Using search tools to inform news-gathering: Some data and examples

Back in October I wrote a guest blog post for Glyn Mottishead’s online and mobile journalism blog for his students, about how site searches could be a useful tool for journalists, I found the draft post again in my Google Docs the other day and thought, since some things had moved on since that was written, it merited a repost.
So, with apologies to Glyn for repeating myself, here’s an updated version:

 Seek, and sometimes ye shall find things that you weren’t actually looking for in the first place.
Take crowdsourcing, as an example; you start out with an idea, share it across online networks, and wait… and sometimes what comes back bears little resemblance to what you originally conceived. Sometimes it is a vast improvement.

We’ve been paying a lot more attention to Search in the Post and Echo newsroom recently and it’s paying off.
Twice a day, this drops into the inbox of heads of department in Editorial…

along with this…

It’s a self-updating dashboard created in Omniture Analytics, and it shows the sorts of internal site searches people are running. For example,  James McVey was a lad who died in tragic circumstances about three weeks ago, but his name still shows up in searches every day – in fact, last Thursday James was the most searched for subject on the site.  Daniel Smith is a gangster and these searched-for articles are no doubt being read (slowly, with brows furrowed by concentration) by Liverpool’s criminal underworld, while little Elliot Wild is the subject of a high-profile bone marrow campaign.

But what’s been happening in Landford Avenue? Or at Huyton Park pub? It would be well worth be checking out with local sources, just to see if the jungle drums have been beating about an incident; audiences will often come to our site to read the official take on something they already know the background on. And to comment, of course.
Note of caution: When we first introduced this initiative the press office at Merseyside Police were naturally confused by a sudden surge in reporters ringing up, apropos of nothing much, asking “Anything been going on at Accacia Avenue, Anywhere?”. We explained the background and also reined back on that sort of random approach – if you’re a press officer you tend to need a bit more to go on than a searched-for address.

So in-site search give us a (sometimes vague) nod as to where a news story might be brewing, and it can definitely show where readers’ interests lie – we continued to run James McVey stories because the audience has shown an appetite for that, and listening to your audience is key.

But these searches can also give us the kind of information that you would wear out a lot of shoe leather trying to get, often without success.
When someone is killed in violent circumstances on Merseyside – something that seems to happen with depressing regularity – there is a strong chance that the in-site search will, within hours, start showing multiple searches for a specific name. Twice we’ve run these names by official sources and got confirmation that it is indeed the deceased.
If the death involves a gun and someone who is – as the phrase goes – known to police (aka a gangster) then you can practically guarantee their name will crop up in a search before anything official has been released. The most recent example happened shortly before Christmas – two teenagers died in tragic circumstances during a car crash and their names showed up in the top 10 most searched-for terms within the hour, and remained there for several days.

From a digital team point of view, the daily site search round-ups have also visibly demonstrated – with proven results – the opportunities inherent in online journalism to those who are more print-focused in their jobs.
It can be easy for a newsroom to view the website as a separate entity, not as part of the platforms we use to reach audiences. Print is such a behemoth, with its deadlines, and its multiple pages that demand filling, that I understand how it eclipses digital in some journalists minds, even if I don’t like it. But these site searches reinforce the usefulness of the web, underline how readers are using it, how they don’t differentiate between paper and screen when it comes to finding out information – they just want it. And that has helped achieve a little culture shift in Editorial.

In-site search tells us so much, but it’s equally interesting to know where your non-audience is getting their information. We use Hitwise and it is a constant source of fascinating (and sometimes dispiriting) information about our un-users.

But knowing where you aren’t hitting audiences is vital; it helps us spot where our gaps are and, when appropriate, take steps editorially to address that. Take showbiz – the Echo score on Hitwise was low in March 2009 with most searches by Liverpool people for Hollyoaks (made by Liverpool company Lime, filmed in the city) going to Digital Spy. Which was crazy because we actually do a lot with Hollyoaks, and have a good relationship with them. So, showbiz coverage was upped, more galleries, better SEO, and we improved our rankings. Not an earth-shattering topic, but a small victory nonetheless. Equally, from a Advertising department point-of-view, knowing that a large proportion of people in our circulation area are searching for – to take a real example – jobs in the NHS in Liverpool – could help inform commercial campaigns.

So, search is something I’m particularly interested in at the moment – not just in-site but also Twitter Search* using the advance search features. Useful when looking for local tweets on specific topics/people (although if I do Liverpool searches it takes time to sort out the zillions of football-linked tweets from news ones). TwitterSearch also gave us a fairly powerful assist when a suspected gangster was shot in Liverpool just before Christmas. We had a possible name, but nothing confirmed, but a refined area Twitter search turned up people tweeting RIPs and calling the victim by his first name. Not concrete enough that you could print initially, but it gave us a good steer that we were on the right track, and also meant we could tweet people asking them for comments.

Most recently I’ve been using it to gauge how people feel about Scouse singer Rebecca Ferguson on XFactor, simply by ticking the positive/negative box on the advanced search. Turns out she’s pretty much universally loved, if you fancy a punt at Ladbrookes…

 With regards to Rebecca Ferguson, the results eventually showed she was indeed worth a punt if you were putting your money on the X Factor final two. Just goes to show what a powerful tool search can be.

