#jcarn: Finding the way to meaningful, long-lasting content

Author’s note: This post wraps up the responses to my earlier prompt for the Carnival of Journalism blog project. Feel free to contribute your own blog responses, and I’ll add them to the thoughts compiled here. 

As I’d hoped, our group stretched my prompt about longevity and meaningful content in a variety of directions. Engagement remains a fluid, malleable idea in today’s landscape, and I doubt we will agree on a singular definition in the weeks and months to come. But these responses provide some sharp insights to move our thinking forward.

Each response seized a separate piece of the journalistic puzzle to dissect: the journalistic process, the journalist/content creator, the technology, and the journalism itself. Take half an hour or so to scan these posts; you will find thoughts and ideas to inspire your own work.

Circa and the journalistic process

Circa news appDavid Cohn (@digidave), our ringleader and chief content officer of Circa, focuses on his organization’s idea of the “follow” for stories.

Circa taps into the idea of journalism as a process.  Instead of focusing on a singular story, Circa watches news events and topics unfold over time, combining several stories into an overall news narrative. This ability to “atomize” individual stories allows Circa add them for context as news evolves and permits users to “follow” news topics.

As David notes:

We can see how many people have “followed” a story in the last hour, the last 24 hours and how many have unfollowed (happily always our lowest number). The follow count doesn’t represent “eyeballs” to monetize with banner ads but rather relationships. Each follow is a decision by a reader to keep in touch, for us to keep track of what they know and alert them when something new happens they aren’t aware of.

In a sense, the approach is akin to Quora’s ability to follow particular questions, a strategy embraced by the New York Times on its AskWell blog.

(By the way, if you don’t have @circa app on your smartphone, you need to download it now. Its mobile-first storytelling style is a model for developing scannable narratives.)

Understanding the journalist/content creator

Donica Mensing (@donica), associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, takes the question away from the content and focuses on the content creators themselves. What do skillful, passionate creators experience personally when a piece of content takes off?

She writes:

If we find journalists who are moved and excited by what they are doing, it’s likely they will be connected to subjects and communities that feel similarly. It’s another set of data points to help us define and measure what has lasting impact, what engages, what is meaningful.

She has compiled a list of research questions that we could ask journalists to delve into this topic (a #jcarn collaboration, perhaps?).

(By the way, Donica has done important work analyzing local news ecosystems and networks. Her research is mandatory reading for anyone wanting to understand online journalism.)

Using technology to make content findable

Carrie Brown-Smith (@Brizzyc), associate professor at University of Memphis, hits the practical aspects of timing, tagging, and technology to make content findable and usable. Like other participants this go-round, she says we should stop searching for one magical metric to solve our engagement woes:

I’m increasingly convinced that it’s less about choosing any one particular “golden” metric that will help us to quantify quality or impactful or engaging content, and more about being smarter and more sophisticated about the way we think and talk about the constellation of metrics available to us – and especially the story we as journalists tell advertisers.

(By the way, Carrie has pushed the boundaries of entrepreneurial journalism education during her time at the University of Memphis [check out the #jpreneur hashtag on Twitter]. The lessons from her experiments are valuable for any newsroom/journalism program.)

Creating journalism that empowers audiences

Steve Outing (@steveouting), blogger and media futurist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, chose to focus the idea of content on “significant news that makes you angry.” Though that’s been the goal of many an investigative journalist for decades, Steve makes an important update to that notion: News organizations — especially in today’s interactive environment — should empower their audiences to take action.

He writes:

The ideal, in my view, is that for appropriate stories (like those we’re discussing) there’s a section at the end — “Take action” — with ways for readers who are angry about what a news story has uncovered, to do something (more than just rant in Comments). And don’t just do the old thing of listing the time and place of the protest, for example; provide actions that readers can take, whether it’s to sign a petition or commit to volunteer work.

(By the way, Steve is also the founder and program director of the innovative CU project the Digital News Test Kitchen, an incubator for experiments in journalism and technology.)

A side note: I mentioned the book Spreadable Media in my original prompt, and one of the authors, Sam Ford, responded in the comments by drawing in Anderson’s notion of the Long Tail into the mix and noting the importance of archives in the Internet age.

Thanks to all who participated. If you decide to add your own thoughts to the mix, please let me know and I’ll add them here.

#jcarn: What is the best way to measure meaningful content?

David Cohn, our Carnival of Journalism ringmaster, has graciously allowed me to serve as host for this month’s #jcarn blogfest.

