#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.

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: 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.

Carnival of Journalism #fail: The glittering allure of Web video

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.

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Fear comfort, not failure.

Innovation theorists often talk about “failing fast” — taking risks and then quickly evaluating whether the risk is reaping hoped-for rewards.

This is my tale of “failing fast.”

In June 2001, I became online editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, and I was eager to put my stamp on our Web site. One of my first major projects involved working with an assistant city editor to develop strong coordinated coverage of the Ozarks Open, our area’s premier golf event. Besides luring many rising professional golfers to the area, the event raised thousands of dollars for local charities.

Our big idea: A virtual tour of the course.

We repurposed newspaper graphics for the Web and developed individual pages for every hole. We broke down the key elements and analyzed the primary obstacles. And then, the editor — who was also a videographer — spent days at the course with the golf pro shooting videos that offered from-the-golfer views explaining how to navigate the holes.

Eighteen videos. Each about a minute long. Each about 9.8 megabytes in size.

We launched the mini-site in conjunction with coverage in the print edition and provided links from the home page. We praised ourselves for being ahead of the curve and thinking multimedia. Our site was deeper than any other — even deeper than the event’s own site.

But I failed to consider two critical details: The majority of our users connected to us via dial-up, and those who came through broadband connections typically did so during work hours.

The videos sat dormant. Views languished in double digits. Obituaries and death notices continued to be our top draws.

We had spent days of staff time and resources developing the mini-site. And no one was using it.

I learned a valuable lesson, though. From a news site, most people just want the information quickly, sans multimedia doo-dads. In many conversations with online editors since, I have found staff-produced videos typically are not major draws. It’s the raw video from breaking-news scenes or the goofball YouTube amateur that pulls in the audience.

As a researcher, I’ve investigated this question a bit further. A secondary analysis I conducted of media usage in 2009 showed that multimedia was not statistically significant in whether someone chose the Internet as his or her primary source for news. The primary factor was frequency of updating.

Indeed, my recent research at the Christian Science Monitor found that the news organization improved traffic more effectively with frequent updates than multimedia content. Videos and a weekly webcast were abandoned because they didn’t generate much interest from the audience. And the push toward regular updates, combined with search-engine optimization, helped the Monitor increase page views to more than 25 million per month.

Carnival of Journalism: Bringing change agents into newsrooms

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.

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The newsrooms I visit don’t lack innovative ideas. They lack resources.

As the cuts go deeper, fewer people are responsible for more journalism. And as managers ask their reporters to do more with less — create a podcast, write a blog post, crank out that raw video, and do your daily package/story — those reporters tend to default to their previous routines, their comfort zones to churn out as much news as quickly as they can. They don’t always have the time to develop new routines in an efficient manner.

It’s a phenomenon my colleague Dr. Carrie Brown-Smith and I have found among many journalists we’ve interviewed in our studies of newsroom change.

Driving innovation means understanding the routines reinforced by a deeply ingrained journalistic culture.

What should Knight and Reynolds do next? Sponsor innovation change agents to help newsrooms transform their routines of old.

One newspaper newsroom I studied added a new content-management system with the idea of becoming Web-first. The message from above: Blog and update when you can.

Though the newsroom spoke of being Web-first, it remained focused on the print product. As a result, blog posts went by the wayside because they weren’t seen as “stories.” Reporters were left on their own to figure out how to incorporate the blog into their daily job, and consequently, very few became regular bloggers. Even fewer became successful.

Without guidance, they didn’t make the time to develop new routines.

In 2009, Carrie and I began studying the Christian Science Monitor, which abandoned its daily print edition in favor of its Web site and a weekly magazine. Editor John Yemma and Online Editor Jimmy Orr became key change agents in disrupting the traditional routines by setting a clear agenda: more frequent updates, shorter posts, and headlines optimized with search engines in mind.

Despite resistance, reporters and editors slowly began changing their routines. And such changes brought about tangible successes in terms of page views: from 9.5 million when we began our study in December 2009 to 19.4 million in January of this year.

