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.

October 22, 2009

At Slate, small is the new big

Editor David Plotz sees a future with a smaller, highly engaged audience for the online magazine

I took heart from a talk this week by Slate editor David Plotz, who suggested a viable revenue future for his online magazine lies not in its approximately seven million unique visitors but in about 500,000 loyal, engaged users who want quality, long form journalism.

Plotz spoke at the Missouri School of Journalism, where I am a Reynolds Journalism fellow this year. Missouri awarded Slate an Honor Medal this year.

More sophisticated ways of measuring usership and engagement will change focus from mass audience, Plotz believes, and that will make journalism better. Raw numbers create “pressure to produce one kind of story” that will draw hits. New metrics of engagement and behavior offer a “tremendous opportunity for Web journalism to escape the traffic” trap. He believes that will liberate Slate to “make a magazine that recognizes those dedicated readers.”

“Until now we’ve been selling to the mass audience. Now once you have this abiltity to target you can really target your core audience… This creates strong incentive to create durable journalism,” Plotz said. “That one curious reader is worth 50 times the value of the drive-by reader. The person who makes a commitment to your brand, if you’re a quality brand….. if you can get those readers, a smaller set of readers, who come to you three or five or 10 times a week, you don’t have to go after that huge other set of readers.”

So forget celebrity and outrage stories. For Slate, this focus means a commitment to long form journalism such as a recent series on the American dental crisis, which Plotz estimates was read by 400,000 people. Slate has started a “Fresca Fellowship” that requires each reporter and editor to spend a month each year on a long form journalism project. Advertisers have begun to sponsor specific projects and they are paying for themselves, he said.

“Advertisers want to be around some ambitious project more than they want to be around some snarky political column,” Plotz said.

While excited about this new opportunity on the Web, Plotz cautioned Missouri journalism students that they face a career path that will require them to know more than journalism: social media, audio and video production, even some coding and fluency with content management systems. The new journalists may have to fight for time away from breaking news to focus intensely and develop projects.

Plotz thinking about a smaller engaged audience is similar to what could emerge in local news markets as news organizations pay more attention to small, under served advertisers. Serving up big numbers of unengaged users won’t ultimately help these advertisers. Developing loyal, engaged user communities holds more promise.

What do you think? Are mass metrics on the way out in your news organization? What are you measuring as an alternative?

 

October 12, 2009

Civic engagement 2.0

As digital media change the way people engage with civic issues and causes, can traditional journalists take part and help the public conversation go well? I will use a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship to find out.

(This is a revised version of a draft posted earlier. There is new material throughout.)

I spend a lot of time these days talking with local foundations and nonprofit organizations that want to help fill information gaps in their communities. They’re building Web sites designed to engage their communities in news and information (often with funding from the Knight Foundation, which contracts with me to coach these start ups.). These enthusiastic conversations make a heartening counterpoint to the wrenching struggles of established news organizations.

imageThe optimism is not the most important difference, however. The biggest difference is this: Journalists are out to do good journalism. These community start ups put civic engagement first.

At its heart, journalism is about fostering civic engagement by providing news and information that empowers people to act as citizens in a democracy. At least, that’s what we mainstream journalists tell ourselves.

In traditional media, the journalism generally doesn’t look like that. For example, one recent study showed that more than half the coverage of the health care debate focused on political battles and less than 10 percent focused on policy.  That wasn’t exactly a surprise. “We don’t learn,” I wrote recently as I passed the a link to the information along on Twitter. In reply, Jay Rosen nailed it with this admonition: “Face it, @michelemclellan. If 55% of health care coverage is about the politics that’s a statement by our journalists: ‘this is what we do.’ “

Competitiveness, craft imperatives, professional goals and now, the revenue free fall—all important issues— trump the civic. When journalists gather in newsrooms, bars and at conferences, they talk about craft practices, tell war stories, and the shiny bright hopes for a scoop or job stability.

It is the rare conventional journalist - certainly never me in nearly 30 years in newspapers - who walks into the newsroom on any given day and asked “What can I do to engage my community in civic affairs?” “How can I help make the debate go better?” I wonder how journalism, its place in the hearts of citizens, and public debate itself—might be different if journalists had come to work each day with that goal in mind.

This may be changing. As traditional news organizations falter, new practitioners of journalism are emerging: Citizens, foundations and other donors who are experimenting with models of news and information that put civic engagement is front and center as a priority. At the same time, the Web and social media make some forms of civic engagement easier and more accessible—activities like ratings, commenting, earning points for action.

