#jcarn: Finding the communication ‘jobs to be done’

Note: This post is another installment for the Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft. This month’s prompt  from Donica Mensing: 

How do you get your own creative juices flowing? What sparks innovation in your own thinking, your newsroom or classroom?

As an editor and newsroom manager, I had been drawn to Michael Porter’s ideas of strategy, especially his 2001 essay “Strategy and the Internet.” Too often, I had watched my organization and others slash and trim to improve their bottom lines for short-term gains. Porter’s call for strategic positioning over operational effectiveness made more sense: Don’t sacrifice long-term advantage for ephemeral successes meant to appease the stock market.

It was a compelling idea that lingered with me as I pursued my doctorate and moved into research. As I worked my way through the program, I sifted through a number of ideas, hoping to find some frameworks and guides to help the news industry transition successfully to the world of the Web without sacrificing its long-term viability.

Then, Clayton Christensen disrupted my thinking.

Porter focused on the competitive environment at the industry level. Christensen’s research on innovation — most clearly articulated in his book “The Innovator’s Solution” with Michael Raynor — built on Porter’s work and put the focus in a news context squarely on the audience.

Christensen offered tangible advice for thinking meaningfully at the audience level. Don’t ask the audience directly what it wants; they often don’t know consciously. Instead, think in terms of jobs to be done. Through observation and contemplation, consider what audience members are “hiring” your content to do.

Emergent strategy

Too often, businesses overshoot consumer needs. Companies and their structures typically reward sustaining strategy, safer development supported by market research and proven products. They stick with what they’ve always done and applaud improving their best products.

The problem: They often end up overshooting consumer needs.

Christensen

Adapted from “The Innovator’s Solution” by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor

Into this environment comes disruption from new or lower-end products that fulfill jobs more in line with audience expectations. And by the time incumbents realize their flawed perspective, it is too late to recover.

Instead, they should rely on emergent strategy, bringing testable concepts to market more quickly with a willingness to fail. In “Seeing What’s Next,” Christensen and co-authors Erik Roth and Scott Anthony note:

When the functionality and reliability of products overshoot customer needs, then convenience, customization, and low prices become what are not good enough.

Well before their legacy counterparts, new sites embraced and experimented with aggregation and online story forms. Craigslist and Monster.com understood more quickly how to deliver cheaper, customized classifieds. And social media developed more convenient mechanisms for content discovery and sharing.

To survive in this environment, news organizations must become as experimental and nimble as the upstarts. They no longer have the luxury of lengthy content testing; they must push nascent products into the marketplace and iterate while learning from the audience.

With this framework, they can identify and fulfill the communication jobs to be done.

Uses and gratifications

Historically, mass-communication researchers have concentrated on the impact mass media have on the audience. In the Internet age, however, the power has shifted to the audience, as Jay Rosen, Clay Shirky, and other media scholars have noted.

As the traditional mass media weaken, the uses-and-gratifications thread of media research offers a more useful framework for uncovering the audience’s jobs to be done. Tapping into the long line of uses-and-gratifications research (as media scholars Esther Thorson and Margaret Duffy did with their Media Choice Model), we can focus on the primary communication needs — the “jobs” in Christensen’s parlance — that users want to satisfy: information, entertainment, connectivity, and consumption (shopping).

In the searchable, clickable world of the Web, it is so much easier for the audience to satisfy those needs quickly. In my content-creation classes today, I repeat usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s mantra:

In addition to the detailed insights offered by individual models, it’s healthy to remember that users are selfish, lazy, and ruthless in applying their cost-benefit analyses.

As we develop the next generation of news content, we must embrace the audience and its needs. Such a focus doesn’t mean we should shamelessly cater to all audience wants and desires. It just means we must consider the audience and the contexts of media consumption more completely as we develop our content, whatever form it may take.

Otherwise, our audience will selfishly, ruthlessly go elsewhere.

Super Bowl XLVIII: It’s all about the game

 

Super Bowl logo

(Source: Wikipedia)

I was bemoaning the halftime theatrics of recent Super Bowls when a buddy responded: “It’s an event.”

Event. Spectacle. Showcase. Everything but a football game. 

Call me a traditionalist, but if this moment is truly what the NFL professes it to be — a bowl of super proportions to crown the world champion — then it should be foremost about the football.

Fortunately, for us football fans, the past few bowls have been about the game.  We’ve seen close scores. We’ve cheered stunning last-minute comebacks. We’ve witnessed unbelievable plays under tremendous pressure.

