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Posts Tagged ‘engagement’

Mike Fourcher, a publisher of hyperlocal news sites in Chicago, has written up the things he learned from the experience. It’s instructive, and I particularly recommend that other journalists read it so they better appreciate the economic forces confronting the industry. As Mike notes as his 18th thing he learned, big publications and small publications have the same problems.

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Very funny ad. Nicely done. The setup is that three people each are given a driver for the day, and a newspaper is left in the back seat for the person to read. While the person reads, the car passes various odd sights, and the driver takes off his pants. The reader doesn’t notice because he/she is too engrossed in the paper. That much is true — once you get a person reading, that person’s attention is engaged and isn’t easily pried away. The increasing problem newspapers face, though, is getting people to use the paper instead of their computer or phone, where their attention might be just as focused but the advertising is much less lucrative.

But still, give the ad-makers credit. An A for creativity.

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Yesterday I mentioned that I stopped taking the local paper in mid-November, and I said that “if the paper has produced anything important in the past six weeks, it was like a tree falling in the woods with no one nearby to hear it — which is a subject for another post.” This is that post.

I do not watch local TV news. I listen to NPR each morning, and I’m on Twitter and Facebook pretty much daily, which both point me to news from a number of outlets. Earlier this month it occurred to me that aside from one political columnist who is on the public-radio station each Friday and a columnist with whom I’m Facebook friends, not a whiff of the newspaper’s content had managed to reach me. It reminded me that there has long been discussion in the newspaper business that although the industry relies on advertising revenue, newspapers are pretty bad about advertising themselves.

The main ways that many newspapers publicize what’s in the paper each day and what big stories are coming in the days ahead are all within the newspaper itself – house ads, teasers, promos. In other words, the newspaper targets people who already are looking at the newspaper. People who do not see the newspaper, no matter the reason, will never see those efforts. This would be like a TV station running its ads and promos for its news show only during the news show.

An editor told me just last year that no one had yet explained to him what the newspaper gained from being active on Facebook and Twitter. He felt that being active made those social media platforms better and built their customer base but did nothing for the newspaper other than siphon off staff time that perhaps would be better spent improving the paper. I tried to connect these dots at that time, but I don’t think I did it well. This might be clearer: There are many people in your community who do not subscribe, but almost all of them might be interested in some specific thing the newspaper does and would come for it – if only they knew it existed. Because of the growing reach of social media, you stand a chance of reaching those people – if only you are active and engaged, which teaches you how to tailor your posts and what people are likely to share.

It’s true that a tree that falls in the forest creates a thunderous crash, but if no one is anywhere nearby, that tree could rot away before anyone knows it fell. A good news staff creates some pretty good rumbles now and then, but an awful lot of people are out of earshot of the forest. You have to find a way to amplify the noise to reach them.

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Continuing on the topic of changing what local news reporters do (I provided some links in this post a couple weeks ago), John Robinson proposes a kind of New Year’s resolution for editors:

If editors do one thing for their newspaper readers in 2013 — yes, there are a slew of things needing to be done for their digital audience in 2013 — it should be to examine how they are covering the local news. Is it what people need to understand their community? Are we covering this because it’s vital information or because we need to fill a hole in the paper? Will this story make reading the paper an indispensable act? Because if it doesn’t — and with the circulation losses papers have suffered over the past 10 years, there is evidence it doesn’t — it’s time for a change.

Meanwhile, Steve Buttry adds to his previous posts on this topic with more specific thoughts on how a newsroom might change some or all of its beats.

I fear that some people will stop reading at the point where Steve suggests a pets beat and will miss his larger point: Something has to change, and you have to start thinking about it, and what you change may be less important than having a thorough discussion about the possibilities and doing something about it.

John notes as evidence of the need for change some results of a September 2011 Pew survey: “For instance, when asked, ‘If your local newspaper no longer existed, would that have a major impact, a minor impact, or no impact on your ability to keep up with information and news about your local community?’ a large majority of Americans, 69%, believe the death of their local newspaper would have no impact (39%) or only a minor impact (30%) on their ability to get local information.”

John also cites his experience in the past year reading the front pages of a dozen Sunday papers around North Carolina and seeing too much rote, uninteresting coverage. I can go further: For the past six weeks, I haven’t read any newspapers at all, nor have I watched local TV news, and I firmly fall into the camp saying that as far as I can tell the death of my local newspaper would have only a minor impact on my ability to get local information. (I do miss certain columnists and the routine of the morning paper, but if the paper has produced anything important in the past six weeks, it was like a tree falling in the woods with no one nearby to hear it — which is a subject for another post.)

