#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?

#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.

Jay Rosen: A lesson in transparent humility

NYU professor and blogger Jay Rosen is well-known and recognized in journalistic circles for his work and thoughts on public journalism, new media, and democracy.

He is also a prolific Twitterer (@jayrosen_nyu) with more than 35,000 followers.

Today, he showcased one of the primary — and these days, underappreciated — journalistic virtues on Twitter: humility.

In this age of punditry, the assertion has become the rhetorical tool of choice. No longer is discussion prized; instead, it’s whether you “win” by talking over the other panelists. If you admit ignorance, you lose.

So color me surprised when Rosen posted a simple query about the World Cup:

Jay Rosen World Cup tweet

My guess is many non-soccer fans have asked this same question (full disclosure: I have wondered about this issue myself). In this case, Rosen did as great journalists past have done.

He asked the question without fear.

From many corners came raised eyebrows and howls. And instead of cowering, he again did what any self-respecting journalist should do: He shared the comments with his followers.

Here’s the full rundown from his stream:

  • Okay, who wants to hear the top answers from my Twitter subscribers to my question about why there are so few goals in international soccer?
  • Okay, here we go… top answers from my subscribers to http://bit.ly/aGC0s5 1.) The teams haven’t played together (me: and the defense has?)
  • Top answers to http://bit.ly/aGC0s5 2.) At higher levels of skill, the defenses are WAY better. (Me: uh, this just re-states the question.)
  • Top answers to http://bit.ly/aGC0s5 3.) Because scoring goals is HARD, you soccer moron. (Me: whereas preventing goals is easier? But why?)
  • Top answers to http://bit.ly/aGC0s5 4.) Why do you need an article? Just watch the game and you will see (Unstated: you moron!)
  • Top answers to http://bit.ly/aGC0s5 5.) “OMG, the Americans are trying to understand football. Don’t, just… don’t.” (You morons!)
  • Top answers to http://bit.ly/aGC0s5 6.) Because goals basically come from screw-ups and at this level there are fewer screw-ups. (Me: hmmm.)
  • Top answers to http://bit.ly/aGC0s5 7.) Tactical decision to play a certain (cautious) style, popularized by Italy. (Me: okay, makes sense.)
  • Top answers to http://bit.ly/aGC0s5 8.) You are insulting the beauty of the game by asking that question, and no I don’t have a URL for you.
  • Okay, the storm has passed. That concludes my review of the answers I received to my (sincere!) question about goal scoring in int’l soccer.

That exchange is a model more journalists should emulate. Be humble. Be transparent. And for God’s sake, ask the question without fear.

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Communicators, unite! Write clearly, and fight the bull

Although some hegemonic forces tout the synergy one yields from interweaving multiple lexical categories and argot, methinks such linkages merely obfuscate and should be excised from our discourse.

In other words, cut the crap.

Or as authors Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky put it: “Fight the bull.”

My friend and former colleague Michelle Rose recently introduced me to the “Fight the Bull” site, which raises the clarity axe to hack through pompous prose.

You can download the free software (if you have a Windows PC), or you can run up to 20,000 words through the Mystery Matador to discover the Bull Index of a piece of writing. It will compute the Flesch Reading Ease Index, a readability scale used in many educational corners, and then inform you how full of it you are.

As a test, I decide to submit my recent blog post about the iPad — just to make sure I hadn’t spiraled into the corporatespeak abyss.

My results?

Whew. Guess I better watch those occasional detours down Obfuscation Lane.

Obama’s speech: Watching the new journalism in action

Obama’s State of the Union address
(Word size indicates how often Obama said it)

Today, journalists have to do more than merely chronicle what was said.

The multimedia tools at their disposal allow stories to be told creatively, interactively. In today’s environment, the best news organizations are allowing readers and viewers to discover “stories” in innovative ways.

Take President Obama’s State of the Union address. Instead of a standard story recap, reaction, and analysis, the “story” unfolds in layers today:

  • You can watch the speech unfiltered, without the chatter of network anchors, either at C-SPAN (the nonprofit cooperative of cable companies) or direct from the White House.
  • You can use Wordle.net to see at a glance the keywords of the speech. The Guardian took such an approach to compare Obama’s speech to those of previous presidents.
  • You can search the transcript at the New York Times and see what people were saying in real time, as the speech was unfolding.
  • You can check the BS meter through several fact-checking sites such as Politifact and FactCheck.org to determine whether the president or the Republican respondent was bending the truth more.

It is no longer enough to recount the story. Those organizations that understand how to cultivate the sense of discovery will be the ones to survive.

Premature obit for narrative journalism?

No one reads anymore.

It is a refrain heard often in discussions about the future of journalism, especially since it’s younger readers who aren’t reading newspapers and magazines. Give ’em short bites. Lots of photos. Q&As. Breakout boxes.

The advice makes intuitive sense. Online, we have become scanners and skimmers, with our eyes darting quickly from headline to blurb to hypertext link.

But there is another truism we should not forget: Everyone appreciates a well-told story.

It is why Garrison Keillor captivates millions standing at a microphone with his news from Lake Wobegon. It is why we sit in our car and listen to final seconds of an NPR story that has pulled us in during the drive home.

It is why the New York Times grabbed me this morning with the story of two Nepali immigrants who followed seemingly similar tracks to the United States but diverged greatly once reaching these shores.

Follow the link. Glance at the photo. Scan the headline. See if you can resist reading the narrative.

Everyone appreciates a well-told story. Let us not completely abandon this form of the craft.