#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.

#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.”

The phases of engagement and the best answer ever

Since 2009, my research partner and I have been studying the changes at the Christian Science Monitor in its efforts to morph into a Web-first newsroom.

Its success in increasing page views has been well documented. Using search-engine optimization and frequent news updates, its site regularly tops 30 million page views a month, and the organization has earned a spot among the 250 most visited U.S. sites on the Web.

But during our research visits, we’ve often heard reporters and editors struggle with how to transform the drive-by SEO audience to one that is more engaged, more invested in the Monitor itself.

Many other news organizations, marketers, and Web producers have become obsessed with this idea as well. As someone working with the next generation of content creators, I have dedicated much time developing my own model to understand how engagement happens.

A simple model

For years, I’ve been attracted to the uses-and-gratifications model of media behavior, which simply states that people use media to satisfy certain communication needs. But how does this process evolve? And how do we build regular usage and make our sites a media habit?

Integrating several threads of innovation and media research, I came up with four primary phases:

Engagement

  1. ATTENTION: It begins with an appreciation for SEO and messaging. Do we have something that will grab people’s attention from the mass of information already available to them?
  2. USAGE: Ease of use is vital for luring new users. Usability experts like Jakob Nielsen regularly remind us of the importance of clean, responsive design, and if a site/app/program is too difficult to use, users often will abandon it, especially if they are not emotionally attached or invested in the content.
  3. HABIT: Once users have overcome the trepidation of trying something new, we need to use consistent content to keep people coming back. And that consistency should come in quantity (frequency of updating) and quality (meaningful, well-produced content). It is finding the right balance between quantity and quality that so many organizations struggle with. This part of the process is more transactional and informational: Are we providing the type of content users need to satisfy what they’re looking for?
  4. COMMUNITY: After securing the intellectual commitment, we must establish that emotional investment in our site by building community. It is this phase where so many news organizations and businesses fail, and the social media succeed so dramatically. To develop this human connection, we must be willing to share our site with the audience. Allow them to contribute photos, comments, and other user-generated content. Make them feel a part of the site.

I find this simplified model — which incorporates ideas from diffusion of innovations, the theory of media attendance, the Media Choice Model, and engagement research — resonates more effectively with my students than more complex formulations (such as Philip Napoli’s definitive  conception of engagement in his book Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences).

The best answer ever

I teach this model to my students in my Web Communication class, a junior/senior level class in our Multimedia Production and Journalism program, and a question about the idea inevitably appears on my exams. As I tell my students, I am most concerned with concepts rather than terminology; I want them to articulate clearly what’s happening at each stage, rather than just regurgitating my lecture blather.

And so, this past semester, one student took me at my word.

I share this answer with her permission. (The spelling-error comment refers to an error on her own site that we discovered during her final presentation.) Enjoy.

  • First: Discovery of a site. “Well, hello there,” its viewer purrs. “What have we here? Is this worth my time? Is it going to play games with me and break my heart with a lack of updates, shoddy information, or spelling errors (that may very well be tragic mistakes and not actually errors because son is actually a word, just not the right word)? Hmm. Let’s take a look…”
  • Second: Getting to know a site. “That’s a snazzy nav bar,” its viewer giggles. “And I can’t get over how nicely this content is organized! Holy cow, those tags group things well! It seems like I can find exactly what I’m looking for before I even start looking for it.”
  • Third: Regular use of a site. “We’re in it for the long haul,” its viewer promises. “You and I are an item now. You’ve proven your worth, and I want to commit my valuable Web time to you.”
  • Fourth: Interacting with a site. “I’ve gotten up enough courage to make my presence known to you,” its viewer proclaims. “I am going to post in your comment section and like you on Facebook and re-tweet your tweets to show the world how much I’m devoted to you. I’ll shout your existence to the world.”

Five ways to detect Internet BS

In the quest for page views and visitors, bloggers and content creators skate the ethical borders.

They steal content. They create meaningless lists. They perpetuate inaccuracy with statistically ridiculous online polls.

Do not nibble on these cognitive candy bars; they make for flabby brains.

So I offer you a post that is not pilfered, that is accurate as far as I know. I hope it will bring meaning and substance to your online diet.

