#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: Asking the right question about capitalism and journalism: What is value?

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:

Can a good journalist also be a good capitalist? If so, how? Or why not?

The simple answer is yes, someone can be good at doing journalism and making money. The problem is it’s the wrong question.

Umair Haque, a creative thinker and blogger who recently published the e-book “Betterness: Economic for Humans,” has it right. He urges organizations to seek arête — virtue — to “maximize human potential and minimize suffering, instead of merely maximizing near-term profit, shareholder value, or revenue.” (p. 40)

It’s a grand variation of a motto many journalists cite: Comfort the afflicted; afflict the comfortable. As journalists, we want to improve the public good through our research, investigations, and stories. The reason so many of us are so passionate about this crazy craft that consumes our lives is we believe it can change the world and elevate the human condition.

The problem with the question as stated is we’ve seen what the profit motive can do to journalism. It led to the yellow journalism of the late 19th century, when stories were fabricated and sensationalized for the sake of sales. Indeed, the Christian Science Monitor and the Missouri School of Journalism were created and the New York Times evolved under Adolph Ochs as responses to the market-driven journalism of the day.

They were pursuing a greater goal, a greater journalism beyond profits.

We are at a similar crossroads today, as publicly traded media giants contort and flounder trying to meet competitive threats from all sides.

Take Gannett Co. Inc., the nation’s largest newspaper company. Like many of our major media companies, it has focused on maximizing shareholder value, a capitalist virtue. To meet the expectations of the market, it laid off 700 employees in July — its fourth major layoff in three years.

Shortly thereafter, CEO Craig Dubow resigned from the company because of health problems and received a $37.1 million payout per his employment contract. Yet Gannett is still struggling to find its way as a journalistic enterprise.

The market-driven model does have its share of successes in today’s media environment: Pixar, Google, Apple. When Steve Jobs died in October, many drew inspiration from his quotation about success:

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. [T]he products, not the profits, were the motivation. [Former Apple CEO John] Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything.

As we’ve discovered lately, though, even Jobs and Apple made some concessions to be able to manufacture millions of iPods, iPhones, and iPads to feed the technological masses (and, not coincidentally, its income statement).

Fortunately, journalists at news organizations big and small are figuring out a way beyond the traditional free markets we’ve touted for so many years:

  • NPR: National Public Radio has gradually been weaning itself from public dollars to develop self-sustaining support through grants and listener donations. Joan Kroc, the wife of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, donated more than $200 million from her estate and helped firm the financial footing of the nonprofit news organization.
  • ProPublica: This nonprofit website was the first online-only organization to win a Pulitzer Prize for its journalistic excellence. In three years, its donations have grown from 18 percent of total contributions in 2009 to almost half in 2011.
  • MinnPostOne of the first high-profile ventures into nonprofit online journalism, MinnPost.com made its way into the black this year.
  • WellCommons: This public-health community-journalism site, created by Jane Stevens as part of the for-profit Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World media organization, has connected the community and a small staff to focus on health issues facing Lawrence. Stevens is now creating her own version of that model in California.

The focus in these examples is financial viability, not profitability. The income statement makes the journalism possible, and it’s this reality that inspired the original #jcarn prompt. But the driving force in these examples is the journalism, the greater public good, arête. If we focus too much on the market, on the push for profitability, the inevitable result becomes dollar signs over human beings.

Today’s list of great capitalists would have to include Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. had more than $372 billion in assets as of third quarter 2011. But even a great capitalist such as he considers the idea of taxes in the context of society, not in terms of personal gain. As he told ABC News recently:

The question is what is fair when you have to raise multi-trillions to fund the United States of America.

It is in this context we should view Berkshire Hathaway’s purchase of the Omaha World Herald. Buffett would not have bought into the newspaper if he did not see inherent value. The question is how much profit is enough for value: Forty percent? Ten percent? One?

For Buffett, “value” includes the public good. As he said at the press conference announcing the sale:

I think newspapers . . . have a decent future. It won’t be like the past. But there are still a lot of things newspapers can do better than any other media. They not only can be sustained, but are important.

They not only can be sustained, but are important. It is here that our conversation should begin.