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Posts Tagged ‘engagement’

Part of me agrees with Teresa Schmedding’s “The news industry can’t cut its way to quality.” After all, I made largely the same point myself in 2012. Schmedding writes about the massive layoff of copy editors at the Bay Area News Group and what it portends for the quality of stories that BANG will be able to produce from here on — and what the likely effect among the reading audience will be:

“When is the last time you paid more for less? Newspapers do not have a monopoly on readers’ eyes. They have a choice, and they’re choosing to not read content they can’t trust because of typos or because it is complete gibberish.”

And she’s right, of course. To a point. I certainly agree that cutting by itself can’t improve the product we are trying to convince people to buy.

My emphasis was different because I focused on the content creators, those who generate the story ideas and/or chase down the stories. People who are not creative or not bright can’t generate interesting stories, so in my view you need to pay enough to get and keep such people. All trends so far seem to show that media employers disagree.

Schmedding’s point is that everyone needs an editor. Even the most creative and intelligent people make mistakes and are blind to their own errors. I am reminded of this constantly at work, most recently this morning as my publisher remarked that in the proof of our big, annual, tourism-focused magazine there were a lot of errors I marked that were in stories I had already edited. “There always are,” I said. The entire reason copy editors are necessary is that all of us are often blind to errors we made.

During my time in the corporate media world, I was surrounded by people with primarily business training. My desk for most of my time in Richmond was alongside desks of accountants. I listened to them talk on the phone to staff at individual newspapers, explaining the rules, and I heard more budget discussions than I could ever wish to for the rest of my life. I understand perfectly well the reaction of cutting — when revenues drop, you cut expenses and seek new ways to raise revenue (I cannot address here whether media companies are adequately trying the latter). That’s why copy editors may be first on the cutting-room floor: A publication HAS to have those who write the stories, because without them there is nothing to edit; so you reduce the editing layer to preserve the content layer, opening the door to more errors in the product.

The ledger-based mindset is reducing not only staff numbers but squeezing pay so that payroll totals are shrinking even when the staff level does not. From that kind of view, it’s positive to maintain staff levels while reducing the cost of that staff.

The idea that any expenses at all need to be protected, even raised, as you cut others is counter-intuitive to this way of thinking. But to me it seems urgent. The smaller you get, the smarter you must be, because there are fewer people making sure all your t’s are crossed and i’s dotted. There are fewer people who know what to do and how to do it, so they ought to be more valuable.

However, the assumption Schmedding and I both make is that there is an audience of sufficient size to support news and that would actually do it if the quality were maintained at a high enough level. Not many local or regional publications have tested this assumption, but the Orange County Register did, to disastrous effect.

Almost every week I receive fresh reminders from current or former subscribers that they do not recognize or appreciate the difference between good work and bad. I get far more complaints when the Sudoku puzzle is left out than when there are grammatical errors in the paper’s lead story. I have been told regularly that the crossword puzzle was the only reason to get the paper.

Those are not the majority, I tell myself, but how can I ever know how many of what is left in our circulation — less than half what it was in the late 1980s — recognize and appreciate it? If I can’t find that, how do I convince the ledger-minders to offer pay to reward work that fosters it?

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Over a year ago I wrote that I soon would be posting about my experiences with a paywall. Sixteen months later, the paywall finally went up on the News-Topic’s site, so this is my first postcard.

This actually is the site’s second experience with a paywall. I was not here for the first, but I am told all hell broke loose from people angered that they could no longer get the site for free. There were about 200 paying subscribers (paid print circulation at the time was about 6,000) by the time the company switched website vendors in 2012 and the site became free again because the new vendor was not quite ready to handle a paywall. How unready it was apparently was a surprise.

Given that previous experience, folks were bracing for a similar round of trouble when the paywall went up again in mid-June, but there was barely a ripple of trouble, mostly questions from people wanting help registering online. We have eight or nine new online subscriptions so far. Our Web traffic has taken a slight dip, but nothing so far that looks significant, and it could be attributed to the slow news of the past few weeks, the pre- and post-July 4 summer holiday period. We’ll have to keep watching.

