News Leadership 3.0

April 09, 2009

Tools of engagement: Relevance, community, passon

The founder of NewsCloud says news organizations need to “continuially heighten their sense of relevant reporting” to engage online communities

I wrote earlier this week about two experiments on Facebook that hope to engage young people in news. The Facebook application was developed by NewsCloud. In the course of reporting on that, I asked NewsCloud founder Jeff Reifman for his ideas about how news organizations can engage people in news. Here is some of that e-mail conversation:

Q. Do you have any advice for news organizations about social networks?

Reifman: “News is still news. Mainstream news organizations need to continually heighten their sense of relevant reporting. How did this recent financial meltdown happen? How did we end up at war in Iraq with no WMDs? The fourth estate’s shortcomings in raising awareness for these issues dulls readers’ sense for the value of journalism. I touched on this in ‘Placing Hot Dish in the Context of Newspaper Industry Turmoil.’ I often think journalism is too soft on the power of corporations and the history and rise of this power. It’s hard for them to be relevant when the issues facing the economy have a lot to do with subjects they haven’t covered well e.g. the rise of corporate power, it’s history legacy and corporate lobbying, etc.”

“For smaller news organizations, it’s critical to focus on developing community online through tools like the HotDish/MnDaily application.”

Q. How should they think about engaging with them?

Reifman: “Do a lot of focus groups to find out what your audience wants - and give them those features and ways to be connected. If you build a sticky online community, you’ll maintain a broad audience for your reporting and provide more value to advertisers.

“Start by getting to know them with focus groups, in person, on the phone calls - some email surveys. Ask them to suggest features, report bugs, etc. Use an iterative software development cycle so you plan to launch early, improve often. Organizations that try to do one big software release every three years often struggle.

Q.What are the barriers to effective use of social networks to disseminate news?

“Go where people are - Facebook has 200M users now. It’s an obvious place to experiment. But, building technology for Facebook is challenging - just like any web site endeavor but the platform evolves much more quickly requiring an ongoing investment. e.g. Facebook regularly changes features. Things stop working if you don’t regularly update your code.

Managing technology well is hard. I think it’s important for many journalism organizations to acknowledge that this isn’t an area of expertise for them and they need to hire technology teams like they would personally interview a surgeon or a roofer for their home. They need to be even more careful, strategic and long term oriented in making tech decisions - especially as their budgets decline. Using open source tools like our Facebook application are a way to efficiently leverage existing work and reduce costs/risks. But there is a tension - build too early and you may fail - wait too long and you may miss the window in this rapidly changing media environment.

“In general, do small tests, see what works, invest small at first, get lots of feedback, iterate. Your product development and launch planning should be iterative not monolithic. Keep journalists and technologists working together - don’t separate them. Look for partners with experience in social networks - they’ve learned the hard lessons already.

“Getting past the clutter is also hard - e.g. there are 45000+ Facebook applications… Facebook has made it harder and harder for your application to be spread virally. So it goes back to building a great community - meeting their needs and delivering relevant news.

“Internet users are overstimulated. It’s hard to reach them. We’ve had a very hard time marketing climate news to 16-25 year olds - buying these new eyeballs is expensive right now. What is your angle? What are you passionate about that you want to report to people? Why should your audience choose you?”

Q. What outcomes are you hoping to see from the experiments with Hot Dish and The Daily on Facebook?

Reifman: “We are already learning a lot about the kinds of features and concepts that work well inside of Facebook. For example, our discussion threads grew when we added a feature that delivered notifications to readers whenever someone replied to their story or comment. I hope to apply these lessons as we continue to improve the application, work with other partners and release it to the open source community.

“I’ve written a detailed blog post about how mission-driven organizations can leverage these tools. I’d like to see more coalitions using these tools together.
9See “Applying Hot Dish Technology to Online Organizing.”)