1. Top 75 ways to …

Have you noticed the proliferation of lists (including this one)? People like them because they are easy to scan, digest, and comment upon. It’s like the weather: Everyone can comment on their favorite song, dog breed, gluten-free cereal, etc.

Often, these lists are meant to spark an emotional reaction — How dare you leave out my favorite song, dog breed, gluten-free cereal, etc.! — and create “engagement.” They’re also designed to pump up page views by putting each item on its own Web page.

Be especially wary of lists with more than 10 items.

The best compilations I find don’t actually use the word “list” anywhere in them. Two of my favorites: The Big Picture, which collects the best photojournalism from around the Web daily (by Boston.com); and Brain Pickings, which curates some of the most thought-provoking content from the Internet.

2. Who’s your favorite…?

As a researcher, I find online polls particularly offensive. They give the veneer of validity, presenting quantitative “findings” to support a given claim.

The problem? Statistically valid polls depend on a random sample of a given population. In an open online poll, the visitors to a given site decide whether to participate; there’s no control over the sample. The results are meaningless in a larger context.

The questions are often meant to provoke a response rather than elicit valuable information.

The most reliable polls (e.g. ones from Pew Research or Gallup) will provide their methodology, questionnaire, sample size, and margin of error. They will carefully pull together a list from which anyone from the population could be randomly selected. And they will be equally careful in how they interpret the results.

3. Whose content is it anyway?

We’ve all done it. Searching for a quick answer, we Google our query and click on the first reasonable headline. We scan the article, and if the information is useful, we smack our lips and continue on merrily with our day, with little regard for the actual source of the information.

Often, content farms scrape the Web for posts and articles on a given topic and shamelessly repost them with credit lines in the small print. In my opinion, this plagiarism is a lazy, misleading way to manufacture false credibility.

Like the multi-paged list, this ploy is another attempt to pad page-view numbers to lure advertisers and ultimately revenue.

4. Coffee is [bad, neutral, good] for you.

Good journalists know there is a wealth of fascinating, insightful academic research available for public consumption. Academics are often more concerned with publishing in peer-reviewed journals than the public sphere, making this source a rich mine for the resourceful writer.

The key, however, is putting that research into perspective. No single study or paper exists in a vacuum. Research must be tested, validated, and corroborated.

Still, some will elevate a solitary study to inerrant status. Those in search of click-throughs opt for the sexy headline — “Coffee is good for you, says science” — and selectively cite the studies that support their point of view.

5. Don’t believe that S.O.B.

As with academic cherry-picking, the polarized blogosphere has a nasty habit of taking quotes out of context and elevating them to the level of scandal.

Take a quotation from Mitt Romney that made the rounds from one of the GOP primary debates:

…I like being able to fire people…

For people who focus on Romney’s stint as head of Bain Capital, it fits the narrative of Romney as the evil CEO who cuts thousands of jobs. The problem is the quotation is out of context.

Watch the entire quote:

Even his opponents in the GOP primary called off the critics to say his comments were being taken out of context — but not before the Internet masses feasted upon the supposed “gaffe.”

It is this misrepresentation of fact that affects all of us who hope to gain credible knowledge from the Internet. Unfortunately, as authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel note in Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, it’s up to us as content consumers to be skeptical of all we encounter.

Kovach and Rosenstiel offer six questions to consider when hearing or reading information:

  • What kind of content am I encountering?
  • Is the information complete, and if not, what is missing?
  • Who or what are the sources, and why should I believe them?
  • What evidence is presented, and how was it tested or vetted?
  • What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?
  • Am I learning what I need to?

The technological explosion brought on by the Internet has democratized the ability to consume and create information. It has expanded our minds and empowers us to take action.

But it has also required us to become more discerning, skeptical consumers.

#jcarn: Asking the right question about capitalism and journalism: What is value?

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:

Can a good journalist also be a good capitalist? If so, how? Or why not?

The simple answer is yes, someone can be good at doing journalism and making money. The problem is it’s the wrong question.

Umair Haque, a creative thinker and blogger who recently published the e-book “Betterness: Economic for Humans,” has it right. He urges organizations to seek arête — virtue — to “maximize human potential and minimize suffering, instead of merely maximizing near-term profit, shareholder value, or revenue.” (p. 40)

It’s a grand variation of a motto many journalists cite: Comfort the afflicted; afflict the comfortable. As journalists, we want to improve the public good through our research, investigations, and stories. The reason so many of us are so passionate about this crazy craft that consumes our lives is we believe it can change the world and elevate the human condition.