The talk this week focused on how to drive the traffic we have past the home page headlines so they have to pay. In other words, how much information beyond the headline goes on the home page. Whether the slow pace of new subscriptions is due to that is, to me, an open question, but what we put on the home page is a valid issue for us because our site’s analytics show that the home page remains the first stop for most of our users. It’s a local audience.

A proposal raised at another paper in the company is that there should be only headlines and photos because people see enough of the story on the home page and don’t dive in to read. That analysis may be correct, but the solution that was chosen seems wrong to me. First, it puts a heavy premium on good Web headlines, and newsrooms our size don’t have reliably good headline writers. Second, the behavior that practice seeks to stop is not limited to the website. At any newspaper rack, some people walk up, look in the window, read what they want and walk away. Worse, at a newspaper stack inside a convenience store, they pick up the paper, turn it over, read a lot more and then don’t buy it. There always will be window-shoppers who don’t become buyers.

No, the trick as always is figuring out how much information is needed to make a person want to read more. A headline alone — or headline and photo alone — usually won’t do it, especially with a feature. You need some text from the story. How much might vary, but it shouldn’t give away so much information that clicking on the link to read the whole story will leave the person feeling that he/she wasted time because all the really important information was on the home page.

This is not a question unique to the Web. The same basic issues apply to writing teasers on A1 for stories appearing inside the paper. That’s all you’re doing on a website homepage if your goal is to drive readers past that page. Entice the reader with factual information, but leave questions hanging. Don’t overpromise or mislead. This is a writing skill. Use your writer’s instincts.

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One of my reporters seemed stunned recently to hear me say that one day most people probably would get all of their news, including their hometown news, from Web and mobile devices. She was barely out of college and a member of the generation of “digital natives” who grew up with the Internet, yet she somehow had a baby boomer’s romantic attachment with the printed page. The newspaper’s website to her was a public service, to make news quickly available in case it was needed, but not a replacement for ink on paper. Why would there not be a demand for a printed newspaper?

I think I was more stunned to hear her than she was to hear me. I thought maybe she was joking.

We had never had an extended discussion about the news business model. I knew she was adamantly opposed to charging online readers for access to the website. She knew that advertising essentially pays the bills for a newspaper but that print circulation and advertising have been in industry-wide decline.

Yet somehow she had not done the 2 + 2 math and thought out where that all leads.

And then today Steve Buttry posted a link to a piece by Clay Shirky that fairly bursts with exasperation at people who have remained stubbornly print-centric and cheered on Aaron Kushner’s attempt, now apparently failing, to reinvigorate the Orange County Register with a fiercely print-first model, investing in more staff and more pages. Shirky has an anecdote similar to mine:

A year or so ago, I was a guest lecturer in NYU’s Intro to Journalism class, 200 or so sophomores interested in adding journalism as a second major. (We don’t allow students to major in journalism alone, for the obvious reason.) One of the students had been dispatched to interview me in front of the class, and two or three questions in, she asked “So how do we save print?”

I was speechless for a moment, then exploded, telling her that print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession.

That’s a thought I don’t like to think. I know that there are people of all ages who like to read, and importantly there are children, teenagers and 20-somethings out there who read newspapers and printed books – I see them in coffee shops, or in photos that friends post on Facebook of their children – but in general the way of the world is moving in the opposite direction. Fewer people do.

A couple of days ago, my wife was in a coffee shop downtown when a teenage girl there was told by the shop owner that she was in a picture in our newspaper’s print coverage of the Pop Ferguson Blues Heritage Festival. The girl didn’t care. Then my wife told her that the newspaper also put the photo on Facebook. The girl instantly went to find it online.

Many people have a sentimental attachment for reading on paper. But sentiment isn’t a business model.