Q. Can other news organizations use your Facebook application?
Reifman: NewsCloud will release the open source code for the application on May 11
“We’ll refresh it with additional documentation and changes based on feedback from the development community at the end of May. We’ve tried to make it simple and easy to customize - but it is a very complex application. Running it requires a moderate technology capacity in your organization. It’s much more difficult than say setting up a blog or Facebook page or creating a basic website or installing a drupal plugin, but developers should find it straightforward to install and customize. NewsCloud is also available to offer consulting services to assist or run the package - there may be opportunities for mission driven organizations or specific communities to participate in our social media research.”

March 24, 2009

Seeing the newspaper from outside the newsroom

Carla Savalli says six months as a reader rather than an editor dramatically changed her perspective on the daily newspaper and how people get news

Carla Savalli, a former assistant managing editor who left the Spokesman-Review in Spokane in October, says her time away from the newsroom has upended the way she views the daily newspaper.

“They are essentially outdated and irrelevant by the time they’re delivered. If given another chance, I’d never edit a paper the same way again,” Savalli told me recently. The discovery, she said, is “startling. It’s not a comfortable revelation at first.”

“Now that I’m a reader and not a journalist, I’m much more interested in what information I need and I care less about the proprietary nature of it. I don’t care so much about who’s giving me information. I want to know that it’s valuable and accurate information. There’s got to be a place to capitalize on the franchise of being accurate and in the know, but not on we brought you this story first,” Savalli said.

Savalli isn’t the first to leave a newsroom and find new perspective (it happened to me seven years ago), but it’s instructive to hear the message fresh. Savalli, who wants to return to newsroom management, says it’s based on looking at newspapers in general, not the Spokane paper in particular.

“I’ve been paying attention how we absorb news and information. Newspapers do not control the flow of information anymore. By the time I get my newspaper I have learned about 90 percent of what’s in that paper someplace else. I’ve read it on the newspaper Web site, picked it up on the national news or I’ve picked it up on the street. I’ve been more aware of informal listening posts in the community, like doctor’s office or social groups, places where information is circulated.”

That perspective may not be obtainable within the newsroom
. “I don’t think it’s possible to really get it inside the newsroom. It’s not possible to see an alternative until you get on the outside, because then you’re not intensely aware of every nuance of the story. (In the newsroom,) you think you’ve got the scoop.”

“The Web and 24/7 cable really DO have an advantage over print but print journalists can’t see that when they’re immersed in it.”

Savalli’s ideas for local newspapers organizations:
- Move away from commodity news, the news that people can find all over the place
- Drop national and international news, which people can find online or on television.
- Redefine the newspaper niche product for local news. “Focus on what’s intensely local.”
- Reshape newsroom thinking about what people need to know. “Change the notion that we know what people should know.”
- Redefine the role of gatekeeper to one of a guide to information online.

A news organization must become “more of a proponent of information and news and not so much a proponent of our brand and process,” Savalli said.  “We need to give people more, not less.”

“I’d advise print leaders to take the best of our traditions - the critical thinking skills and news gathering skills and source building - and apply that to the Web and ditch all the other conventions of the craft,” she said. “Yes, the business model needs to be fixed, as does the general economy, but journalists (the real ones) are more important than ever.”

“We don’t need to redefine journalism in order to compete or survive. We need to redefine our work flow, not our values or news judgment. If it really is about delivering and interpreting information, then we must be platform agnostic mercenaries. Serve readers wherever they are. Period.”

March 16, 2009

Industry disruption, journalism revolution

The week offers rich perspectives on the forces changing journalism and where they may take us next, while an online-only Post-Intelligencer may give shape to one piece of the news puzzle.

Four writers step back this week and look at the state of journalism, the state of the news industry, the massive disruption in between and some optimism about a future for news. Ironically, their perspectives come on the eve of the final print edition Tuesday of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a scrappy voice in a two-newspaper town, that will morph into an online-only experiment.

