News Leadership 3.0

January 21, 2010

Don’t “over Twitter” and other social media tips for news organizations

Media strategist Steve Safran says news organizations must straddle two worlds - the traditional one of producing news and the new one as a player on social networks. Here are his tips for success.

(USC journalism graduate student Nikki Usher sat in on the Knight Digital Media Center’s Strategic Leadership Summit for Public Radio Stations, held last month in conjunction with National Public Radio and funded by Knight Foundation. I asked her to write about key takeaways.)

By Nikki Usher

Steve Safran, a media strategist at Media Reinvent, offered key take-home lessons for news organizations looking to improve their online presence:

1. The Twitter Effect.

Safran advised public radio stations not to get bogged down in numbers of Twitter followers. He highlighted Boston public radio station WBUR, which has 4,300 or so followers. But, Safran pointed out, Twitterers have “spheres of influence.”
The average twitter user, according to Safran, has 126 followers. WBUR has 4,385 followers, but if all of them retweet, that means another 552,510 people may pay attention to WBUR. In a magic world, if all those people retweeted WBUR, you could get 69 million WBUR mentions. “Small beginnings are OK,” he said.
Safran’s number one tip for Twitterers: don’t over tweet. Keep it short, and don’t over promote.
“Audiences want their information as micro as possible,” Safran said. “You are using other people’s mobile text money, so make it worth their money.”

2. Media 1.0 vs. Media 2.0

News organizations are in a funny spot. They are original content providers and they must play in social media.
Media 1.0 is: one way, mass media, top/down, a closed network,  (e.g. not sharing APIs, no comments on a site), hierarchical, passive, macromedia, and bundled.
Media 2.0 is: interactive, direct, bottom-up, open network, collaborative, active, micromedia, and self- bundling.
News organizations shouldn’t get rid of media 1.0 - that’s what audience come to them for - but they do need to change. Safran offered the word “simulpath” - how to keep changes occurring while things are already in progress.
He suggested:
* Unbundle content for consumption anywhere
* Build interactive applications into brand extension platforms
* Make content available for mobile distribution
* Create widgets to provide content on other Web sites in the market
* Own RSS and offer many feeds
* Launch a branded RSS reader

3. Connecting outside the news organization

News organizations, thanks to the world of Media 2.0, aren’t in their own mass media world anymore. Instead, they are part of a larger information ecosystem. And they are also part of a local community.
Safran stressed the importance of a news organization becoming a local information hub as well as an aggregator for content by users.
He suggested news organizations organize local bloggers and the local Web, build and maintain a database of local Web sites, help users create participatory content, and build standalone, niche web sites.
Niche channels are key, as Safran pointed out. “Blogs are the single best search engine optimized content out there.”
His final suggestion for news organizations was to “aggregate, aggregate, aggregate.”

4. Building hits and attracting users

“You don’t want to be best radio web site - you want to be best multimedia outlet,” Safran told public radio executives.
What does that mean for news organizations? It means giving audiences news as it happens in new and novel ways - especially in times of breaking news. Consider new blogs, mashups, and simply blowing up home pages, as CBS8 did with the California Wildfires a couple of years ago. 
And news orgs shouldn’t be afraid to be the gathering place for competing information sites, such as adding feeds from the LA Fire Department.
The web also means writing differently. Search engine optimization, according to Safran, isn’t a magical science. It’s just using easily googled words over and over again so that your site comes up first - if you’re writing about a local fire, include the name, place and site of the fire so anyone searching for information will stumble upon it.
“Keywords are marketing,” Safran said.
He offered some key suggestions:
* Write literal headlines
* Think: How would my friends search this?
* Link out like crazy: Start with two links per story
* Keep updating as the story changes
* Use lots of RSS feeds
Safran reminded public radio leaders most traffic comes from search or aggregators, not from using the home page as a destination. So news outlets are really competing to be the RSS feed of choice.

January 14, 2010

10 lessons from NPR’s digital transformation

Ellen Weiss, VP News at National Public Radio describes what she and her organization have learned about change in the past two years

(USC journalism graduate student Nikki Usher sat in on the Knight Digital Media Center’s Strategic Leadership Summit for Public Radio Stations, held last month in conjunction with National Public Radio and funded by Knight Foundation. I asked her to write about key takeaways.)