Not every newsroom has its own effective change agent. Smaller newsrooms have established staffs and routines, embedded by years of journalistic success, and not everyone can afford to hire a John Yemma or a Jimmy Orr (who is now at the Los Angeles Times leading Web efforts there).

But Knight and/or Reynolds could sponsor “innovation fellowships.” Those funds could pay for cutting-edge innovators to serve as innovation coaches. They could spend three months, six months, maybe even a year working with news organizations to transform traditional news routines into the innovative ones required of today’s fast-changing news ecosystem.

Carnival of Journalism: Providing a forum for new voices

Note: This post is part of 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.

What can we do to increase the number of news sources in our community?

This question drives my fledgling community-journalism project, SGFNews.org.

Over the past decade, I’ve watched our local media in the Springfield, Mo., area struggle with shrinking resources as they try to cover our expanding community, one of the fastest growing parts of the state.

In recent years, I’ve become convinced a local nonprofit news organization that tapped into citizen and student energy might help fill the coverage gaps.

The dream

I was particularly drawn to models such as the now-defunct Chi-Town Daily News and the University of Wisconsin’s Madison Commons project.

These sites recruited, trained and encouraged citizen journalists, a thought that appealed to me greatly as an editor and educator. Perhaps these new reporters, with the help of an experienced editor, could bring a different perspective with a wider array of voices and sources than what the traditional media tapped into. They might stretch beyond the usual circle of traditional movers and shakers that dominate our newspaper and broadcast stations. We could hear the stories that get missed by newsrooms whose resources have dwindled to surface-scraping levels.

My hope: To develop a community network to complement the work of the existing media.

So I created the Ozarks Community Journalism Foundation last year. With the support of my department at Drury University and the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, I began reaching out to bring new voices into the journalistic picture, providing free community training sessions and reporting guides. We connected with our local bloggers association. I teamed with a colleague at Missouri State University to have our students create content for the 2010 midterm election.

With this band of volunteers, I had hoped to dig into areas where traditional outlets couldn’t afford to devote the time or resources.

But turning that dream into reality has proved a huge challenge.

The reality

I have no budget. I have a part-time graduate assistant and me as staffers. And I already have a full-time job as an assistant professor.

In our meetings with community groups, we’ve met a number of enthusiastic people who laud and encourage our efforts. But without direct assignments from me (or the incentive of freelance dollars), I’ve had few people engage with comments and even fewer provide original content.

Yet, I remain hopeful.

Our biggest success has been our Twitter account, @sgfnews. I’ve aggregated a number of local news feeds, including some from area blogs and community weeklies, and I occasionally provide original content through Twitter, either live-tweeting major events or retweeting citizens and local groups. Without marketing or advertising, our account has grown to more than 800 followers and has gained credibility as a local source of news.

During the recent blizzard that hit our area, I curated a number of stories and bits of information for the community. One tweet made me realize the effort was not wasted:

Our news site uses WordPress as its foundation. In an effort to build traffic, I put together a daily roundup of the best of our local journalism that intentionally avoids the quick-and-dirty crime or accident pieces.

I also offer occasional media criticism in the mix:

On our site, I also try to bring alternate voices and perspectives. On an original blog post about a proposed smoking ban, I highlighted the contributions of a commenter:

I’ve done a couple of podcasts with a political-science professor on our campus as well to provide election perspectives in a free-flowing conversation.

The takeaway

Our successes are minor at best. Our original content comes too infrequently to have a large impact.

Still, I’m encouraged that our numbers are growing, albeit slowly. We’ve risen from 201 monthly page views when we launched in August 2010 to 575 in January, and original content drives traffic. We add 10 to 20 followers a week on Twitter, and a greater percentage these days are actual Ozarkers (rather than spambots) interested in our news feed.

My more realistic goal? Perhaps our modest efforts will inspire others, whether their content appears on our site or elsewhere.