For this month’s prompt, I offer two related questions:

  • How do you define meaningful content that has long-lasting value?
  • What is the best way to evaluate content that fosters deep engagement with the audience?

Take the prompts in whatever direction you wish. I’ll start gathering the results the week of June 25 and post a compilation post the first week of July.

I’ve jotted down a few thoughts below.

Today’s media environment is a flood of immediacy.

With the focus on virality, content creators frantically update to ride the waves of Google, Bing, and Yahoo. They hope their content will light up the social-media landscape on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. They crave the buzz that may last an hour or two or perhaps even a day, if they’re lucky.

To that end, they often gauge success in terms of page views or unique visitors, largely because today’s advertising metrics are still focused on exposure. It concentrates on the actions of the audience, instead of the inherent quality of the content itself.

We default to these measurements because they make sense. They are something that we can move. And they are something we can tangibly connect to revenue.

News Corp.’s Raju Narisetti makes a persuasive case for the pragmatic reality of metrics that — as he puts it — “drive conversions”:

 …“guests” (your one-and-done type visitors) to “readers” (often registered but not paying) to “subscribers” (paying readers) to “members” (those who avail themselves of other non-content led benefits of subscribing.)

These metrics remain a work-in-progress in various News Corp newsrooms globally but, eventually, will be the primary focus of how we need to manage our newsrooms and news publishing companies when it comes to audience data.

But exposure is limited in what it tells us. Most engagement models (such as the definitive one from Philip Napoli’s book Audience Evolution that I’ve included below) place the concept at the beginning stages of audience connection and participation, as measurements such as page views let us know only whether visitors saw the content. They don’t reveal deeper reactions.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 8.40.49 AM

What is engagement?

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 6.55.41 AMMy research partner Dr. Carrie Brown-Smith and I have spent years working with traditional newsrooms moving to the digital realm, and we’ve chronicled a clash of ideals related to the energy spent on generating large numbers of page views.

Since we first connected with the Christian Science Monitor in 2009, we have heard reporters and editors struggle with exactly how to define engagement. Is it loyalty in the form of return visits? Is it regular visitors to the home page? Is it someone who shares content elsewhere as a word-of-mouth advocate?

As one editor told us during one visit:

What’s interesting is that the SEO side is a lever you can pull. You know how to work it, or we’ve figured out how to work it. We know if we do X, then we’re going to get Y, just like a machine, spit it out. We have no idea how to do the other one, so we’re just blind and fumbling around in the dark. And I think sometimes there’s a frustration that comes with that, so when in doubt, go back to what you know. But, yeah, if we could pull that lever, that would be great. I’m not sure we know how to do it.

We are not the only industry watchers who have sensed a critical point in the conversation on metrics. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds noted in March that several corners — including the metrics firm Chartbeat — have begun exploring concepts that better capture what it means to have an engaged user.

Nicholas White, editor-in-chief of the Daily Dot, told an audience at this year’s International Symposium on Online Journalism that the site doesn’t look at traditional metrics such as pages per visitor anymore. “We’ve gotten past (that),” he said.

Authors Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green dug into this idea with their notion of “spreadable media,” from their book of the same name. They took issue with the label “viral,” which removes the human component from the action of sharing.

Their definition:

“Spreadability” refers to the technical resources that make it easier to circulate some kinds of content than others, the economic structures that support or restrict circulation, the attributes of a media text that might appeal to a community’s motivation for sharing material, and the social networks that link people through the exchange of meaningful bytes.

Our use of “spreadability” is perhaps most effective as a corrective to the ways in which the concept of “stickiness” has developed over time to measure success in online commerce.

Another important distinction the authors made: Sharing doesn’t necessarily mean engaging. Perhaps users shared content to reveal something of themselves. Maybe it’s the headline that led them to post the article on their Facebook pages or in their Twitter feeds, and they did not truly engage with the content.

Thinking about longevity

For a while now, I’ve been mulling these related ideas and thinking about a concept that I recently started calling “longevity” — a piece of content that people return to repeatedly, whether for reference, connection, or enjoyment. It consistently draws users over weeks, months, or even years. It touches them on all levels: emotional, cognitive, and perhaps even spiritual.

I first began thinking about this notion watching viral tweets, trying to determine what made certain tweets survive for more than a couple of hours through retweets and sharing.

I also noticed it with certain useful blog posts I had written over the years. A post I wrote explaining the Twitter abbreviation “MT” in 2011 continues to drive hundreds of page views to Drury’s Social Media Certificate site every month.  I believe part of the reason for its success is it explores the culture of Twitter, beyond the practical explanation of “MT.”