UPDATE: Another view: “Print is under pressure but it does have a real business model, one that brings in real revenues.

“The sensible strategy is to not walk away from a print business model that works, that continues to do great journalism, that provides many good journalism jobs. Keep that print revenue coming in and keep looking for new approaches on the digital side, trying to create a digital business model that brings in real money.”

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I’m suddenly feeling much better about how my small newspaper is doing online after a recent post by Poynter’s Sam Kirkland that said:

“The latest report by analytics firm Parse.ly indicates large news sites see a greater percentage of visitors return within 30 days than small news sites do. … Sites with more than 10 million monthly visitors saw a 16 percent return rate, while sites with fewer than 1 million monthly visitors saw a 9 percent return rate. … Across Parse.ly’s entire network, an average of 11 percent of visitors returned to a site within 30 days.”

The monthly return rate on newstopic.net currently is 59.9 percent, if our Google Analytics are to be believed.

But I don’t know why that should be surprising. Unless you have local ties, you would not have much reason to seek out the content available from the News-Topic. If the hypothesis is that reader loyalty ought to make our site more attractive to online advertisers, then our site is an undiscovered gem, though our audience size (about 36,000 visitors in the past month) makes it a tiny gem.

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If innovation is all about learning how to fail, the news business is innovating its butt off.

This morning brought the news that Digital First Media, which has been making the industry’s biggest, hardest, loudest pitches for transformation away from print-centered operations, is going to close its biggest innovation, Project Thunderdome, and may begin selling newspapers.

A number of the names attached to DFM’s digital push I first became aware of because of their work elsewhere, especially Jim Brady, Steve Buttry and Mandy Jenkins. Many of the things they have advocated have felt, on a gut level, like the right things to do to get to the future of the news business. They have demonstrated ways to build engagement online and build news audience online even as the decades-long decline in newspaper circulation, which long predated the Internet, continues and TV audiences erode.

The problem, as ever, is that while most people seem to agree that the future of news is digital and mobile, the “business” part of it doesn’t seem able to innovate or migrate its way as quickly as the news part can.

Now if DFM has faltered, as the innovative hyperlocal site TBD did before it, will others pull back?

Publishers have always been wary of venturing quickly into the digital realm without proof they can generate revenue there equal to what they lose by dropping print, so doesn’t this provide just one more excuse to slow down?

And because the Orange County Register’s efforts to boost business by reinvesting in the print product also appear to be going nowhere, the new mantra in news might just become, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

But when you know the beach is eroding under your feet, just standing there isn’t much of an option. I think we all have to keep looking at the kinds of things TBD, DFM and others have been trying, and pick the ones that make sense in our own newsrooms with the staff we have. Pick up the flag and keep marching forward.

UPDATE: Steve Buttry makes the argument that you can’t call Thunderdome a failure (or TBD either) because it was never given enough time to succeed. I think he’s correct, but I don’t think the folks who can put money into these kinds of things will examine the merits of his argument closely. I’m afraid the narrative that will be constructed from the outside will say that what was tried at Thunderdome, and TBD, clearly failed or the plug wouldn’t have been pulled.

On another topic, I also just read the post from Digital First CEO John Paton explaining today’s moves. It says, in part:

“In the past two years we have learned a tremendous amount from Project Thunderdome much like others that have come before it like our Ben Franklin Project.

“We have explored, experimented but more importantly we have learned and have a much higher level of digital skills than we did before. And, best of all, a higher level of confidence in our digital abilities across our entire Company.

“Our skills in data journalism, video production, website and mobile developments are all the better for Project Thunderdome.

“But what once were fairly isolated skills located in one place are now skills shared by many in our Company. Where once initiatives, like Project Unbolt were led centrally, we now have divisions taking their own Digital First initiatives.”

In other words, Thunderdome was so successful that the company no longer needs it.