And seven of the last 10 Super Bowls have been decided by a touchdown or less. Despite conversations about wardrobe malfunctions, million-dollar advertising rates, and past-their-prime performers, the recent history of the Super Bowl shows there’s been a feast for true football fans as well as the uninterested masses of Super Bowl partygoers.

This year comes the ultimate main course: The game will take place in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., outside. In the winter cold. With the chance of rain and snow.

I’ve heard some pundits argue that introducing the elements eliminates the pure mano-a-mano sense of competition. Peyton Manning and the high-flying Denver Broncos may be grounded if the weather turns blustery (showers and snow are possible tonight), providing a distinct advantage to the defensively minded Seattle Seahawks.

To me, that’s what professional football is about: Adjusting to conditions. Even in domes, unexpected circumstances arise. Key players get hurt. Balls take odd hops. Close calls go one team’s way. The best are those that can play under myriad conditions — and still win. Throughout December and January, teams have battled the elements to get to this point, to earn the right to play in the Super Bowl. Why shouldn’t the game take place outside, as it was meant to be played?

I’d also argue that the Super Bowl halftime spectacle, with its inordinately long break, is as unnatural as any element for a football game, especially when the pyrotechnic fog lingers as the second half begins.

With this turn to the outside, in the cold, with the elements, it will remind the performers and the audience that this day is about the players and the game. The smoke can dissipate more quickly, and we can all remember that, yes, Super Bowl Sunday is indeed about football.

Note to self: Don’t fear your choices

Note: This post is another installment for the Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft. This month’s prompt:

For December I would like you all to write a letter to your younger self. You can write about anything, no rules, no apologies. You may like to share with yourself advice, things to look out for, things you wished you did differently, regrets, hopes, what you’ve learned, about your life, choices… or just about anything that is on your mind. Ideally these are deeply personal to you and I hope it’ll be enlightening to others in its universality to the human condition.

I know you won’t listen. No one ever listens when people tell you how it’s supposed to be, how it should work out, how you should live your life.

Do I tell you to take risks? To work harder? To be bolder? Should I remind you to cling tightly to your friends and family, to those moments that blur by so quickly?

You won’t listen. I know you. You want to figure everything out for yourself.

So let me share a simple thought: The mid-life crisis or moment or whatever you want to call it is real. It happens. It washes over you when you least expect it, and you realize at that second that the time you have left is less than what you’ve already experienced.

No, you won’t buy a silly sports car, or get a tattoo, or fly off to a gambling binge in Vegas. You won’t be filled with regret or dread. You will have a wonderful family, a respectable career, a circle of special friends. Like the T-shirts that come out when you get older say, “Life is good.”

No, that mid-life moment is when you tally the minutes left to be spent and wonder: Did I cherish the previous moments enough? And what do I want to do with those that remain?

With each choice, you are choosing not to do something else, and as you age, it becomes harder and harder to choose as you fear the unintended limitation of those choices. So I would tell you choose confidently. Don’t let caution lead to fear. Pursue the unexpected moments, and be fully in the moment, every moment.

But I know you’re already tuning me out. You have your dreams, your belief in yourself. You will find out soon enough.

So I will leave you with one last thought: When the chance comes to see Stevie Ray Vaughan, don’t say no.

#jcarn: Teach the art of curation and the importance of verification

Note: This post is another installment for the Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft. This month’s prompt: What should the student media of the future look like? And should j-schools teach students how to aggregate?

Teach the art of curation

J-schools need to teach the art of curation.

I prefer the term curation to aggregation. To me, aggregators conjure visions of content sweatshops that scrape the Web and repost whatever the hot story or trending topic is. Perhaps they’ll rewrite a sentence or two, but it’s fundamentally the post from a legitimate news organization or reflective blogger, slapped up on their site with little context.

FLowingdataBut good curators such as Maria Popova (brainpickings.org) and Nathan Yau (flowingdata.com) are creating something new in their compilations. You hear their voice in their posts and glean insight from their analyses. In Yau’s case, he weaves his own posts about data analysis and visualization into the mix. As I noted in an earlier post on curation, the curator is adding something of value to the collection process.

It’s a skill necessary for developing your own journalistic brand. You learn what your audience wants to know, and you provide value by scanning the information-overloaded landscape and teasing out the valuable tidbits. Though journalists have been doing this type of work for decades, it is more difficult today to find the uniquely insightful slices that haven’t already gone viral and provide value in the collection.