But this is where the hope for fixing local news hits a Catch-22. John quotes Philip Meyer from a 2008 online discussion about local news:

“Local is cheap to produce if you limit yourself to stenographic coverage of public meetings. But to really cover local news, you need talented, specialized reporters who are free to dig for weeks on a single topic.”

I won’t rehash all the arguments I made on this point three months ago, but I will summarize:

The success of any attempt to change or “fix” local news is ultimately dependent on publishers and the executives who supervise them agreeing with the need to restructure the newsroom pay scale and to end, where they exist, any mandates that the front page absolutely has to be all-local. Yes, I mean better pay, but I also mean fewer people in the newsroom because the revenue isn’t there to raise pay and keep the staff the same size, which is the reason publishers who want all-local front pages have to give that up in the name of getting better reporting. That also means more pressure on editors to ensure their staff follows through – more-engaged editors, more-engaged reporters.

Lord knows newsrooms have many creative, imaginative people who consider the job a calling and work cheap. But it has fewer every day – beyond layoffs, many are no longer willing to work low-paying jobs that have become content farms of rote coverage. Counting on an endless supply of new ones who are willing is likely to be as healthy for your business model as counting on an endless supply of gasoline under $4 a gallon.

1/2/13 UPDATE: A good follow-up today by John Robinson on the need for editors to confront the reality of permanently smaller staffs and how to figure out what people really want the newsroom to do.

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I wrote a couple weeks ago that my response to a question about how to fit in all the new things journalists are told to do now was that if you want to start something, you have to stop something. I probably should have fleshed that out. I didn’t, but Steve Buttry has. Sample, on government meetings:

Maybe for your community, the answer is to send a reporter to the meetings to livetweet (live coverage gets more readership than stories), but to have the reporter turn his attention after the meeting to enterprise reporting on topics covered in the meeting, rather than undertaking the redundant task of writing a story about the meeting he just livetweeted.

If your local government agencies livestream their meetings, maybe you don’t need a reporter present. You embed the livestream on your site for meeting coverage and spend your reporter’s time on enterprise, unless a meeting promises to be unusually newsworthy.

In fact, that was essentially the approach I took as a reporter in a far-flung bureau covering meetings in a town where there was a local paper. Anything that happened during the meeting that sounded interesting, I knew the local paper would report the next day, so instead I would do my own reporting on the subject and flesh it out over the next day or two, such as a case where people living near a quarry complained of the damage that blasting at the quarry was causing to their well water and homes. I got a better story, plus a photo. Nowadays I might be able to get a slideshow and/or video out of it too.

Steve has other suggestions, including, “We need to work out partnerships with community journalists (and non-journalists)” — another word for those is “bloggers” — “who are doing jobs we’ve been doing and stop doing what they are doing, so we can focus our resources on unique ways we can serve the community.” The Seattle Times has such a network going (and discussed it at a session I attended at ONA12), so it’s not just a vague idea, it’s a model you can study and emulate, and tweak to fit your community.

Steve also links to several previous posts he had that address the idea of what needs to change. It’s the only topic that’s certain to remain on your radar.

12/21/12 UPDATE: From one of the Nieman Journalism Lab’s columns making predictions for 2013 that seems relevant to part of this discussion: Local news organizations no longer have the luxury of throwing skilled reporters at procedural news stories that are only important to niche groups …

12/30/12 UPDATE: More on this topic John Robinson and Steve Buttry.

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John Robinson, former editor of the News and Record in Greensboro, N.C., writes in part 2 of his look back on his former job, from the perspective he has gained a year out of the job (part 1 here), the reasons why he thinks he didn’t do more of the things that, in hindsight, seem so obviously needed. I encourage everyone to read it, not just editors. He posted it a day after I was asked, by everyone from a publisher to his reporters, how to fit new things into all the things they already do. The answer stems from everything John wrote about. And I agree with him completely that maybe you need to step out of the newsroom to see where events tend to sweep a news staff along.

The short answer I gave to the question was that if you want to start doing something, you have to stop doing something. John didn’t put it quite that way, but his explanations about “Space must be filled” and the inertia of the beat structure — together, the feeling of urgency to fill the paper (presumably, the urgency stems from feeling the need for LOCAL bylines) plus the easy availability of incremental news from the beat structure — are at the heart of what I meant. News staffs are smaller than ever. They are being asked to do a wider variety of tasks than ever. You can’t have it all, and they can’t do it all. Choose your battles.