None of this leaves traditional news organizations out in the cold. I’ve championed the idea that big local news organizations partner with community news start ups rather than treating them like more competition. I was thrilled to see that J-Lab, with Knight Foundation funding, is sponsoring several of these partnerships. I think finding the right mix of craft skills and reach of the traditional organization with the energy and fresh approaches of non-professionals will be important to the future media landscape.

All of this brings me to the fellowship I have just begun at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. I’m calling my project “Civic engagement 2.0.”

Journalism must recapture its credibility and relevance if it has any hope of providing value to the public. To do this, it is critical that journalists adopt new practices that foster the civic debate we keep telling the public we are all about. The tools are emerging—social networks in particular can transport news and information that engages people in discussion and problem-solving. News organizations - some led by non-professionals and foundations, social activists, politicians, and even marketers are discovering creative ways to engage people online..

Digital media and emerging citizen-led news and information services promise to promote civic engagement in ways traditional media failed to do. But I think there is an important role that journalists can play and I want to catalog and foster tools and practices to help journalists take part in and add value to civic discussions online. I also want to work with journalists and citizens to create new ways to engage online. I’m convinced that the ability to engage and foster community is a strategy that journalism must pursue for the long term even if it cannot be readily monetized today.

Let’s consider three important traditional roles of journalists and the opportunity to recapture them online:
(Note: This list of roles borrows heavily from my friend and RJI colleague Michael Skoler.)

1. Journalism surfaces issues of public concern. The Web offers journalists the opportunity to tap into conversations where important issues first surface. Pre-Web we used to call these “listening posts” where people gathered informally to discuss their concerns. Journalists rarely spent time in these these places, instead opting to listen more regularly to institutional voices and their framing of the issues.

2. Journalism provides facts and options that give citizens shared knowledge. The Web liberates information from print and enables wider sharing and discussion than ever before. Social networking tools in particular enable people to share information.

3. Journalism informs civic debate and solutions on issues of public concern. This brings it full circle; the journalist surfaces the issue and then helps guide the discussion toward solutions. It is a critical role for a trusted journalist, and one that seems to be slipping away in the 24/7 news cycle, if it ever really was being performed. Accomplishing this will take more then technology, it will require a shift in attitude or at least priorities. Some will complain that what I’m talking about sounds like advocacy journalism. But I am not talking about journalists expounding opinions. I am talking about what Jacqui Banaszynski, a friend and RJI fellow, calls “invested journalism,” which I see as a commitment to helping the community understand issue, see options and find a good path. For this, journalists may need to look to emerging citizen-led news organizations, social activists and even political causes for new tools and rules of engagement.

This all sounds very philosophical. But what I hope to produce are tools and best practices that journalists and other news providers can use to foster civic engagement in digital spaces, whether it’s on their own Web sites, in social spaces or all around the Web. I think much of this already exists and I’d like to help gather practitioners, learn from them and help spread the word.

For now, I have these questions (and I hope you will comment and feel free to make suggestions or ask more questions):
Is this the best way to be looking at this issue?
What best practices exist and who is developing them?
Do some of these practices exist outside journalism? Should I see if they can be adapted?
What is most missing in terms of tools and best practices that can help journalists engage in civic discourse online?

September 02, 2009

A guide to the emerging role of community management

Journalists need new tools and practices to be an effective part of new online communities. Serra Media’s “Mobilize Your Audience” offers valuable tips for organizations that want to collaborate with users.

News organizations often struggle with the idea of online community. News sites seem to be magnets for loud, angry comments. Traditional organizations build hyper local shells, but the user generated content usually fails to show up. The problem is that news organizations are thinking first and foremost about themselves, while more successful sites put community first.
Now comes a neat eight-page report from Serra Media on how to create and cultivate community online. “Mobilize your audience. Build a collaborative online community with user-generated content.”
The report notes that the role of community manager is a different one for a journalist and it requires significant effort to engage people online.
“You have to work in the pre-launch phase and throughout the growth of the site to create interest in your hyperlocal community and encourage people to participate. You also have to work hard to embed yourself in the community. Ultimately, you’ll see amazing results.
Here’s a sampling:

Tips for community managers
* Community managers need to be integrated in the community and know it well.
* They should moderate the site, but it’s best if they aren’t too involved in the
discussion. Let the audience decide what it values most and choose its own
leaders.
* They do need to decide, however, how much editorial control to impose. Too
much will likely inhibit participation; too little might make users concerned about
the possibility of inappropriate content on the site.

The report offers step by step instructions for pre-launch work and for the launch of the site.

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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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