Attending the Society of Editors* conference on November 10 and 11 meant a trip back to my old stamping ground of Southampton. I spent several years there in the ’90s with the Southern Daily Echo (editor Ian Murray completed his term as SoE president this month) and it was good to go back – not least to see how much the city has prospered since my last visit.
The conference had some excellent sessions - I particularly enjoyed the Full Steam Ahead panel, the Continuous Development panel on training, and the New Threats to the Media debate, with a special nod to Matthias Spielkamp, of iRights.info for his insightful view of journalists’ needs to protect processes, not just sources. The links above go to the SoE summaries of each debate but the Daily Echo also undertook a commitment of covering the conference live. Respect.
I was invited to take part in a panel on Emerging Opportunities for Journalism with my fellow panellists being Kathryn Geels, of innovation charity Nesta, and Peter Jukes, whose account of crowdfunding to live tweet the hacking trial was fascinating. At the end of the session it did feel a little as though digital journalism was still viewed as the freeloading cousin of the more solvent print product by some, although I don’t think it’s hard to find value in engaging audiences, getting social media right, and concentrating on dwell times and user needs rather than page views.
I have a bit more room to explain my ideas on this blog and, obviously, I work in regional legacy media so my view is slanted towards that segment of the industry. However, everything I talked about at the SoE is already being done by other companies - some are recognisably in the content creation business, others perhaps not so much - and they are making money. These are emerged opportunities but parts of the mainstream have’t cottoned on to that yet. So, these were the themes I chose to talk about:
1. Data and the roles of journalist/developer: Twenty years ago, I would go on a job with a photographer and between us we would tell the story using our own choice of media, which were blended to enhance reader experience. A posh way of saying, I did words, the toggie did pix, and the end result was a content package that was greater than the sum of its parts. In Trinity Mirror we have the data unit, where facts, figures and whole paragraphs of exposition are enhanced by developer coding skills to create entirely new pieces of content. Like the WWI search widget, for example. A standalone story, with data and visuals, that through existing brought in new stories as readers explored the data, discovered new things, and shared them. Of course, you can be your own developer, just as you can be your own photographers. I just think that the dynamic will see developers and reporters working closely in mainstream newsrooms in the future, just as we have always done with photographers and sub editors.
2. Mobile/wearables: From my notifications column in Tweetdeck, the most tweeted point I made as a panelist was ‘if it doesn’t work on mobile you need to ask yourself why you’re doing it at all’. The opportunities for mobile journalism are enormous – commercial developments aside (and there are so, so many) simply being able to deliver your new content into a platform that your target audience’s is already holding in their hand – (and tell them about it through some judicious notifications use) is a little mind-boggling when you stop and consider it. Apps aside, why would any media company have a news website that wasn’t responsive? It’s surprising how many do. In terms of wearables, we’ve only just reached the foothills; I’ve no time for dismissive ‘Glassholes’ chatter – if we aren’t looking at how the potential opportunities offered by these spaces now, when the audience shift happens (and, as with phones and tablets, it will be at a gallop when it does move) we won’t be there as a familiar brand to greet them. So ‘our’ audience will form new alliances with brands that did get there first. Under the innovations banner, we’ve got a Google Glass project running at the Manchester Evening News in conjunction with UCLan’s John Mills and we are already discovering wearables have advantages over handhelds for telling some stories (like the Manchester Live video linked to in point 5).
3. Socially shareable content: Just a glance at a news website’s real time anaytics shows how important the social audience is to driving traffic. The opportunities for mainstream media to create content – images, text, audio – that has a standalone life on social platforms are obvious and although I wouldn’t say this has been cracked yet I think the native advertising content being created around games and lists is a pointer A bit of a digital air plant; socially shareable standalone content should have a built-in life-support system of editorial and commercial content, and in a social media ecosystem users would interact, consume, and move through on to other points of interest on a website served up through linking and curation.
4. Immersive storytelling: I’ve seen for and against discussions on whether there’s a really life for long form online (here’s a long Twitter debate that’s worth a read). If you ask will people read 400+ words on a mobile device I’d say, on the evidence I’ve observed, you have the wrong question. As ‘how’ people will take in the information and you’re on the right track. Personally I think if they are 400+ worthwhile words, with associated multimedia, engaging graphics, interactive content and clean, easy scrolling, on an engaging subject, then yes, people will. And then there’s the immersive opportunities of long form audio storytelling – as the statistics of TAL’s Serial podcast show, for example.