And my last advice asks the most of the editors at the top. Follow John’s suggestion:

Had I organized monthly meetings with the public to hear how we could serve them better, it would have improved our journalism, and I would have been a better steward of their newspaper.

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Since for most of the past 12 years, a large part of my job has been trying to help journalists – especially in small newsrooms – make sense of the changes and new tools sweeping the industry, I’m going to take a crack at interpreting the imposing study Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present, from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

So, do you need to read it? If you work in either the content (news) or business end of a journalism organization, you should read it. But realistically, it’s huge, so there’s a chance either you’ll start and won’t get far, then later think of it but won’t go get your computer or tablet to do it, and if you print it out it will go into your stack of magazines and you won’t touch it until spring, when you’ll put it in the recycling bin. So let’s prioritize: Pressed for time, what do you need to read? The whole thing is a tough slog for one sitting, both for its length and its academic style, and there are pretty good summaries out there, notably from Jeff Sonderman at Poynter, Josh Benton at Nieman Journalism Lab and Matthew Ingram at GigaOm.

Start with those summaries and then seek out the parts that in the summaries sound most interesting. My take:

The Introduction: If you are one of the people who think the industry’s whole problem is putting information online without charging for it, you seriously need to read the introduction because you have an incomplete understanding of the business end, its history and what’s happening to it.

Part 1: If you are unsure what exactly is changing about the role of a journalist, this helps fill in the blanks, though to me it seems overly focused on what I would call large newsrooms (Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle and New Orleans, for instance), not the size of newsrooms that predominate across the country. However, to the extent that these larger newsrooms have resources and an ability to experiment that small newsrooms do not, it is important to be aware of what they should or may be trying to do because changing technology may make it easier for you later.

Part 2: If you have a big-picture job – an executive, an academic, a journalism think-tanker, writer for CJR, AJR, Nieman Lab, etc. – this section gets into some useful philosophical space about institutional change. It’s also helpful if you are trying unsuccessfully to manage up in a company that is resisting change; you’ll understand better why you can’t get the urgency of your message conveyed higher up. It is not as much immediate help to the typical ground-level journalist except for further context about the changing face of the industry.

Part 3: This attempts to use some recent examples to flesh out the larger picture of how the emerging models of journalism may work. It builds on part 1, so if you still aren’t sure what the changes there mean for you, read this part.

Conclusion: This takes up where the introduction left off, going from how things have already changed to trying to extrapolate into the future. If you found the introduction useful, read this.

To me, the essential message for journalists can be summed up with these passages:

Even as the old monopolies vanish, there is an increase in the amount of journalistically useful work to be achieved through collaboration with amateurs, crowds and machines.

… Figuring out the most useful role a journalist can play in the new news ecosystem requires asking two related questions: What can new entrants in the news ecosystem now do better than journalists could do under the old model, and what roles can journalists themselves best play?

… For many newsworthy events, it’s increasingly more likely that the first available description will be produced by a connected citizen than by a professional journalist. For some kinds of events – natural disasters, mass murders – the transition is complete.

In that sense, as with so many of the changes in journalism, the erosion of the old way of doing things is accompanied by an increase in new opportunities and new needs for journalistically important work. The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation, bringing sense to the streams of text, audio, photos and video produced by the public.

… The availability of resources like citizen photos doesn’t obviate the need for journalism or journalists, but it does change the job from being the source of the initial capture of an image or observation to being the person who can make relevant requests, and then filter and contextualize the results.

… People follow people, and therefore just by ‘being human’ journalists create a more powerful role for themselves. It is a device personality-driven television has long relied on, but only in a one-way medium. In a networked world, the ability to inform, entertain and respond to feedback intelligently is a journalistic skill.

In September of last year, I saw what I think is a perfect example of what the above describes, and it came from a small newsroom, the News & Messenger and insidenova.com in Prince William County, Va. After severe flooding in the region, people found themselves without a clearinghouse for information and discussion — but they gravitated to the newspaper’s Facebook page and were filling it with just such information. So, seeing that, online editor Kari Pugh created a flood information clearinghouse page on Facebook (it’s still there). In just a few hours it had garnered about 250 “likes,” and the community discussion on it became mostly self-sustaining.