The label longevity hit me earlier this year, as I was looking for a simple primer on project management for my students. My searches took me to the Microsoft Developer Network, where I found a superb treatise from Scott Berkun — written in 2005. Even nine years later, Berkun’s advice remains relevant and meaningful in today’s age. And it remains on the first page of search-engine results in response to the query “how to manage a project.”

I began to wonder: Is it possible to create such long-lasting, meaningful content in a news context? Does everything have to be about immediacy? 

How do you think about meaningful content? Does it mesh with these definitions? And how might we define and measure it?

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.

#jcarn: Measuring journalism

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’s the best way — or ways — to measure journalism and how?

The root of journalism is truth, and the time-tested method that journalists have to uncover that truth is verification. If we want to measure journalism, it must begin here.

Respected journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel explored this idea more than a decade ago as part of their work with the Committee of Concerned Journalists, which they codified in their book The Elements of Journalism. As they noted, what sets journalists apart from every other type of content creator — entertainer, technologist, pundit — is verification.

Simply put, verification is checking out everything with multiple sources. I think of the adage I learned early in my journalism career:

If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

It’s only semi-facetious. It doesn’t mean your mother is a liar. It just means she may not be quite accurate.

Maybe she wasn’t talking to you.

Maybe her definition of “love” doesn’t jibe with conventional wisdom.

Maybe she’s not really your mother.

In today’s environment of the immediate and the ephemeral, it’s ever more important to verify the drive-by comments, the frenetic machine gun of news. It’s too easy to retweet, reblog, or republish what’s happening with the claim that the rush of information requires us to be first rather than accurate.

What does the audience want?

What’s clouding journalism today is the need for audience. In such a fragmented environment, how do we generate enough interest — in terms of page views, time spent on site, or other measures of engagement — to secure advertising to pay the bills?

We tap into Google Trends and try to SEO our headlines and content to lure people to our website. We crank up the level of content with frequent updating — sometimes including links to hot content that we haven’t independently verified. The goal is noble: Get them to our site so they can see our real, verified journalism.

But some pockets of experimentation are turning that idea on its head. Gawker has begun finding that original content may be generating more meaningful connections than its SEO junk. Salon recently noted its recent upsurge in traffic came from abandoning the aggregation gold rush. And ProPublica has figured out how to win Pulitzer Prizes and remain financially viable (PDF) without buying into the hype.

Maintaining credibility

As Philip Napoli notes in his book Audience Evolution, a large audience may not be the most engaged. In the age of social media, a small but motivated group can make a big noise.

But the information has to be accurate. Witness the backlash regarding Invisible Children and the #stopkony campaign. After the initial rush of eye-candy addicts, more thoughtful writers began questioning the group’s methods, spending, and accuracy.

Even credible, well-read organizations such as Mashable fall into this trap. The all-things-social-media site recently posted an item with the misleading title “Top 10 Social Media-Savvy Universities [STUDY].” As you dig deeper into the study, you find that the list is actually drawn from already culled list of 25 UK universities and 25 U.S. universities.

Even the study’s author notes this clarification in the comments of the story:

Journalism’s value/impact can come from reaffirming its role as the verifier without agenda. Places such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact serve as role models for our aspirations of verification.

Measuring verification

Measurement assumes quantification, and some ideas — such as verification — are better evaluated qualitatively. Creating a measure requires including some attributes and excluding others; inevitably, such measures are always imperfect approximations, especially when it comes to complex concepts.

But we can establish a few expectations, with a little help from Kovach and Rosenstiel:

  • Transparency: Where did the information come from? Are you transparent about your sources? Post your spreadsheets through Google Docs and your documents on DocumentCloud. Embrace an open-source ethic. Disclose what you were unable to confirm.
  • Consistency: Test information from every source, even your mother. Don’t rely exclusively on secondary sources; check the primary information yourself to ensure it is presented accurately with context.
  • Context: Link to sources you’ve used to verify your content, and provide access to full interviews to bolster confidence that you’re not cherry-picking information to support an agenda. Make sure you’re representing all nuances and resisting the urge to simplify everything to two sides.

Italian schoolteacher Tommaso De Benedetti turned humilating news organizations into an art form with his mock Twitter accounts of Harmid Karzai, Bashar al-Assad, and other world leaders. He found that some news organizations quickly retweeted information without verification — including news that Fidel Castro had died.

In his interview with The Guardian, he may have created the journalistic warning for the Internet age: “Twitter works well for deaths.”

Or maybe we should craft a new adage:

If your mother tweets her death, check it out.

#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.