5. Live and collaborative journalism: This is my favourite point, because it involves drawing people into the journalism you propose, and quite often it becomes a better – and perhaps different – thing because of that. Live invariably means more transparent – the immediate need to convey information to a waiting audience takes out the editing filter, often, and what’s comes across are pure facts or descriptions. It’s exiting and often compelling – readers stay for longer, share more, involve themselves and – particularly in the cases of regional brand liveblogs – living stories become authoritative pieces of work. Collaborative is fun to do because the crowd you work with knows so much. The Manchester Evening News ran Manchester Live for one day but the learnings it took away have been incorporated into the day-to-day fabric of the newsroom. A real case of seizing an emerging opportunity, seeing the value to an audience, and acting on the feedback.
6. Audience analytics and reader trends: None of the above points work without knowing the audience, their behaviour and the user trends. If we don’t know what our audience’s habits are, what devices they use, where, when and what information they are going to want, it’s very hard to deliver the right content. And this is a competitive market – we compete for users’ attention against other media, against their preferred music, their work, their loved ones… getting a slice of their attention is hard, and our best hope is to insert ourselves into their day at the points when they’re likely to have time to want information and entertainment. Layer real time analytics with historic data and social information, and you have a matrix to work from. Personalisation and automation of some content/content delivery are more opportunities that spin out of knowing audiences.
So that was the tone of my contribution. I tried hard to avoid jargon but when you’re talking about ‘wearables’, ‘immersive storytelling’ and ‘analytics’ it is kinda hard not to sound buzzword-y. Hopefully the message didn’t get too mangled by it though.
* A bit of disclosure: I’m a (very new) member of the Board of Directors for the Society of Editors
Bonus content: Since taking part in the panel, I’ve managed to catch Amy Webb’s immense 10 Tech Trends for Journalists slideshow, which is essential viewing in my opinion.
I have a new article out in Journalism: ‘Tweet or be sacked’: Twitter and the new elements of journalistic practice http://t.co/zNP6WGMIGX
— Stephen Barnard (@socsavvy) October 10, 2014
The abstract is here, but on the whole it’s less exciting than the tweet: ‘TWEET OR BE SACKED’ is a good headline.
It struck a note with me as I spoke at the WAN IFRA International News Summit this week, about overcoming blockers in newsroom culture change. (My slides are at the end of this post and Julie Posetti‘s overview of the main takeaways is here)
I only touched briefly on the place social media has in changing newsroom culture, but two points seemed to strike a chord with the audience:
1. A strong social media presence for a journalist should be expected, not requested
2. Social media is our judge and jury and we should not only conduct ourselves accordingly, but be prepared for all outcomes.
With regards to point 1, the recent furore about whether NYT executives tweeted or not was valid – they should be tweeting; in my view they need to lead by example. Also if these people don’t have interesting news and views to discuss and share, the Times needs to take another look at its recruitment policy.
Point 2 was made for (hopefully) editorial leaders to take on board, because if you’re in charge of a mainstream media team you have to know what people are saying about you and your title. In fact, you should be a committed Twitter Lurker.
You might not always tweet a lot; there are times when newsroom managers would no doubt quite like to tweet about work-elated events but discretion proves the better part of valour. Nevertheless, even when you’re not active on Twitter, you should be actively consuming Twitter.
Editorial leaders really have be plugged into the conversation at a deep level, knowing what people are saying about them or their brand, and ready to respond or advise on a response, if need be.
My view is, if I heard someone in the pub sharing untrue information about a title I edited, I’d step in and correct them. It’s no different on Twitter – put people straight on inaccuracies, answer questions when they don’t expect an answer – and with a few straightforward tools you can make your brand the omnipotent voice you like to think it is.
It’s not hard to be a good Twitter Lurker, and you don’t need to be especially adept either. So, some things I’d say are useful for editorial leaders…
1. Be an admin: Your brand’s Twitter account is run by people you trust, obviously, and asking to be an admin isn’t undermining what they do. But social is a publishing platform with, ultimately, your name on the deeds if something goes terribly wrong. You should also be able to access the back end – although you may never need to. Know the Twitter login details so you can tweet as your brand if need be.