Let’s get the hardest one to read out of the way first. Internet scholar Clay Shirky offers the devastating “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” Shirky notes that news organizations saw the internet coming and explored multiple scenarios to deal with it - sue copyright infringers, require micropayments or online subscription services. But he says established news organizations were blind to an unthinkable scenario, the one that has now come to pass:

“The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.) Hardware and software vendors would not regard copyright holders as allies, nor would they regard customers as enemies. (Digital rights management’s) requirement that the attacker be allowed to decode the content would be an insuperable flaw. And ...  suing people who love something so much they want to share it would piss them off.

Shirky argues that faith replaced realistic thinking in the news industry, as it has in other industries, and “one of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.” (Empasis added.)

Whether the industry is “going away” or will emerge diminished, its economic challenges pose formidable obstacles to its capacity to innovate. This is underscored in a just-released “State of the News Media” report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Here is an excerpt from the newspaper report, co-written by Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute:

“The newspaper industry exited a harrowing 2008 and entered 2009 in something perilously close to free fall.  Perhaps some parachutes will deploy, and maybe some tree limbs will cushion the descent, but for a third consecutive year the bottom is not in sight.

“We still do not subscribe to the theory that the death of the industry is imminent. The industry over all in 2008 remained profitable.

“But the deep recession already threatens the weakest papers. Nearly all are now cutting so deeply and rapidly that simply coping with the economic downturn has become a major distraction from efforts to reinvent the economics of the business. (Emphasis added.)  And even once the downturn ends, growing or stabilized revenues are no sure thing.

“If the industry’s death isn’t imminent, the more pertinent question may be this: can newspapers beat the clock? Can they find a way to convert their growing audience online into sufficient revenue to sustain the industry before their shrinking revenues from print fall too far? And if some succeed and some don’t, what are the characteristics of a newspaper organization that survives and one that doesn’t?”

A third piece from Steven Berlin Johnson, a best-selling author who runs a local news site, surveys the chaos and offers a more hopeful vision. It is a speech, entitled “Old growth media and the future of news,” that Johnson gave last week at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin. Johnson notes that journalism and information are evolving, and cites two areas that are more evolved than others:  Journalism about technology from a time in 1987 when he relied solely on a printed copy of MacWorld for information to a rich network of writers on the Web today and a vast increase of presidential campaign information in 2008 compared to previous years.

“I think the political web covering the 2008 campaign was so rich for precisely the same reasons that the technology web is so rich: because it’s old-growth media. The first wave of blogs were tech-focused, and then for whatever reason, they turned to politics next. And so Web 2.0-style political coverage has had a decade to mature into its current state.

“What’s happened with technology and politics is happening elsewhere too, just on a different timetable. Sports, business, reviews of movies, books, restaurants - all the staples of the old newspaper format are proliferating online. There are more perspectives; there is more depth and more surface now. And that’s the new growth. It’s only started maturing.

“In fact, I think in the long run, we’re going to look back at many facets of old media and realize that we were living in a desert disguised as a rain forest. Local news may be the best example of this. When people talk about the civic damage that a community suffers by losing its newspaper, one of the key things that people point to is the loss of local news coverage. But I suspect in ten years, when we look back at traditional local coverage, it will look much more like MacWorld circa 1987. I adore the City section of the New York Times, but every Sunday when I pick it up, there are only three or four stories in the whole section that I find interesting or relevant to my life - out of probably twenty stories total. And yet every week in my neighborhood there are easily twenty stories that I would be interested in reading: a mugging three blocks from my house; a new deli opening; a house sale; the baseball team at my kid’s school winning a big game. The New York Times can’t cover those things in a print paper not because of some journalistic failing on their part, but rather because the economics are all wrong: there are only a few thousand people potentially interested in those news events, in a city of 8 million people. There are metro area stories that matter to everyone in a city: mayoral races, school cuts, big snowstorms. But most of what we care about in our local experience lives in the long tail. We’ve never thought of it as a failing of the newspaper that its metro section didn’t report on a deli closing, because it wasn’t even conceivable that a big centralized paper could cover an event with such a small radius of interest.