Though the newspaper’s circulation is something around 10,000, on Facebook it has more than 26,000 likes. And its users have remained an active community. Key to the online community’s activity has been the involvement of the journalists. You can see it in the back-and-forth between them and people in the community.

How the news staff reacted to the flooding and the community’s desire to share information is something at least close to, though less sophisticated than, what Jeff Jarvis said this week he wishes he saw in the New York area in the wake of Sandy. It’s not a complex skillset, it just takes a shift in the way you see what the role of journalists is in this world of mobile devices that let every person report on what’s happening right then and there.

The Tow Center report is massive, and the future it paints may feel at times overwhelming. But you don’t have to build that future in one day, just as video games didn’t get from Pong to “World of Warcraft” overnight. (BTW, Happy 40th birthday, Pong.) What’s one step you can take today? Engaging your “readers” is an easy one, and, as it did with the News & Messenger, it may point you to the next step.

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In his address to the Arizona Newspapers Association, Steve Buttry summed up the argument against newspaper websites setting paywalls or pay meters (and it is just newspapers; you never hear of TV stations debating whether to charge for access to their sites). I’ll quote the part that sums up his summation:

“Most of the forward-looking paths to prosperity work better with a larger audience, and paywalls (or meters or whatever you want to call them) limit your audience. Most of the paths to prosperity demand that we reach a younger audience, and paywalls continue a model in the comfort zone of newspapers’ aging and dying audience.”

There is an argument to be made in favor of paywalls, and Warren Buffett has summed it up – become indispensable:

“Make the paper so good that I get the shakes if I don’t have it.”

This is not an outrageous theory or one new to newspapers. I have pointed before to a slimmed-down version of a Newspaper Next presentation about creating an “experience” in the news pages, the argument being that people pay all the time for an experience rather than the actual product being sold. Under the experience theory, people will seek out and buy a news product online if it gives them a good emotional jolt or something to talk about. It becomes a valuable part of the day by the effect it has on their day.

Where this theory falls apart is the way that real-world newspaper publishers are trying to keep their businesses afloat.

You cannot create indispensable stories “so good that I get the shakes if I don’t have it” if you are paying the story-creators so little that they make as little – or less – money than first-year teachers. Good stories come only from good minds, and good minds may take a first job paying that little, but they also will soon find a way to something better, and then your flash-in-the-pan indispensability departs with them.

But low pay has been built into newspapers’ current cost structure. It was the way that publishers dealt with, first, the demand for maintaining profit margins and, in the recession and crash of advertising revenue, the need simply to stay afloat. Newsrooms across the country – not all of them, but many – tried to maintain as many staff positions as they could by squeezing pay. Now they are stuck.

If you are stuck with a revenue level that won’t support filling your staff with indispensable storytellers, you need to rethink your staff and content model, slim down the staff size and build up the pay. Otherwise you resign yourself to forever being completely dispensable.

You can’t be indispensable and poorly written at the same time. In that case, Steve’s point is completely correct: You will get online subscriptions from current newspaper addicts, the people who are so used to reading you that they just can’t do without. But they will die off, and you will have nothing that non-subscribers find worthwhile, so you also will die off.

Paywall defenders could argue that there is no “prosperity” to be found in unpaid models so far, but Steve is absolutely correct that in order to survive you need to bring in new consumers, new readers, new audiences.

The most recent real example I’ve seen of this is here in Richmond, where Bill’s Barbecue recently went out of business. Bill’s was a Richmond institution. When I moved here in 2001, I saw Bill’s everywhere. I figured it had to have really good barbecue for it to be so widespread. Then I went into one near home and bought some. Lord, that was some awful barbecue. It was soupy. It smelled funny. I started asking around, and to date no one I have met in Richmond thinks Bill’s had good barbecue (everyone praises the pies, but you don’t build a big barbecue restaurant chain based on the dessert). It was skating on a decades-old reputation, frequented apparently by old-Richmonders who fondly clung to memories (although not many of them; there were two Bill’s within a mile of my house, and neither was ever busy, at any time of day). Finally, the family that owns the business decided to stop.

This is where many newspapers are. There is a base of loyal customers who are willing to pay, though they lament what has been lost in the past 10 years. But there is less and less reason for any new customers to come through the door, and to the extent there is any at all, tighter and tighter paywall restrictions cut off the potential new-customer base. At some point, publishers will feel it necessary to open the walls, but by then their product may be an afterthought, a niche publication in a universe of alternative news sources.