The problem with the question as stated is we’ve seen what the profit motive can do to journalism. It led to the yellow journalism of the late 19th century, when stories were fabricated and sensationalized for the sake of sales. Indeed, the Christian Science Monitor and the Missouri School of Journalism were created and the New York Times evolved under Adolph Ochs as responses to the market-driven journalism of the day.

They were pursuing a greater goal, a greater journalism beyond profits.

We are at a similar crossroads today, as publicly traded media giants contort and flounder trying to meet competitive threats from all sides.

Take Gannett Co. Inc., the nation’s largest newspaper company. Like many of our major media companies, it has focused on maximizing shareholder value, a capitalist virtue. To meet the expectations of the market, it laid off 700 employees in July — its fourth major layoff in three years.

Shortly thereafter, CEO Craig Dubow resigned from the company because of health problems and received a $37.1 million payout per his employment contract. Yet Gannett is still struggling to find its way as a journalistic enterprise.

The market-driven model does have its share of successes in today’s media environment: Pixar, Google, Apple. When Steve Jobs died in October, many drew inspiration from his quotation about success:

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. [T]he products, not the profits, were the motivation. [Former Apple CEO John] Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything.

As we’ve discovered lately, though, even Jobs and Apple made some concessions to be able to manufacture millions of iPods, iPhones, and iPads to feed the technological masses (and, not coincidentally, its income statement).

Fortunately, journalists at news organizations big and small are figuring out a way beyond the traditional free markets we’ve touted for so many years:

  • NPR: National Public Radio has gradually been weaning itself from public dollars to develop self-sustaining support through grants and listener donations. Joan Kroc, the wife of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, donated more than $200 million from her estate and helped firm the financial footing of the nonprofit news organization.
  • ProPublica: This nonprofit website was the first online-only organization to win a Pulitzer Prize for its journalistic excellence. In three years, its donations have grown from 18 percent of total contributions in 2009 to almost half in 2011.
  • MinnPostOne of the first high-profile ventures into nonprofit online journalism, MinnPost.com made its way into the black this year.
  • WellCommons: This public-health community-journalism site, created by Jane Stevens as part of the for-profit Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World media organization, has connected the community and a small staff to focus on health issues facing Lawrence. Stevens is now creating her own version of that model in California.

The focus in these examples is financial viability, not profitability. The income statement makes the journalism possible, and it’s this reality that inspired the original #jcarn prompt. But the driving force in these examples is the journalism, the greater public good, arête. If we focus too much on the market, on the push for profitability, the inevitable result becomes dollar signs over human beings.

Today’s list of great capitalists would have to include Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. had more than $372 billion in assets as of third quarter 2011. But even a great capitalist such as he considers the idea of taxes in the context of society, not in terms of personal gain. As he told ABC News recently:

The question is what is fair when you have to raise multi-trillions to fund the United States of America.

It is in this context we should view Berkshire Hathaway’s purchase of the Omaha World Herald. Buffett would not have bought into the newspaper if he did not see inherent value. The question is how much profit is enough for value: Forty percent? Ten percent? One?

For Buffett, “value” includes the public good. As he said at the press conference announcing the sale:

I think newspapers . . . have a decent future. It won’t be like the past. But there are still a lot of things newspapers can do better than any other media. They not only can be sustained, but are important.

They not only can be sustained, but are important. It is here that our conversation should begin.

#jcarn: Habits emerge from integration

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 query:

How do you decide to dedicate time to a new tool/platform/gadget? What is the process you go through mentally? And then later – how do you convince others to go through that process? And, last: How do you ensure that the tools you do adopt are used once the “newness” factor fades?

———

My job requires me to try everything (Quora). And try I do (Yahoo! Pipes).

But the technologies that stick (Google) are ones that integrate (Diigo) with my existing workflow (Twitter). I typically don’t stick with a shiny, new toy (Squidoo) unless it’s easy to use (Tumblr), works on multiple platforms (Dropbox), or expands the function (Instapaper) of my existing network of technology.

Of course, some platforms are so innovative (Storify) and useful (Iterasi) that I have to use them to satisfy particular tasks (Wordle). Others are so ubiquitous (Facebook) that they demand I participate on occasion, even if I detest the medium. Fortunately, some never seem to rise to that level (Gowalla), perhaps because I’ve already found some other technology that’s similar and fits my web of hardware and software more effectively (Foursquare).