Project Unbolt, by the way, was announced Jan. 29. I guess that would make it the most successful digital initiative ever because it made itself obsolete in barely more than two months.

Maybe it’s not Orwellian of Paton to put it that way, but on a much smaller scale I have seen what happens when “successful” initiatives driven by corporate HQ suddenly end. Often, so does the success; what you thought was “buy in” was editors telling staff, “Just do it and get corporate off my butt, OK?” If that was the case at any DFM properties, it should be clear before long — probably in much less time than Thunderdome had to build these new skills and habits across DFM.

4/3/14 UPDATE: Good business perspective from Alan Mutter:

“In other words, the objectives of the Digital First investors were the antithesis of the patience – and multimillion-dollar commitment – required in the slog to identify successful interactive publishing models, whatever they eventually may turn out to be.

It would be a mistake to view the failure at Digital First as a failure of digital publishing or a reason to stop trying to get it right.”

4/4/14 UPDATE: Great contribution of context by Mandy Jenkins, which among other things further points out the corporate babble of Paton’s statement about Thunderdome having been so successful. Among other things:

“Thunderdome never even got the chance to carry out even the beginnings of our goals. Many of our long-planned channels just started launching. We had a number of new revenue-generating products on the horizon. We had just started building our in-house product team.”

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Reading about attracting news audiences and revenue for online news sites has often been depressing. Even for someone who believes in the need for meeting the audience where it is and adapting to the needs of online and mobile news consumers, at times it has felt like the future was heading toward a world dominated by Buzzfeedy listicles and clickbait and Upworthy-worthy headlines, where all advertising revenue is forever lagging and all audiences are zephyrlike transients.

You can simultaneously believe that not just journalism but locally oriented journalism is necessary for society but feel overwhelmed by skepticism about how many people out there have the same belief and will actively seek it in numbers that will support some kind of sustainable revenue model.

But recent weeks have brought some research to stoke your optimism.

The American Press Institute reported this week on a survey by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, about news-consumption habits:

“When asked to volunteer how they came to the news, people tend think less about the device than the news gathering source and the means of discovery (social media or search). Taken in combination, the findings suggest that people make conscious choices about where they get their news and how they get it, using whatever technology is convenient at the moment.”

The survey also found that people do notice what strengths different news organizations have, for instance turning to local TV sources (TV itself or a TV station’s website) for weather, traffic, crime, and health news, and newspaper sources for news about their local town or city, for news about arts and culture, and for news about schools and education.

And hasn’t that been one of the underlying hopes of traditional journalists, that our existing “brand” is more than our traditional medium or platform, that the public associates our news organization with the news we produce?

That’s what this survey indicates is the case – they seek us out for news, not just, as often is said, wait for any news that really is important to find them:

“Overall, for instance, social media is becoming an important tool for people across all generations to discover news — but hardly the only one, even for the youngest adults.

“… People across all generations are most likely to discover news by going directly to a news organization, rather than letting the news come to them.”

Super.

We can check off that part of how to survive the future.

That still leaves revenue, the front that has been the bleakest, where analog dollars turn to digital dimes, if that.

But Tony Haile, the CEO of data-analytics company Chartbeat, wrote in a column last week for time.com on research by his company that finds that audiences drawn to actual news may hold more value for advertisers than those on other sites because they pay attention to the page and linger longer. Why that matters:

“Someone looking at the page for 20 seconds while an ad is there is 20-30% more likely to recall that ad afterwards.”

And best of all, it may be that news organizations have undervalued their advertising slots that are lower on the digital page, especially below the “fold” where ads and content aren’t seen unless the viewer scrolls:

“Here’s the skinny, 66% of attention on a normal media page is spent below the fold. That leaderboard at the top of the page? People scroll right past that and spend their time where the content, not the cruft, is. Yet most agency media planners will still demand that their ads run in the places where people aren’t and will ignore the places where they are.”

