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.”

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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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