Teach the importance of verification

My university, Drury, is a small private liberal-arts college. We can morph quickly with developing trends. About eight years ago, we merged our print and broadcast journalism majors into a unified major called integrated media. A few years later, we tweaked the major further based on what we’d learned and dubbed the new iteration “multimedia production and journalism,” in part because prospective students still ask for “journalism” as a major. Our students all learn Web development, video, and multimedia writing, with the goal of becoming cross-platform content creators who embrace social media.

But as I mentioned, we are small, which is our weakness as well as our strength. We cannot offer the massive slate of courses provided by the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, which sits just three hours up the road in Columbia, Mo. To compensate, we often meld several ideas and competencies into our courses. For example, we don’t have an “intro to journalism” course or a specific course dedicated to the history of the craft.

Instead, our students take Foundations of Communication to learn about communication theory beyond media effects. In our Multimedia Writing course, they’re introduced to Kovach and Rosenstiel and the principle of verification. In Web Communication, they’re exposed to design, basic analytics, and social-media planning.

Because of this content burden on our courses, I’ve found the best learning laboratory for the roots of journalism is our student media in their traditional forms.

So much of our coursework is updated regularly, focusing on new technologies and forms of storytelling. Students become immersed in WordPress as a content management system, Twitter/Storify as ways to share breaking news, and Facebook/Pinterest as ways to build community; sometimes, the old story forms get lost in the ocean of technology.

Our student newspaper is old school: A weekly edition with a website that fundamentally mirrors the print edition. But that publication schedule is perfect for teaching journalism as a longer process. Students watch their stories unfold over hours and days, and have more time to walk through the ethical/legal issues without the level of immediacy demanded by the Web. That level of reflection is important, especially for newer journalists who haven’t confronted those issues in real-world environments as we instructors have.

Covering a potential threat

Earlier this semester, our students received email and text alerts warning them of a person of interest being sought by the Department of Homeland Security, and the alert from our security department provided the individual’s name. It noted he had made vague threats against “universities” in our area.

At the time this alert was going out, a second, unrelated incident was unfolding on our campus. An unknown driver, apparently angered by a student on campus, drove by the student and waved a gun ominously before pulling away. The student reported the incident to police, who responded at the same time the alert went out.

In the rush of social media that followed, reports merged the two unrelated incidents into one. Our neighboring community college locked down while we did not. Missouri State University, just to the south of us, decided not to lock down either.

Because of the time our student journalists had, we could delve into the broader context and ask questions about lockdown procedures and explore the issues around the event. Instead of focusing on the breaking-news event — who doesn’t do breaking news well? — we wanted to dissect the decision-making.

In the reporting that immediately followed the incident, many local news organizations named the person listed in the Homeland Security release in their updates, tweets, and video reports. As I huddled with our editors in our traditional newspaper newsroom just before deadline, I asked if he’d been charged with a crime.

He had not. We talked about the difference between being arrested and being charged. We talked about how his name was already out there. We talked about Richard Jewell and the Olympic Park bombing. In the end, the editor and reporter decided not to name him.

The next day, the person was released without charges being filed by the U.S. attorney’s office.

I realize that these types of conversations happen in the converged newsrooms on college campuses as well. But throughout our journalism programs, we focus so much on technology and immediacy, especially in this age of the Internet, that we never slow down and take time for the long thought.

In these slower-paced traditional organizations — some would call them “relics,” I suppose — we can meaningfully teach the importance of verification, context, and reflection, away from the pressure of instant immediacy.

Embrace your statistical self: Tips from fivethirtyeight’s Nate Silver

Nate Silver scares the bejeebers out of traditional journalists.

In the 2012 election, he aggregated polling information and other data, and used statistics and forecasting methods, making FiveThirtyEight the must-read column of the election cycle. While pundits became an echo chamber positing a close election, Silver used data to show that for most of the election, it really wasn’t that close. And his forecast was not far off from the actual result.

Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias argues adopting an analytical mind-set is not that hard:

…when you look at it, with all due respect to Silver, his ability to beat the armchair analysis of the TV pundits is much more a story about the TV pundits being morons than it is a story about Silver having an amazingly innovative analytic method.

I’m not sure it’s as easy as Yglesias paints, but his sentiment is accurate. We can — and must — all embrace an analytical ethic when it comes to media creation and consumption.