My budget is limited, so I often wait an iteration before adopting new hardware (iPad), which can work to my advantage (iPhone) because the technological kinks get worked out.

Once bitten, though, I often become a disciple through demonstration (StumbleUpon) and help others use the technology to their advantage (WordPress).

If they don’t embrace it as I do, I don’t push it. Ultimately, the things that work for me (AcidPlanet) may not work for others, and vice versa (myspace). What’s important is that we choose what best fits us, not everyone else.

#jcarn: Video as a form of verification

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

—–

The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification.

The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel

Of the elements enumerated by Kovach and Rosenstiel in their seminal book, I believe verification is the most central to what we do as journalists. What sets us apart from the legions of content creators is the ethic of verify, verify, verify.

To that end, online video is a vital component of that puzzle.

In a previous Carnival of Journalism entry, I recounted my own tale of online video gone awry and noted that it’s dangerous to dedicate too many newsroom resources to video when my research has found that what’s most critical to people who choose the Internet as their primary source for news is frequency of updating.

Despite my doomsday assertion, I didn’t mean to convey that video has no place on a news site. On the contrary: It’s complementary content that provides another layer of verifiable evidence for users. It builds trust and credibility. And it includes users in the journalistic process.

For breaking news, that means raw video from the scene, the bits and pieces that are typically fashioned into a video story. On a churn-and-burn news site, with regularly updated headlines, people want the information quickly. It’s much easier to scan headlines and lists than sit through a 2- to 3-minute video story, especially if they’re at work or standing in line scanning their smartphone.

Video strips users of control. They’re held captive by a linear narrative determined by the journalist. An unedited video, however, allows them a glimpse of the raw dough of journalism. It makes them part of the process; they can evaluate the evidence on their own, much as a database permits them to crunch the numbers themselves.

And the unfettered roll from news sources can be more compelling than that of journalists.

Take this sample from the May 22 tornado that struck Joplin, Mo. Shortly after the disaster, the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader took a video camera along with other equipment and included video coverage to complement its copious print coverage. It’s a good sample of images that gives the viewers a sense of being there.

Still, I wonder about the amount of time to shoot, edit, and create an online-only video, although this video is straightforward and free of the usual time-intensive broadcast cuts and overlays. I also hate having to sit through an ad (even a 20-second one) before I get the details.

I found the first-person account of a survivor far more compelling and worth my while online:


I could get the core facts (number of dead and missing, efforts of rescue workers, etc.) more quickly from the written news story and photos.

And the raw survivor video was the one I linked to on Twitter and watched repeatedly.

Remember 2006? How the Internet has changed in the past five years

Glimpse the Internet of 2006:

Most users accessed the Web via Internet Explorer. Facebook had just opened its doors to those outside college campuses. MySpace, dubbed the “27.4-billion-pound gorilla” by TechCrunch, had more than 75 million users.

Oh, how the Internet has changed in the past five years.

As we become inundated by the latest, shiniest Internet tools, it’s important to take a look back and breathe deeply. The prognosticators often skew reality and miss their predictive marks by miles. The most important lesson to me? Technologies and innovations change faster than most of us can predict.

I began this exercise while preparing for this fall’s Web Communication class. I was flipping through the third edition of the dated but still excellent Web Design in a Nutshell, and reviewed the chapters on usage. Internet Explorer dominated the browser landscape. “Web 2.0″ was a mystical phrase. Mobile was something to consider, but most usage was expected to come through desktop monitors at 800 x 600 pixels.

It sparked a quick dive back into history.

Browser statistics

I dug into browsers statistics from W3schools.com:

 

The statistics reinforce an adage from Harvard innovation theorist Clayton Christensen and his co-authors, Scott D. Anthony and Erik A. Roth (emphasis mine):

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

In this case, by 2006, most users were satisfied with how their browsers functioned. Most could display Web pages and graphics adequately, and HTML/CSS standards were helping to mitigate the frustration of the browser wars. What people wanted was convenience through faster rendering engines and customizability through plug-ins and skins.

By 2011, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox had become major players by fulfilling these needs.