“But of course, that’s what the web can do. That’s one of the main reasons we created outside.in, because I found myself waking up in the morning and turning to local Brooklyn bloggers like Brownstoner, who were suddenly covering local news with a granularity that the Times had never attempted. Two years later, there are close to a thousand bloggers writing about Brooklyn: there are multiple blogs devoted to the Atlantic Yards real estate development; dozens following the Brooklyn foodie scene; music blogs, politics blogs, parenting blogs. The Times itself is now launching local Brooklyn blogs, which is great. As we get better at organizing all that content - both by selecting the best of it, and by sorting it geographically - our standards about what constitutes good local coverage are going to improve. We’re going to go through the same evolution that I did from reading two-month-old news in MacWorld, to expecting an instantaneous liveblog of a keynote announcement. Five years from now, if someone gets mugged within a half mile of my house, and I don’t get an email alert about it within three hours, it will be a sign that something is broken.”

Johnson may be overly optimistic, but his excitement about the possibilities is refreshing and actionable. Alan Mutter also offers hope and specifics:

“If you define journalism as something produced by a traditional newspaper, magazine or broadcaster, then, yes, journalism is in trouble. But that’s a limited, if not to say anachronistic, definition of journalism in an age when cheap, easy-to-use and widely available interactive technology has democratized the creation, discovery and acquisition of information.

“If you define journalism as the activity that allows people to learn from each other what is happening in their world, then journalism is alive and well at Facebook, Twitter, Slashdot, Moms Like Me, Last.FM and thousands of other online communities.”

—-

“If you define journalism as an activity where an intermediary tells people what is happening in their world, then journalism’s vital signs are somewhere between stable and strong at Muncie Free Press, Westport Now, Minnpost, and Crosscut - to name a few of dozens of alternative local news sites that have sprung up as staff cuts and shrinking news holes have compromised the coverage of news organizations across the land.”

—-

“If you define journalism as something produced by citizens who step in where big-time journalists seldom tread, then journalism is registering at least a discernable pulse at places like Chi-Town Daily News, Patch, Bakersfield Voice and the new The Local section of the New York Times.”

(Please go to Mutter’s post for a wealth of links to these and other efforts.)

Newspapers and other mainstream media have long been the ecosystem of news, especially within their own sight lines. Now the ecosystem is evolving into something richer. It looks very chaotic and incomplete right now, and threatening to those who are losing their footing and their livelihoods. Newspapers as organizations may no longer dominate, at least not in as many geographic communities as before. But they and the journalists who populate their communities can be part of the new ecosystem—and many are joining it by establishing highly local Web sites, welcoming users into online discussions, and aggregating and linking to the best news and information they can find on topics their users care about.

The Post-Intelligencer in Seattle is at once a casualty of the turbulence and a potential pathfinder on the road ahead.

In conversation on Twitter Monday about the end of the print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, journalist and online strategist Steve Yelvington asked whether the cup was half full or half empty. The emptiness of dozens of journalists losing their jobs is inescapable.

Follow instead Johnson’s lead and Mutter’s lead to the idea that the cup is half full. Read what executive producer Michelle Nicolosi says about the new site. The PI will be an experiment in a small-staff, online-only, big city news organization that mixes professional and citizen contributors. It joins hundreds of community news experiments that local journalists and citizens operate below the radar of many big J practitioners. And each of these experiments has as much chance as any of the of creating something or a piece of something we haven’t seen before, something that we’ll still recognize as journalism.

 

March 09, 2009

New role: Conducting an information orchestra

Changes at Gazette Communications separate content creation from production may enable the organization to focus on the Web

I have said in this space that news organizations need to downsize their print newspapers. I’m not talking about the number of pages in the newspaper. I am talking about the space the print newspaper takes up in the collective psyche of the newsroom and why may be holding organizations back.