2. Put your brand’s tweets and @mentions in a Tweetdeck column, so you can see what people are responding to, or a-ing you about. Basic, but it’s very easy to quickly pick up on what story has really clicked with your audience, whether your account is more about broadcast than conversation, or how well it responds to a burgeoning Twitterstorm. A good social media editor can head a spat off with a few polite tweets and a :) It’s an art form.
3. Set up and save Twitter searches around your brand, and your company. Not the @-names but the full text – ‘Nowhere Times’, not @nowwheretimes – and monitor it for conversations where you are being talked about but not talked to. I enjoy a good subtweet as much as the next person, but if you’re a councillor opting to sneakily spread misinformation, you shouldn’t get away with it. (This is the perfect riposte for a snarky mayor, btw)…
4. Use private Twitter lists. You might not want to follow people who continually talk down you/your brand, but you do want to know what they are saying about it/you. So… set up a private Twitter list (call it something really satisfying too) and add them too it. They will have no idea and you can always keep on top of their misinformation. People who call the Liverpool Echo the Oldham Echo, tend to get a tweet off me with its Old Hall Street address – anorak-y but hugely satisfying.
5. If someone does want to get into it online, ask yourself a few questions before responding. Are they simply grandstanding? (Generally, they don’t want a response, they want a reaction) What are their follower numbers like? Are they an egg? If they don’t even have an avatar, they aren’t usually that active or followed. Does their tweet make any sense or are they swearing? (I won’t talk to you on the phone if you swear at me, I’m not making an exception in digital life) Are they agent provocateurs? (if their Twitter stream comprises complaints, whinges and attacks then there’s a good chance they just enjoy annoying people)
My WAN-IFRA slides from the Changing Newsroom Culture session
It sounds like one of the speakers to hear this year was Aron Philhofer at #hhldn this week, when he levelled some zingers at mainstream media for complacency about their future.
I wasn’t there, but Richard Kendall very thoughtfully grabbed a lot of the tweets around his talk into a Storify and it makes a fascinating read (which will probably have a lot of digital journalists punching the air in agreement).
One of the interesting things to me was the subsequent discussion around immersive longform, an we at Trinity Mirror have ventured into recently, courtesy of working with Shorthand on some projects.
I love immersive storytelling; it’s important to me that a good tale gets a good telling, but the reading experience has to be a rewarding thing if an audience is going to stick with it.
One of the points Aron Pilhofer made was that the New York Times‘ Snowfall immersive story measured page views, but missed the more important metrics. He’s right: PVs and UUs don’t show the true impact. I wouldn’t say discount them entirely – collating all the metrics to get a rounded picture is important – but they are only a small element.
.@twmtalks Had the basics, but nothing that told you whether it improved the way people consumed long form journalism. PVs kind of useless.
— Aron Pilhofer (@pilhofer) September 25, 2014
Talking on Twitter with Andy Dickinson the next day:
@digidickinson imo how we measure success with those types of stories should be different: Dwell time, social shares, interaction, not PVs.
— Alison Gow (@alisongow) September 25, 2014
— Aron Pilhofer (@pilhofer) September 25, 2014
Some of the metrics that matter (imo, anyway) – the completion rate, active reading time, the device used, the recirculation rate, how the story is retaining users… And then there’s the social side of things: How someone interacts with the content; shares it on Twitter without @-ing the brand or author (ie. tweeting the link with a comment rather than retweeting); likes, comments or shares it on Facebook, pins on Pinterest or on other social book marking sites. The number of unique users for a piece of storytelling that took several days to complete might be low in comparison to those piling on to read a breaking football transfer story. If you went by PVs you might conclude it the game wasn’t worth the candle.
But PVs and UUs miss the point. It’s abut how invested people are in the piece – the time they spend reading it, the multimedia they engage with, the emotions exhibited the words they use when sharing it, and how often they return to it. This is valuable information to help inform future decisions (and commercial opportunities).
I’ve learned plenty from working with Shorthand; it has driven home the benefits of collaborating outside the mainstream media. It made me put the needs of the mobile reader above everyone else, and it also helped me think about story structures in a new way.
Every time we make an immersive story now I think we improve on previous efforts, mainly because we endeavour to learn from things that tripped us up along the way. Getting text, multimedia and various 3rd party content tools to play nicely together isn’t always easy, whether you’re thinking of doing it in your own CMS or via another platform.
