#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?

Free surfing: Where does your brain go?

It usually happens on a Sunday morning, in the quiet of the solitary kitchen.

The house is asleep. The coffee is fresh. The sun is rising. And I humbly drift through the Web, aimlessly consuming content insightful and insipid.

It’s not anything I intend to do. I usually start by reviewing Google+ or scanning the New York Times home page or clicking on a link from a friend’s e-mail or tweet. Suddenly, 45 minutes have passed, 10 tabs are open on my browser, and the thought flashes: “How did I get here?”

This type of experience in part inspired Nicholas Carr’s writing The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a book I expected to dislike but instead found exhilarating. Instead of a cherry-picking screed railing against technology, it’s a thoughtful exploration of what we know — and have yet to learn — about how this interconnected, plugged-in life is affecting us.

Since reading it, I find myself stopping every once in a while and retracing my technological steps. Too many times, I’ve passively accepted my consumption like a French-fry carnivore at McDonald’s.

So this past Sunday morning, with browser tabbed to capacity, I found myself wondering once again, “How did I get here?”

WordPress

Each morning, I compile a list of local headlines for my community news site, SGFNews.org, which I’ve set up at WordPress.com.

Unfortunately, when I log into WordPress, I get the dreaded Freshly Pressed screen, a pleasantly presented buffet of images, blog titles, and headlines seductively gesturing to be clicked.

This morning, my eyes were drawn to a screenshot from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II,” one of my favorite movies from the past year.

Cut the Crap Movie ReviewsBeing a movie buff, I clicked on the link to Cut the Crap Movie Reviews, an entertaining blog of short reviews. It was a fruitful detour; I had not heard of half of the movies on the list.

Google+

Weekends are my time to delve into media trends and research. It’s also my time to catch up with neglected social media such as Google+ and Pinterest (my primary medium is Twitter).

This morning, I logged into my Google+ account for the first time in a couple of weeks. One of the first headlines posted by Dan Gillmor, noted journalist and media thinker, caught my attention:

I did not immediately make the connection, but the article reminded me that Zaslow co-wrote The Last Lecture, the story of Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who gave an inspiring talk about life’s lessons. The Wall Street Journal also noted Zaslow’s dedication to his wife and daughters, significant details that touched me as a husband and father.

Another Google+ headline from Wired caught my eye:

Privacy has become a flashpoint for me — it’s one of the reasons I use Facebook only while holding my nose — and I shared the article on Google+ and Twitter without hesitation.

Using Google+’s feed-view buttons, I then focused on updates from Friends. My research partner Carrie Brown-Smith led me to two fascinating pieces: The WeMedia.com PitchIt Challenge offering $50,000 for digital-media startups and an Advertising Age article about studying brand perceptions of online consumers.

I briefly considered the possibility of pitching my community news site to the challenge. I also hovered over the Advertising Age comments and thought of criticizing the headline “GE Study Proves Consumers Respond More to Shared Content,” as studies do not prove hypotheses. But thought did not turn to action, and I returned to my Google+ stream.

Next came a blog post titled “And Deliver Us From Distraction: Understanding Resistance to Media Life,” from Seth Lewis, an insightful media scholar at the University of Minnesota I’ve gotten to know in the academic world.

But the blog post wasn’t the only thing lighting up my brain. The site design was interesting, and I noticed the design was created by one of the blog’s co-writers, Joshua Braun, another media scholar.

At his site, he highlighted one of his published papers that fit right in with a study I’m working on. I headed to our university library site and found the paper, “Hosting the Public Discourse, Hosting the Public.”

Sexist startups

My last intellectual side road came courtesy of Kathy Gill, a sharp educator at the University of Washington whom I have connected with through the Carnival of Journalism blog group.

I clicked on the post by Dan Shapiro that recounted a disrespectful introduction of Rebecca Lovell as she was about to moderate a panel on funding startups. The man introducing her said:

Rebecca’s one of the smartest ladies I know, and I thought that she was a perfect pick for the role of moderator.  When we selected Rebecca and she said yes, she was a sexy single woman. And since that time, she’s become a sexy married woman, and so I wanted her lucky new spouse to stand up.  So we’ve got not only a very talented, but a happy moderator.

The post struck a chord with me. I am continually amazed that in 2012 we still hear this kind of — as Shapiro put it — crap. Did we not leave this behind with the age of the Mad Men?

The next item I clicked on from Gill’s stream involved storytelling with infographics. As one of my classes has to create an infographic as an assignment this semester, I thought the post would be particularly useful, and I saved it to my Diigo account.

And then the thought hit me: “How did I get here?”

What I learned

Thinking about my free surf led me to a few conclusions:

  • Free surfing can be insightful: In an hour of surfing, I had discovered a couple of helpful articles for my classes, a paper for one of my research projects, and a potential grant source for my community news site.
  • Emotions drive clicks. In some instances, the provocative subjects lured me during the free surf. Perhaps sadness was lingering from the news of Whitney Houston’s death, but I clicked on the Zaslow piece and the startup post partly because of visceral reactions to the content.
  • Sharing equals power. “Free surf” is a misnomer; I had several trusted guides from my social network leading me to useful content. In fact, most of my content discovery comes through this method (usually through Twitter instead of Google+). And I shared a few of the items I found with my own networks.
  • The stream induces anxiety. As someone whose stock in trade is information, I find that the constant exposure to an ever-growing influx does spark a sense of anxiety: How do I keep up with all of this? How can I accomplish everything I need to get done?

Does this experience jibe with yours? Where do your free surfs lead you in the silence of a Sunday morning?