By Nikki Usher

National Public Radio is clearly an organization looking to make radical transformations as it moves from being a radio network to a multiplatform news provider.

What has NPR learned from trying to rethink its digital strategy? Ellen Weiss, Senior Vice President for News offered ten lessons from two years in the change trenches that may be useful to other news organizations:

1. There is no end state. The transition will take a long time and no one anywhere has figured this all out. For the transition to happen, managers have to be part of the conversation.

2. Be realistic about how much multimedia you can handle
and train for. Writing is multimedia when you are a broadcast organization.  NPR brought its training back to reality - away from video and to things people could take back to their jobs: how to take a good picture, what’s the mix of writing, blog writing, writing for the web vs. writing for print.

3. Communicate.Weiss held three Q&A sessions a month to help explain to staffers the plans and the process and to give staff a chance to ask questions.

4. Test and learn. Repeat.  Stop things that aren’t working. Realize that lots of people through the organization are going to do things differently and try new things in different ways. Don’t be afraid to reorganize the newsroom (NPR has done this - twice). Be strategic about every hire you have.

5. Do not play into Web versus radio competition.
(Or, to extend on Ellen’s thoughts, for other newsrooms, Web v. print, or web v. broadcast). Geography matters.  Seat people together. Bring digital and editorial staff together. Remind people they are delivering the audience, not one audience versus another audience.

6. Demonstrate your affection and enthusiasm for digital work. People will follow your lead, if you acknowledge the good work.

7. Make tough decisions about what you want to stop.
NPR stopped the Bryant Park Project, but started Planet Money. Planet Money, a big success, benefited from Weiss and others willingness to let the podcast/blog experiment and develop into what it is now.

8. Be transparent about metrics
and educate your staff. Counter the fear that work is going to be driven by getting the hottest number or different editorial standards.

9. Listen to people’s concerns
, don’t try to downplay them. Look for early adapters. Weiss won’t accept anyone not writing for web, but when it comes to social media, she trusts that buzz in the newsroom will build and grab people interested in it.

10. Have reasonable expectations
. You can’t do everything, pick a few things and try to do them well. Give people the support they need to do these things well.


Weiss and two other NPR executives, Kinsey Wilson, senior vice president and general manager for digital news, and Dick Meyer, NPR’s executive editor for news, shared some of their visions with the public radio group.

They stressed the importance of NPR being more than a destination site with multimedia like CNN or the Washington Post. NPR’s focus is on being a nimble site adapted to the new forms of the Internet that recognizes the advantages of audio, social media, niche sites/verticals and mobile platforms.

A big step for NPR has been to produce continuous news and information in what Kinsey Wilson called “real time” or the “price of information on the real clock not on programming time,” an effort which has taken 18 months of Knight training, retraining and hiring staff, and rethinking digital strategy. The goal is not to “match CNN” but to have NPR’s own sensibility and story selection to breaking news on internet time.

December 29, 2009

Government 2.0: What’s in it for local news?

The fast-growing Government 2.0 movement could create opportunities for news orgs to get more local news and engagement without necessarily having to write more traditional stories.

(This is the fourth in a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran about how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Local governments are the source of much local news—yet often they do a notoriously poor job of communicating with community members and news organizations. This is starting to change as more governments become open to experimenting with new tools for sharing info and engaging community members. image

Monitoring and getting involved with these experiments can yield new opportunities to for local news. This content could be more engaging and less labor-intensive than traditional reporting.

The key to making this cooperation work is connecting with people in government who are eager and able to try new approaches to public transparency and engagement. The Government 2.0 (Gov2.0) movement is a great place to find allies for strengthening communities and local news.

Recommendation 4 in the Knight Commission Report is:

“Require government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records, and make civic and social data available in standardized formats that support the productive public use of such data.”

The Knight report suggests some ways to approach this by strengthening and more fully implementing public information rules, open meeting rules, and open courtrooms. These are also passions of government employees and officials involved in Gov2.0.

Gov2.0 is a movement among government employees, as well as other interested people, to apply the strengths of social networking and Web 2.0 tools to all levels of government. The goal is to create systems for public transparency, participation, and collaboration. Although Gov2.0 first gained momentum among federal employees, it’s quickly spreading through many state and local governments.