Shorthand’s Rachel Bartlett spoke to Maria Breslin (Liverpool Echo), Paul Gallagher (MEN) and myself recently about our experiences and I’ll link to her piece once it’s live. My longform learnings are pretty simple:
When I edited newspapers, in common with quite a few other editors I think, I often sketched out the front page I wanted, complete with blurbs, ads and smiley or frowny stick people (depending on whether the subjects of the p1 photograph were calamity-struck or not) on A3 paper. It helped me visualise if and how the elements of the front fitted together; the fit of the overall package.
Storyboarding an immersive read is a great way of seeing if you have a flow to the narrative, or whether you’re stacking multimedia unnecessarily, overloading some sections with content, and whether it has a strong ending. The final section needs to be as rewarding a read as the opening one.
Build a draft, see how it looks on mobile, desktop and tablet. Refine the draft, check it across devices again. When we built the LFC ‘We Go Again’ story it had beautiful graphics for each player, created by the TMR Data Unit. On desktop these looked really great; on mobile they were a) too small to read and b) required the reader to scroll until March 2015 to get to the end of the graphics. In the end, graphics for key players were redone and these featured in mobile-friendly format. It’s missing a ‘Suarez’s Biting Stats’ graphic, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
During the build of NC&J Media’s Great North Run ‘One Million Stories’ tribute, oddness was discovered. The story displayed beautifully everywhere except IE10, although every other iteration of IE was acceptable. Some checking showed that IE10 is the tenth most popular browser for their users (Chrome and mobile Safari came top.) Tenth wasn’t enough to be a deal breaker but incorporating some helpful advice about using Chrome or a similar modern browser in the promotional marketing was a smart idea.
Have an analytics plan
Twice the analytics caused problems, once due to a glitch and once simply because we didn’t know what we wanted to track; now it’s fairly obvious what the important statistics are. Social, real-time, engagement and user-data-over-time all need to be considered.
Think like a user
Shorthand advises around 20 sections is optimum for UX; the first draft of the MEN’s Blue Moon Rising was about double this. Then you try to read it as the audience would, and realise you’ve stopped reading and are just scrolling. Just think how you’d react if you were reading the piece, and then you’ll probably slash it in half. I can’t even be bothered to click through to the second page of a Storify half the time, and I suspect my attention span is pretty typical of most people’s so I try to bear that in mind when thinking about longer reads. As with many things in life, just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.
I said yes - what an opportunity to hear industry leaders from around the world talk about things I passionately want to learn as much as I can about! – and then I entered into a state of terror at the idea of public speaking at such an event. This terror has not left me yet…
Anyway, ahead of the event WAN-IFRA’s Jessica Sparks asked me for my thoughts, as a regional journalist, on innovation, newsroom blockers and how the industry should continue to adapt and evolve.
Here’s a sample of her (very tough!) questions, and my response; her article in full is here.
You’re speaking at the upcoming Newsroom Summit on strategies to prevent newsroom cultures blocking change. What’s the biggest barrier you have personally faced working in this space?
Inertia has been a terrible thing for the news industry – for decades nothing changed, and then everything changed, including the amount of revenue flowing into our businesses, and we just weren’t equipped to deal with it on an economic, cultural or and operational basis.
[Online] was regarded at best as a luxury, and at worst as helping hasten the demise of historic news brands. I think the biggest blocker was probably the ‘them and us’ mentality that existed between digital and print teams, because it fostered the idea that the newsroom Nerd Herd ‘did digital’ while everyone else did the heavy lifting. It wasn’t uncommon to find a journalist refusing to file breaking news stories for online because they felt it would damage the newspaper.
We’ve travelled a long way in a relatively short time, but we can never stop striving to do more – otherwise we will simply end up repeating the mistakes we made in the late 20th century all over again.
The theme of the conference centres on: “See how successful editors are syncing their newsrooms to the digital world. Over one and a half days, we will hear how people and processes are being managed to ensure growth in audience, engagement and loyalty”; my contribution will be on the important role of leadership within that changing world.
Having attended many DENs over the year (we even hosted one at the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo) it’s exciting to be inviting the network at Canary Wharf, and pretty timely too as this one is #fearlessDEN – all about being bold with ideas and taking innovative leaps of faith (probably backed by some market research).
DEN is always a great place to meet like-minded people, put names to faces in your social networks, and grow ideas. Obviously the theme of innovation is close to my heart and my job title, and I’m delighted we will get to hear the genesis and progress of some inspirational ideas.
Hope to see you there!