Pair this with the results of a study by the Pew Research Journalism Project that found that “People who visit a news organization’s website directly engage with its content more than those who enter ‘sideways’” through social media and other referrels, as Andrew Beaujon wrote last week at Poynter.org.

The Pew report, “Social, Search and Direct: Pathways to Digital News,” said:

“In this study of U.S. internet traffic to 26 of the most popular news websites, direct visitors — those who type in the news outlet’s specific address (URL) or have the address bookmarked — spend much more time on that news site, view many more pages of content and come back far more often than visitors who arrive from a search engine or a Facebook referral.

“… For news outlets operating under the traditional model of building a loyal, perhaps paying audience, obtaining referrals so that users think of the outlet as the first place to turn is critical.”

This doesn’t suggest to me that all the time newsrooms spend now trying to engage audiences on Facebook, Twitter or other social sites is wasted or even that it should be cut back. It puts your news in front of audiences, including some people who are not regular readers or viewers. That exposure may be critical in building your brand in the minds of that portion of the audience.

That makes it up to you to be sure that what you have lured them to is news they find worthwhile enough that they come back on their own.

And that has always been the name of the game for survival in news.

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“The paper is mainly full of bad news.”

A reader, or maybe by now it’s more accurate to call her a former reader, included that in a letter this week. News, as defined by what most news organizations write about, was at the very bottom of the list of things she wants in a newspaper. (“Ziggy” was at the top.)

It’s a complaint that editors have heard at times literally for decades. It’s not true, though. Just looking through the past week’s front pages of my paper (which is published Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday):

Last Sunday had a story about a young boy who appears to be recovering from a near-fatal blood infection.

Tuesday had a story alerting readers of the coming Red Dress Dance to benefit the Wig Bank, one of the community’s many great charities.

Wednesday had a feature about John Hawkins, who plans to step down as director of the Caldwell Heritage Museum at the end of the year.

Thursday had a picture of children playing in the snow, and a promotional teaser about a feature on the sports page on the county’s high school runner of the year.

Friday had a feature about a man who puts together giant jigsaw puzzles.

We try as much as we can to present a mix, reflecting to some extent the variety of daily life in this community.

I don’t think it’s a majority view, but there definitely is a certain segment of the population who would rather the paper be filled only with positive news.

But that would not seem to be what most people want. Go to any newspaper in the country and ask to see the best-selling and worst-selling papers of the past year, and check the website metrics, and you’ll be able to tell. I have a list of ours, and the worst-selling papers almost all were dominated by feel-good stories: the first day of school, the fiddler’s convention, a feature on a man living atop a mountain who has a lot of weather-watching instruments, a feature on a retiree, a festival preview, a positive business news story – on and on.

The top-selling papers by far, and the top website headlines, have been anything involving a killing or anything involving the bankruptcy of Furniture Brands International, one of the largest local employers.

You might argue that the high interest in bad news indicates that people like prurient news, kind of the print version of reality TV, but that’s not how I see it at all.

One thing that makes bad news inherently more attractive as reading material is that it’s more dramatic, which makes it more interesting.

And sometimes there certainly is a “there but for the grace of God go I” element at play. Stories of lives upended grab people and engage their emotions. Often, people call the News-Topic wanting to offer help to people whose tragedies have been told in the paper.

But mostly, I think people are looking for things to talk about. When they get together with friends or coworkers, someone is going to say, “Hey, did you hear about,” and launch into the most interesting thing that person has heard or read recently, and there is always a lot more to talk about when something bad happens than when something good happens.

“Did you hear? All of the planes coming to Charlotte yesterday landed safely.”

By definition, news is something unusual or unexpected. You expect your house not to burn down. You expect to arrive safely at your destination. You expect not to lose your job because the company is going out of business. You expect all these things because that’s what almost always happens, and it’s unusual when it doesn’t.

That’s why if any newspaper, TV station or website focused on local news ever makes a lot of money reporting nothing but good news it will be one of the biggest news stories of the year.

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