In fact, in coming years local government may be where much of the Gov2.0 action is. Mark Drapeau, a leading Gov2.0 practitioner, recently listed “local governments as experiments” as the first of his top five Gov2.0 predictions for 2010-12. Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio agrees and notes:

“Indeed we have seen and will see the best from local authorities. Not because they are necessarily smarter or bolder, but because they are—by their nature—much closer to ‘real’ communities. The issues they deal with are local in nature and touch citizens more directly: parks, waste collection, traffic, environment, safety.”

ACTION STEPS: CONNECTING WITH GOV2.0 PEOPLE

1. Go where they are. The Gov2.0 community has some important gathering places online. Joining these communities, finding participants and projects near you, and getting involved in their conversations and events can help you find mutually beneficial opportunities to experiment.

GovLoop is your first stop to connect with the Government 2.0 crowd. This community includes people from all levels of government, so search it to find groups, blogs, and members from your region (or who are discussing larger issues that have strong local angles for you). To find local GovLoop members, try searching for your city and state in this format: Oakland, CA. Selectively friending local GovLoop members and asking about their current Government 2.0 projects or interests can be a good way to break the ice. This guide to searching GovLoop can help you find other useful info in GovLoop.

Also, GovFresh features the best of US Gov 2.0 news, TV, ideas, and live feeds of government social media activity.

2. Attend Gov2.0 events in person or online. CityCamp is a participant-organized “unconference” about practicing Gov 2.0 at the local level. It will be held Jan 23-24, 2010 in Chicago. Someone attending from a news org might volunteer to run a session on how local media can complement local Gov2.0 efforts. For discussion, this group has a forum/mailing list, in-progress agenda, Facebook Group, and GovLoop group. Also, on Twitter, you can follow @CityCamp or watch the hashtag #citycamp.

Similarly, Gov2.0 Expo 2010 will be held May 25-27 in Washington, DC. This is part of O’Reilly Media’s high-profile Gov2.0 Summit event series. This will probably have a heavy federal government focus, so it might be most appropriate for national or major metro daily news orgs to attend.

3. Build on existing efforts. Most people involved in Government 2.0 already have projects in mind or in progress: data or documents they’d like to improve access to, easier channels for public participation, etc. In general, it’s probably easiest to work with what they’re already doing, rather than invent projects from scratch.

Once you assess which Government 2.0 projects are already in the works in your region, consider opportunities where using your news site and/or social media presence as a platform could enhance these efforts—while also providing relevant newsworthy content, and building community loyalty to your brand.

Possible results. Cooperating on Gov2.0 projects might be as simple as selectively retweeting local government Twitter items, or periodically excerpting content from their Facebook fan page or group onto yours.

Or imagine a local government decides to set up a site like Manor Labs where community members can submit ideas, rate them, and be rewarded for innovation. A local news organization might run a regular feature highlighting the best-rated submissions—thus increasing participation by reaching more of the community, and spurring constructive local discussion. A more automated approach might be to embed on the news site a widget that provides some of the civic site’s functionality.

You’ll only really start to see the possibilities for collaborating with more open, engaged, online-savvy governments once you start talking with the Gov2.0 community. These are creative, friendly people, eager to engage. And in many cases, the prospect of cooperation with or support from local media could tip Gov2.0 projects from ideas into reality.

Previously:

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

December 22, 2009

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

In most communities, getting up to speed on—and involved in—local civic issues is more work than it should be. In a guest post, Amy Gahran offers one strategy that will enable news organizations to help communities, democracy and their own bottom line by making local civic info easier to find, understand, and use.

(This is the third in a series of guest posts about how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Right now, how do people in your community get a quick overview of current local civic issues, and how to get involved?

Chances are they’ll have to spend time searching for and reading back through the right section of one or more poorly designed/written local government web sites. Plus, they might search Google and local blogs and news sites for local transit coverage—probably with scattershot results. image

That’s a lot of work—enough work that most people would probably find it far more appealing to remain mostly uninformed and disengaged.

Strengthening local community and democracy can be good for the news business—if you do both in a way that plays nice with search engines. Topic pages are an effective strategy for attracting search engine traffic (which is why Wikipedia ends up at the top of search results for almost any topic).

What if local news sites published local civic topic pages? These would be not just about big or ongoing news stories, but about local civic organizations and processes, or perennial issues (such a local elections or municipal budgets).