To that end, I share Silver’s eight cool things journalists should know about statistics (compiled by the Poynter Institute) from his keynote at this year’s Online News Association conference.

I want to highlight the seventh point, which reinforces the importance of challenging your own assumptions and expanding your circle of sources:

Insiderism is the enemy of objectivity. Insider information may not be reliable. A journalist whose circle is too tight may forget there is more outside of it. Silver cited forecasts made on the McLaughlin Group that he called as accurate as “monkeys throwing poop at a dartboard.”

Content farming vs. curation

Sometimes, bloggers mistake content farming for curation.

Content farms snag entire articles and stories from other sites and post them as their own. At first blush, it may seem the same as curation; after all, curators collate other content from across the Web. The difference? The curator is adding something of value to the collection process.

Take the Internet Vision, a site set up by a Yahoo! account executive. This site contains articles from a variety of high-profile sites. But it’s not just links or summaries of the articles; these are the full articles with photos and graphics. He adds nothing to the original article. He is presenting it as his own.

Though he does link to the original site in the author byline, the sense as a reader — once you’ve discovered the charade — is disillusionment and anger.

BrainCompare that experience to Brain Pickings, a menagerie of Web content from blogger Maria Popova. The posts contain copious links and quotations of other material; she adds value with her interpretation and understanding of that content. She shares with us why she finds that content valuable — the sign of a true curator.

Good curators don’t just grab content and claim it as their own. They gather, prune, and showcase it in such a way that presentation itself has meaning and depth.

‘I’m not dead yet’: How to use RSS effectively

Screen Shot 2013-07-21 at 8.50.10 AMWhen Google announced it was killing Reader, some pundits wondered whether the move might mean the demise of RSS as well.

Let me channel a little Monty Python so we don’t throw RSS — the original push technology that delivers content to users — on the death cart just yet.

‘I’m not dead yet’

In the days before social media became our primary filters, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) had been the primary way to manage the firehose of Internet information. Let me humbly suggest that we should keep RSS in our media mix.

Facebook filters its news feed, and we’re apt to miss important stories in the sea of updates and snapshots from friends and family. Twitter works more effectively, but content moves so quickly — especially if you follow more than 100 accounts — it can be difficult to keep up. And if you miss a day? Forget trying to catch up.

Enter RSS.

What is RSS?

An RSS feed is an .xml file that has content specifically formatted for programs that can interpret the specialized markup. Just as browsers can turn HTML into Web pages with pictures and formatted text, RSS readers can decipher the .xml and turn it into a readable summary of the latest content from sites you subscribe to.

Most sites — especially news sites like NPR and the New York Times — still have RSS feeds built into their sites, allowing users to subscribe to the site’s content. And often, the feeds are customized by topic or interest:

NYTimes RSS feeds

Once you find the page of feeds, click through to the feed itself so that you see the link to the .xml file in your address bar. This link is what you’ll need to copy into your RSS reader. If your browser is RSS-aware, it may offer to subscribe to the feed for you.

Why RSS?

At first glance, RSS seems a lot like a Twitter feed: Headlines and blurbs, with links to full articles. But RSS feeds are  updated every time new content is added to the site; that’s not always true of a site’s social-media presence.

A good RSS reader usually gives you a bit more than a social-media blurb. Some pull in pictures and provide ways for you to save stories or share them with your social networks. Often, the blurbs are longer than 140 characters, and you can consume content more completely.

After Google wrote Reader’s obituary, I latched onto Feedly, a free cross-platform reader that works well with Google Chrome and Apple’s mobile devices.

Feedly Reader

I’ve changed my morning routine to start with Feedly. The site allows you to designate certain feeds as “must-reads,” which prevents you from missing the latest posts from your favorite blog. It also makes it easy to organize feeds into categories to create your own magazine of sorts.

The site provides an effective recommendation engine as well. I’ve added more than a few feeds suggested after Feedly saw what types of content I had subscribed to.

More than subscriptions

RSS feedsBut RSS feeds are not limited to subscriptions.

For starters, you can add a WordPress widget that will post headlines from an RSS feed on your blog’s sidebar. It’s a great way to provide fresh, updated content from around the Web.

And Twitterfeed (among others) allows you to take content from RSS feeds and deliver them straight to Twitter or other social medium.

Yes, RSS may be an older technology, but old doesn’t mean useless. Before you dismiss RSS, try it with your favorite sites, and see how much more you discover and learn.