So I was happy to see this comment from Steve Buttry, a friend and former colleague in the journalism training trenches, in a blog post about the reorganization of his news organization, Gazette Communications:

“As newspapers started publishing content online, we had to change some of our work in the newsroom. We added new positions specializing in operations of the web site. We started publishing breaking news online. We published new kinds of content, such as videos, blogs and slide shows. We started covering some events live as they happened and interacting live with the public. We also started niche products such as Edge Business Magazine, Hoopla and IowaPrepSports.com.

“But our organization remained structured and focused primarily on the newspaper product.

“We have decided that we can best meet the challenges of the future by changing our company completely. We will have an independent organization which I lead focused exclusively on developing content from our professional journalists as well as from the community. We will publish this content digitally without editing and without the limitations of products. Another organization will plan and edit products, such as The Gazette and GazetteOnline, using content from my organization as well as others.”

Buttry moves from being editor of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to a new job called “Information Content Conductor.” The Gazette newspaper has a new top editor in Lyle Muller. Here’s the rub: All of the reporters and photographers (not all of the journalists as I initially stated - see clarification below) of the journalists on staff report to Buttry, which opens wide the likelihood of a nimble, Web first and Web savvy culture will emerge.

“Steve Buttry, Information Content Conductor, is responsible for creating another C3 - Content Creation & Collaboration, a networked set of blogs and information organized around topics or micro-geographical areas,” says Charles Peters, CEO of Gazette Communications. Peters offers additional explanation (with graphics) into the strategy on his blog.

Reorganizing does more than just change the way the jobs get done. It communicates priorities. It redefines culture - “The way we do things here.”

Key concepts in a reorganization like Gazette Communications is undertaking:

- Separates content creation from the production of a newspaper or other products. Print and other products can graze this content and remake it for their publications but the journalists do not have to feed a print beast.

- Information may be produced in small pieces and organized as a network of information around a geographic area or topic. It won’t necessarily be a story in the traditional news sense; perhaps it hardly ever will be.

- The digital network can include community content and content will not be edited. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. One possibility is that a self-editing community will form and participants will link, amplify and correct one another, much like Wikipedia.

- The online effort will use the Newsgarden a social news mapping platform that enables intensely local news and advertising. Mark Briggs, of “Journalism 2.0,” is CEO of Serra Media, the company that has produced Newsgarden.

- Gazette Communications is being transparent about the changes. Peters, Buttry and Muller all write blogs. This should help their users (and interested journalists around the country) to follow their progress.

I’ve been playing with possible explanations of the choice of the term “conductor.” The notion I like the most so far is the idea of the symphony conductor, taking disparate voices and forms and weaving them into a melody that makes sense and engages and encourages others to play along.

Buttry says it’s that and more:

“... editor didn’t send the message that we’re serious about thorough fundamental change. But many of the things an editor traditionally does: direct news coverage, edit, etc. really aren’t part of this new gig. So I came up with conductor, which I explained in this post. Yes, the meaning of orchestrating creative people in a unified effort is part of the meaning. But the train conductor interacts with the public to give them an orderly, satisfying experience and community interaction is going to be a huge part of our content operation. And in the electrical sense, a conductor carries energy and I think that will be a huge part of my job both in the staff and in the community.”

Conductor. Now that’s a role for an editor in the digital age.

Clarification: Steve Buttry sent me this note after I incorrectly stated that all of the journalists would report to him:
“The journalists don’t all work for me. The journalists formerly known as reporters and photographers work for me, as well as a few others. But we have some editors working with Lyle in an operation called Product Planning and Development, which handles the planning and editing of products, and will have some others in an operation called Production Services, which will handle copy editing and design. So the journalists in what used to be the newsroom will now work in three different operations. Thanks for the thoughtful post and for the support.”

 

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

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