Over time, this strategy might attract more local traffic via search engines. This could help news organizations better serve local communities, local advertisers, and their own bottom line.

A topic page is, in part, a more structured approach to providing information. Kevin Sablan explains that a topic page “typically contains a brief textual and visual synopsis of one topic (e.g. a person, issue or company) along with links to other articles, blog posts, pictures, video. etc.” More from Steve Yelvington on the value of topic pages for news sites.

Several national news outlets have introduced topic pages as a strategy to draw search traffic—including the New York Times, Huffington Post, and USAtoday. Even the Associated Press is hatching a topic page strategy (despite that earlier this year they complained loudly about search engines and news aggregators).

This year there’s been considerable saber rattling in the online news biz over the role of search engines and news aggregators. Steve Yelvington argues that nonlocal, search-driven traffic may not really help the bottom line of sites that publish community news. He may have a point, but: Topic pages on local civic topics (not just big local news that might also attract national attention) could attract more local traffic through search engines—the kind of traffic local advertisers value most.

According to the Knight Commission report, communities need easy access to civic and social information: “People need to know their rights and how to exercise them. They need to know how well public officials and institutions function. They need the underlying facts and informed analysis about the social, economic, political, and cultural factors that shape the community’s challenges and opportunities. They need news.”

Several regional or local news outlets already aggregate headlines, background, and context on their big or ongoing stories into landing pages like this factory closing page from InsideBayArea.com. Staff web producers create these pages manually, but new relevant stories get added automatically when they include appropriate keywords or tags.

If your news org is already doing something similar, here’s how you could experiment with applying this approach to a civic institution (such as city council or public health department) or a civic process (such as local elections or long-term municipal planning).

ACTION STEPS

Start with the low-hanging fruit. Consider which civic institutions or processes your news org already covers regularly. City council, the police department, and school board are likely candidates—as are local elections and economic development programs. Also, ask local reference librarians at the public library which local civic issues people ask about most.

From this, select your initial target topic. For instance, if property taxes are a perennial topic of local debate and confusion, you might create a topic page on the County Assessor.

Write a brief synopsis, just 1-3 paragraphs. Cover the bare basics of what the target institution or process does, and its community significance. Include a bullet list of key current or past issues or controversies involving your target (such as corruption scandals, major initiatives, etc.)

If a local grassroots civic wiki exists, contact its operators and ask whether you can republish some of their content on your topic page—with credit and a link.

Search optimization. Make sure your page title and synopsis includes terms that local people might actually search for. For instance, a civic topic page about the Alameda County Assessor’s Office might bear the title: Oakland Property Taxes: Alameda County Assessor.

Enable engagement. Include a resource list of names, titles, and contact info for key relevant officials. Also link to relevant web sites, to encourage direct engagement. (Not just to the home page, but to specifics such as event calendars, instructions or FAQs, etc.) You might also link to relevant associated organizations, such as community or watchdog groups.

Configure your content management system to syndicate to the civic topic page recent headlines that mention or are relevant to your target instituion or process. It’s best to trigger this off of an internal taxonomy such as story tags, but it could be based on keyword searches of the content.

Monitor traffic to the page. Topic pages tend to attract more traffic—and better search ranking—over time. So set up a local civic topic page or two as an experiment, let it run over a few months, and watch what happens. See which search terms bring people to the page, and how much of that traffic is local. Periodically conduct Google searches to see how your page is ranking for desired search terms.

Make someone responsible for updating civic topic pages. For instance, if the local board of education announces plans to renovate several schools, that might warrant a mention in the topic page synopsis. Similarly, a school board election would require an update to the contact list.

Make sure your reporters, editors, and producers know how to tag stories so they show up on relevant topic pages.

Assess your experiment. After about six months, assess whether and how this strategy is working for you. How does your topic page’s search ranking for desired search terms compare to, say, local blogs, organizations, or official sites? How much local v. nonlocal traffic are those pages attracting? Do they get more traffic when there’s relevant breaking news?

Expand, as simply as possible. The more you can template the format of your civic topic pages, simplify their updating, and automate syndication of current news to them, the easier it will be to create more of them. Over time you’ll hone your approach. You’ll also compile a valuable community resource that supports civic engagment while driving the kind of traffic that could help you earn more revenue from local advertisers.

Previously:

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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