are the same three reasons someone might subscribe to the The New York Times’ digital content.”

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Maybe it’s a good thing that a newspaper reported incorrectly that a Seattle-area woman had been murdered in 1996. Maybe her kids will appreciate her more now. On the other hand, maybe it was wishful thinking on someone’s part.

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It’s funny what bubbles up at the same time in the industry. On Tuesday, Steve Buttry posted what he thinks the lessons are from the launch and failure of TBD.com, which a year ago many of us thought/hoped was a future model for the news business. Maybe it was, but the guy bankrolling it decided the gap from the present to the future was bigger than he was willing to try to jump all at once — which is one of Steve’s lessons, to start small or be patient.

You’ll find echoes of a number of Steve’s points in a feature posted today by the Business Insider, Media Mavens Weigh In: The Future of News Is …. The “mavens” are not equally insightful, as you’ll note off the bat when the first opinion comes from Glenn Beck — that’s not a political statement; his takeaway on the future of news is merely pedestrian and obvious, as are those of several others. But as a group, the visions of the future, from the least detailed to the most, line up in many ways with various things TBD was trying to do. That’s not to say TBD definitely had it right. It was too early to tell when the plug was pulled.

The experiments continue.

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Sorry for the long lag without a post. I spent several days getting sunburned and repairing a pelican’s broken neck (above, with a rubber band providing tension to keep the head from tilting back until the cement in the neck set). After several days of sanity (and admiring how the Star-News in Wilmington, N.C., seems to have managed to hold on to a larger news hole than many papers its size in this economy), I am back to work. … Not that I have anything to say today.

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Among the phrases used in recent years in such efforts as the NewspaperNext report to try to get journalists to rethink the business in light of the changes in culture, work/leisure habits and technology was “jobs to be done,” as in ask yourself what is it that people really need help with in their daily life that news organizations are equipped to handle. One of the answers is providing them with something to talk about. Broadly speaking, that’s what good journalism does. In recent years, as social networking has taken off, it has become clear that conversation is one of the things people value most about the news. They share links constantly. An article by Megan Garber at the Nieman Journalism Lab site looks at whether this conversation — more specifically, the communities that can form around the conversation — is where news organizations should be looking for the future business model:

“News outlets are certainly getting into the community game — through social media, of course, but also through IRL events like the NYT’s TimesTalks, the Journal’s Weekend Conversations, the Texas Tribune Festival, the Register-Citizen’s newsroom cafe, and on and on — but often those happenings are presented as subsidiary products, as events that are separate from the news itself. They’re just another revenue stream — just another product sold, just another milkshake.

“But: What if they were more than that? What if news outlets were to consider themselves as doing a job rather than selling a product? And what would happen to organizations’ business models if we started to think of ‘the news,’ at its core, not as a product, but as an event?”

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