Best Practices: Editorial and Commentary Online Blog

October 26, 2008

Becoming a resource not just a source

The Dallas Morning News recognizes the true value of the Internet by guiding readers to a variety of opinions, not just theirs.

The application of ‘best practices’ often means the elimination of habits based on outdated attitudes about reader behavior. The idea web sites should seldom provide links to content off their site - like the idea a newspaper is the only source of local opinion and news - has been a fundamental newsroom belief perpetuated by incorrect and illogical assumptions. The time of its elimination may be at hand.

As the Dallas Morning News online opinion section recently learned, readers not only appreciate the connection to other opinions, but also value the Dallasnews.com as an online resource of contrasting information. They concluded news consumption was a process and today’s reader constantly searches for new ideas and insights.

“That reader wants the most interesting and useful opinions he can find, wherever they come from,” said Rod Dreher editorial columnist editor for the Dallas Morning News. “We want the Opinion page of Dallasnews.com to be a trusted gateway to the best of opinion journalism on the Internet, no matter where it comes from.

It’s not easy to accept the idea readers wish to form their own opinions rather than accept those of a newspaper’s writers. The historic reason for having staff editorialists share their opinions has always been based on a belief the writer for a newspaper is well-informed, has more to say and better ways to say it.

But evidence continues to mount that readers purposely look to at many places for ideas and opinion before reaching their own conclusions. And the more net-savvy the reader, the more likely he or she is to look for information at a variety of times throughout the day.


News grazing, Integrators and Net-Newsers

In an August 2008 survey, the Pew Research Center found a slim majority of Americans (51 percent) now say they check in on the news periodically during the day, rather than at specific times. Using the term “news grazers” to describe this audience, Pew researchers noted it was the first time since this survey of Americans began in 2002 that they labeled themselves this way.

This fit well with the Dallas decision to offer varied off-site materials as it became available.

“We certainly want to give traditional readers a web version of the print product, and we do,” said Dreher. “But we also want to be aggressive about giving readers who are simply looking for the most interesting op-ed material on the web at any particular moment a reason to keep checking back with our page throughout the day.

In the same Pew study, a sizable and growing portion of the news-consuming audience was described as “Integrators” - information-hungry consumers who go to multiple forms of print and web media to get their news fix. When combined with the “Net-Newsers” Pew identified as those who rely primarily on the Internet for news, these two groups made up nearly 40 percent of the news audience.

Only the “Traditionalist” group - those who traditionally get their news from TV -  made up a slightly higher percentage of the news audience at 46 percent.

The most interesting characteristic of the Integrator - Net-News group was its shared demographics of high education and high income versus the lower education and income characteristics of the Traditionalists.


Why it makes sense

Dallasnews.com decided to position their online opinion section as a resource populated with many ideas, not a destination containing just those of their opinion writers, because it recognized several important characteristics of its changing audience.

The growing information-seeking audience was in the groups who use the net and other media to collect information from a variety of sources so they can integrate that information while forming their own opinions.

Linking to information on other sites also has a positive affect on the search ranking results of your own site.

Providing links to other sites also produces positive returns on search optimization outcomes and if your readers learn your site is a trusted resource of relevant information, it will be visited with frequency and regularity.

A good example is the Drudge Report, . This site makes a business of engaging the reader with topical news then sends them away to news sites across the web. According to the Nielsen Online statistics for Top 30 news sites for May 2008, drudgereport.com was the top ranked destination with 21.2 sessions per person and 2,709,000 unique audience visits. In June 2008 Nielsen Online listed drudgereport.com on top with time spent on site per person of just less than 60 minutes (59:39 min.).

By helping readers find worthwhile, credible information we support our own position as an important part of their news and opinion consumption habit. The loss of a few page views on a day to day basis will be more than made up for with long term loyalty, frequent visits and longer stays as your readers come back to see what else you have found for them to use as they form their own opinions.

 

July 22, 2008

Doing it right in Dallas

Taking on the role of change catalyst, the Dallas Morning News editorial board embarks on a crusade to tear down long-standing divides in their city.

“Bridging Dallas’ North-South Gap” stands out as an outstanding example of “best practices” at work in the editorial sections of on line newspapers.  Described as a “crusade” by its editors, this ongoing project seeks to close the economic and social divides that have separated neighborhoods and peoples in this city for many years.

What is most impressive about this effort is it demonstrates how effective the use of multiple forms of information delivery can be. When used by editorial board that has determined it wants to play an active role as the catalyst for community change, maps, videos and interactive discussions give readers an opportunity to learn about the problems within their community and contribute to the solutions.

As a standing navigation link on the Dallasnews.com Opinion section - http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/northsouth/ - the project is a many-faceted look at how an editorial staff can be a catalyst for change. It uses tools unique to the web to complement the well-edited and appropriately succinct text.

north-south1.jpg

The centerpiece of the project was an interactive map (example above) which allowed the reader to navigate to strategically chosen neighborhoods identified as problem areas. The editors believed if problems within these areas could be resolved, the process could be replicated in surrounding neighborhoods.

Using tightly edited videos,  photo-audio slide shows, still photographs and interactive maps, the project’s display is a perfect example of using each media form to its potential.

Typical of the coverage, the neighborhood section “West Dallas Gateway”  not only describes issues found within one of the problem areas but also highlights the efforts of its residents to make things better.