The lesson here? Speed, ease of use, and customization are critical for widespread acceptance of any new technology.

Web 2.0 and social media

Social media was coming to the fore in 2006, with MySpace garnering much attention and fanfare. People were still trying to figure out exactly what “Web 2.0″ meant, and media “gurus” were more focused on e-mail tips than Facebook marketing strategies.

Today, Facebook and Twitter garner most of the attention, but location-based technologies such as Foursquare and Groupon have started capturing users as well. Some have been buzzing about Google Plus, Tumblr, and Quora.

For me, the takeaway is don’t become too enamored of any one technology. The landscape changes quickly; you should understand how the systems operate. That way, you can adapt as the technology changes — because it always will.

Remember BASIC?

The advent of mobile

In Web Design in a Nutshell, mobile was just emerging as a data platform. The iPhone hadn’t been introduced, and the BlackBerry (dubbed “Crackberry” by regular users) was the smartphone of choice. But such phones were typically too expensive for most users.

In 2006, most still used their cell phones as phones, and the big concern was the thought that some people might actually replace their landlines with the technology.

Today, 83% of adults have a cell phone, up from 73% in 2006. And of today’s cell phone users, 42% have a smartphone. With the introduction of the Apple iPad and Android tablet computers, mobile has become the primary medium of interest.

Mobile is a natural evolution of the self-referential nature of media usage: We want information when we want it, where we need it. We don’t want to wait.

Browser statistics point to the need for customization and speed. The rise of mobile shows us how important time-shifting and immediacy have become.

The big takeaway

My goal isn’t to inspire nostalgia for a simpler, less saturated era. What strikes me about the evolution of the Internet is the consumers and individual users are the ones dictating how technology will evolve.

Our goal should be figuring what jobs we need done (to lift more of Christensen’s language) for those users, and finding the best tools to accomplish those tasks.

21st century teaching: How do we reach students?

How do we reach college students in this ever-connected, permanently plugged-in society?

I’ve pondered this question since I began teaching at the college level in 2005, and I’m still searching for the answer.

Earlier this year, the book Academically Adrift used survey data and information from the Collegiate Learning Assessment to examine student success at 24 colleges and universities. The results garnered much attention:

  • 45 percent of students did not demonstrate significant learning during the first two years of higher education.
  • 36 percent of students did not demonstrate significant learning during four years of college.

The analysis also indicated that students are often not asked to read long texts or write lengthy papers.

The thought-provoking book sparked a much-needed discussion: What can be done to improve academic rigor?

It raises important pedagogical questions. Should professors assign massive amounts of reading and writing to fill the gap? Will this improve student learning?

Let me offer a qualified “maybe.”

I spent a decade as an editor and manager before becoming an educator, and I’ve discovered many parallels between leading a newsroom and managing a classroom. As I found with my employees, my students have a variety of strengths and weaknesses, and different students excel in different ways in my classes. My job as a teacher is to capitalize on the strengths, mitigate the weaknesses, and help students realize their potential.

As I began teaching, I read What the Best College Teachers Do, a qualitative study by Ken Bain seeking to get to the heart of what makes good professors effective. One of the many passages that resonated strongly with me:

They [the top professors studied] believe that students must learn the facts while learning to use them to make decisions about what they understand or what they should do. To them, ‘learning’ makes little sense unless it has some sustained influence on the way the learner subsequently thinks, acts, or feels.

In this age of digital natives, we must find innovative ways to engage and captivate students’ minds. As Nicholas Carr documents in The Shallows, technology does shape our brains. We have yet to understand fully how a generation raised on the Internet behaves, interacts, and grows.

I’ve heard and seen educators criticize this new generation, saying they don’t read, they don’t write, and — worst of all — they don’t think. But that blanket criticism misses those creative minds who learn in unusual, nontraditional ways. They absorb new ideas and materials in a multimedia universe. It’s what they’ve grown up with.

Perhaps many students don’t digest massive amounts of reading and engage with traditional texts because their brains are wired differently, as Carr and others note. They don’t think in linear narratives. They seek links and search for connections. They learn through stimulating environments. They hunger for application and immediate results.

Am I advocating minimizing reading and writing? Absolutely not. But I do think we as educators have to push ourselves to find ways to weave the traditional ways of learning with the new, helping students link their familiar, digital world with the analog one we teachers grew up in.