With or without a paywall, you can’t attract an audience when you have little worth reading.

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I’m gradually getting around to the ONA sessions I was not able to attend last week, and here’s one I definitely wish I had: David Wright of NPR discussing online design. He makes a point echoing one of the things said a day earlier by Amy Webb (included in this post) – get the online experience right or the content doesn’t matter.

(Video of Amy’s session. You can find video of David’s presentation here, but to keep up with the full thing you also need the slideshow in a separate window.)

But David had a better illustration than Amy did. Both asked, more or less, what problem are you trying to solve? David illustrated it with an example from the phone industry. In the post-monopoly, pre-mobile era, Sprint built its brand with a television commercial declaring its service was so good, “you can hear a pin drop.” In the post-mobile era, Verizon struck on the central issue for consumers: “Can you hear me now?” In other words, we went from a landline era, in which customers cared most about how clear the sounds on their phone were, to the mobile one, in which they cared most about whether they could hear anything at all.

In that metaphor, many journalists are stuck at the landline stage, but most of our customers have moved on to mobile phones.

What Amy said better than David was that news people stink at thinking in terms of Web design because we are most concerned with the end destination – our content. But since David’s entire presentation was design, he dwelled longer on that issue (how people get to the content in the first place) and showed just one example of the problem, the home page of a newspaper’s website, where the top navigation had, he said, 152 options (I assume he’s including drop-downs). The only reason for that can be journalists – every editor in charge of each section wants to be sure each “critical” part of his/her section is easy to get to from the home page. It does not help the online reader. Compare the typical news site’s design with what you find on an app designed for tablets, or (like the new business site Quartz) one designed to mimic tablet apps.

What they both said was to design with the online audience in mind. Create the best possible experience and people will come back. Without a good experience, the content alone won’t do it.

All of this echoes an idea from a decade earlier that didn’t (in my opinion) find much acceptance in newspapers: the “experience” newspaper. The argument then, said almost exactly as David put it in his presentation, is that people will pay for a satisfying experience, even if the essential content (the actual content or something similar) is available somewhere else. If it’s true, that more than anything else might be the hope for getting young people who don’t have any news-subscribing habit to pay for news. If it’s not, the future of paid news – aside from major national or regional brands – might be tied entirely to the number of older readers who already are in the habit of paying for news – in other words, already in decline.

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My first half day at ONA12 — actually the pre-convention sessions sponsored by J-Lab — and I already heard information I had long been hoping for. Bob Payne of the Seattle Times and Bruce Koon of public radio’s KQED talked about their sites’ partnerships with local blogs (they range from neighborhood news to topic blogs, such as a blog just about beer). The Seattle Times’ is the one I have been most interested in hearing about since my own background is on the print side, and Payne says it has proven valuable to the Times both from a newsgathering standpoint and from a community-engagement standpoint. Koon had similar reports of success, but I’ll focus on the Times. There are 55 blogs in the Seattle area that are signed up (there is a memorandum of understanding, but it’s hardly a formal process) as partners. Essentially it’s a link swap: The partners agree to let the Times post their headlines, and those link directly to the sites. Editors at the Times choose which headlines they want to use on their site, so they can skip any story they don’t like. And each week, the Times prints in the paper a one-page collection of the best of what they have seen on the partner sites. Actively curating these sites each day has led the Times to stories it might have otherwise missed, and a survey has shown that the partnership gives people in the community a more positive feeling about the Times. Seems like a win-win.

The objections I have heard from print editors to exploring this kind of community generally are fears about the reliability of the information on blogs, fears of liability, and wanting to keep away from the open advocacy of some local blogs. Payne said most of that is mitigated by the fact of having just a link to an external site. The Times doesn’t host any of the stories itself. Plus, there are editors reviewing each story before the link is posted, so they can pass judgment on each story’s reliability, but stories are not held to the same standards as staff — they aren’t supposed to be. If a story is important enough, the Times will assign a staffer to follow up. And as for the advocacy, the sites in the partnership that practice that — such as one for a group that writes about bicycle-related interests — are very transparent about it. In addition, the partnerships can be dropped by either party at any time, so if a group suddenly changes its approach there is an easy avenue to end the partnership.

Since news staffs are smaller than ever and will not ever get back to where they were, and since there are more community blogs than ever making more information easily available, this kind of relationship is one that would benefit any size news organization. It builds links in the community, and it helps the news organization put itself at the hub of the community conversation.

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