Featured in a slide show (still images with audio) attached to the West Dallas section, Gerardo Romero describes the increase in his business since a new street and bridge have been built and community organizer talks about how new houses in the neighborhood translates into increased pride for the existing residents. Lopez, who is described by the editors as “exactly the kind of person needed..” in reference to their partners in the community, is typical of those who have renewed enthusiasm for change as a result of the editorial project.

Beyond the use of multimedia, a strength of this project, and something to be high on any “best practices” list, is the follow up the staff undertakes to be sure the project doesn’t drift into obscurity. A perfect example in this project is the “10 Drops in the Bucket,” list.

Initiated last December the “Bucket List” was a way for residents to identify neighborhood problems, and for the editors to define issues that might seem small at the individual level, but when seen as part of a larger trend, were likely a city-wide concern.

Just last week, the “Bucket” was updated with the editorial “10 small improvements for southern Dallas” with descriptions and outcomes of each of the original problems. The “Bucket” will continue to fill and empty as the project continues.

As the summer progresses, this blog, will focus on a specific practice and present links to good examples you might find useful in your editorial situation.

The Knight Digital Media Center invites guest contributors to share their experiences with effective online editorials and commentary.

If you wish to share, please contact me at: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Please put “best practice” in the email subject line.

I look forward to hearing from you. 

July 10, 2008

Welcome Back

The Best Practices: Editorial and Commentary blog is revived with an open invitation to share ideas and successes. Looking ahead is difficult as current cutbacks and space reductions make self-preservation seem most critical. But readers still want the best newspapers can give so it is important the ideas for best practices, particularly online, keep flowing.

Welcome back to the conversation.

It’s been four months since professionals gathered in Los Angeles to discuss the best practices being employed by editorial and commentary writers online. As you see in the earlier postings on this blog, the working groups came up with several interesting variations on the concept of “community” and how readers can respond to the opinions of others.

Though not new, the idea that editorial and opinion pages need to be more of a conversation than a lecture became a central theme of the discussions. As several of the participants noted, this often flies against the tradition of editors who believe their experience and position in the media gives them special insight into the issues of their community. Most agreed the changing expectations of readers are having a dramatic impact on the challenges facing the editorial staff. New media options are giving readers, especially opinionated readers, new places for their voices to be heard.

But as we discussed in our Los Angeles sessions, and as many editors have found since then, the readers they serve still believe their local newspaper is a vital part of their community and they want to be involved in the opinion dialog published by that newspaper.

These are challenging times in the newsrooms of this country. As staffs are cut and news holes reduced, every aspect of the printed news product will be scrutinized by publishers and by readers.  If newspapers are going to remain a vital source of information in a community, they must continue to find ways to serve their readers. The opinion pages may well be one of the few places in the paper where truly local content can still be found. But as everyone in the newspaper world tries to do more with less, so will you.

In his presentation to the Los Angeles seminar participants about scenario building, Lawrence Wilkinson, of the consulting firm Heminge & Condell, described three key elements of strategy building:

1. Describing who we are: competences - strengthens and weaknesses
2. Deciding who we want to be: strategic intent
3. Defining where we have to work scenarios: the business environment

As you consider the future of your newspaper and its editorial section, these three elements are critical. These descriptions, decisions and definitions should be posted in a prominent location in your office. As you consider each attempt to improve your pages, reflect on these concepts to help focus your strategy.

With the renewal of this blog, the Knight Digital Media Center invites guest contributors to share their experiences with effective online editorials and commentary. Each week we will focus on a specific practice, present links to good examples and work together to move things in a positive, executable direction. A “success story” feature will highlight the efforts some of you have made to extend the reach of your editorials online.

Not every idea will be suitable for every publication, but the energy of shared idea generation will open the door to potential improvement for everyone who participates.

If you wish to share, please contact me at: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Please put “best practice” in the email subject line.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.  Thanks.

March 05, 2008

Community Engagement

How to engage the community through blogs, utilize key words and building communities beyond geographic locations.

This group’s recommended:
1. Draw community bloggers under the newspapers’ online site.
-recruit community-based bloggers and engage the readers in the selection.
-provides exposure to the bloggers and also expands the links of the papers to other online sites.
What I like about this idea is it incorporates the community almost in a job-like basis with the paper. There are several sports websites already doing this, and MLB.com was basically started this way. It is important to have very specific guidelines for the bloggers so it does not get out of hand. I think the creation of these pages needs to be done in the most creative manner possible to attract readers and encourage the bloggers to treat their site seriously. I also think this idea opens doors for young reporters like myself who are looking for a foothold in the journalism world.

2. A simple search mechanism. Getting more traffic to the website is obviously the key. Some online news sites, such as http://www.grist.org, utilize search words very well. This will require a decent amount of consultation with staff in order for this to be plausible and effective. The monthly report showing changes will be essential to drawing advertisers and should be given adequate attention.

3. Neighborhood connections. Creating a network of newspaper opinion communities. I think this is a great idea, if other papers are willing to participate. There are so many ways to ask for help, advice or brainstorm ideas with other papers. I do think this could get political if some corporate newspaper owners don’t like the idea of papers getting help from one another. This is a very proactive idea, and would take a lot of time and coordination to work and operate successfully.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Michael William's photoAs the newspaper world evolves, so do the roles of the opinion section and its writers. Blogger Michael Williams explores these issues and invites you to contribute your own insight and ideas to the concepts under discussion.

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