I’ve taken a break from this blog while Carrie Brown-Smith and I finish up our book, The Lean Newsroom. Feel free to check out our book blog in the meantime.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.
What is engagement?
My 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.
“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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
But 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.
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.”
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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.”