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The power of saying yes: The Register Citizen Open Newsroom project

I am fascinated by what’s going on at the Register Citizen Open Newsroom Project – I genuinely can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll read one of the team’s blog posts, look at some videos of opening day, and then go about my usual daily whatevers. Then, a while later, I find myself back reading another blog post by or about the project, looking at some more videos or photos, and still I am fascinated/impressed/jealous/desperate to steal their idea and do it too.

I know how hard it can be to get things done in mainstream media. The simplest of things – from replacing a lost cable on a piece of kit to adding a bit of code that lets users retweet stories – can take an age to achieve because media firms are big companies. And in big companies, fairly little tweaks tend to pass through several pairs of hands even though everyone agrees it’s the right thing to do. And sometimes they get caught in the cog wheels of corporate mechanisms. Or someone in charge of a part of the project leaves, and there’s no one to take up the slack… the reasons not to complete things stack up ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

But, just sometimes, someone says yes and things happen. I remember David Higgerson and I pitching the ‘let’s liveblog a day in the life of the Liverpool Daily Post‘ to the editor in early 2008, and he said yes. It felt so good to have someone say ‘yes’ without shining a light in every dark corner to spot the potential problems. We didn’t really know what we were getting into but we made it through ok and you know what? The paper still comes out, and the website is still there. The sky did not fall in for want of rubber-stamping.

But the Register Citizen Open Newsroom Project is another proposition altogether and I would love to know the steps by which it was achieved, and how long it took to get there. Because it takes the whole idea of open journalism and transparency to a new level by inviting people – anyone – to ‘come in and be part of the operation’.
Just stop and consider that for a minute; most newsrooms have policies on the numbers of people who can physically enter the editorial space – there’s the security issue, the health and safety issue, the inevitable fire risk assessment – that can make inviting people to see us in action difficult.
The Register Citizen has spilled itself out, however, and engulfed the community, rather than the other way around; this is clever. It’s made a public space – a newsroom cafe – and occupied that, alongside all the locals who chose to occupy it as well.

Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe from Journal Register Company on Vimeo.

Another thing I love about it is that John Paton doesn’t just say things, he does them.
He says:

Lousy journalism on multiple platforms is just lousy journalism in multiple ways.


Stop focusing on the Print. It is in any newspaper’s DNA. It is not like you are going to forget to put out the newspaper. 

and (drum roll)

Put the Digital people in charge – of everything.

Really everything? Because, uh, I’m a digital person and I wouldn’t want to handle the payroll. But, joking aside, I get what he means. It’s like Opposite Day in the Register newsroom – instead of putting things in the paper then putting them online (unless it’s breaking news that everyone has, in which case it’s not considered precious) they do things the other way around. And online (and real world debate, courtesy of their public space) informs their print coverage. It’s so simple, and yet my brain struggles to grasp how someone managed to turn a ‘Why don’t we…’ into an actual, physical reality without crashing into a million different versions of “Yes, but…”.

Finally, there’s John Paton on the Benjamin Franklin Project:

We are changing our culture at JRC.With lousy I.T, and tools this project is happening. We have built sales support systems using an iPhone and free Google tools.
We have successfully printed pages on a press using only free web tools.
The next time some rep comes to your shop brandishing a $20M system – tell the price just went down. Way down.
Our Capital Expenditures have been reduced by half. Half.
But more importantly –
We have harnessed the power of our employees
And are starting to create a culture where they are empowered to experiment
We share all of the information and tools publicly.

Of all the things he says in that paragraph, the one that could make a difference is about Cap Ex being reduced by half. Because the money-go-round is where people start paying attention.

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Links for 19/12/10 (bookmarking in a post-Delicious world)

My world shifted on its axis last week with the news Delicious was closing. That state of affairs has now moved to to Delicious is not closing, it’s simply breaking up with Yahoo, and has won custody of the dog, or something,

Whatever. The upshot is that my trust in Delicious as the guardian of my social bookmarks has been irrevocably damaged and I’m not getting into that kind of exclusive relationship again. Yup, I’m going to be a social bookmark butterfly. I will still use Delicious, but its not my sole site. 
First step, I exported my Delicious bookmarks using the export option on the site, and once I had them safely stored on my desktop I uploaded them to Diigo. I’m already a member of but that’s a bit flaky and the panicked stamped of homeless Delicious bookmarks from the entire world has shut down Mento – possibly forever, I really don’t know.
So I’m now bookmarking here  but I’m also experimenting with a weekly round-up of the links that interest me most to my Posterous, which cross-posts to my blog and posts the links on Twitter. I also use Xmarks for bookmarking and synching across sites, but that’s had its own ‘closing/not closing’ issues of late, and also doesn’t fit the bill as a straight swap. My other sites are Publish2 and Cliquset but I have to remember to use them – Delicious was always the first click I made. Now that’s over I guess I’ll be using these sites more too.
Links for 19/12/10

 The Journalist of the Future“Here are 7 journalist archetypes (and an eighth that I can’t quite square) to better capture the journalist of tomorrow. This isn’t a scientific exercise. The archetypes are based on personal observation and on looking at some of the thousands of journalist profiles…”

Digital post-pubescence for traditional media:“I wish this whole web thing happened a long time ago so that we’d be recovered from the damage it did” (I remember saying to a colleague that the changes in the newspaper industry were fascinating and would make excellent research papers in years to come; it’s just hard to live and work through it. So this comment struck a chord with me. But I’m still not buying that the iPad is the answer to all our problems.)

Lifestreaming visualised: Lifestreaming visualisedLovely infographic website built by Ben Sekulowicz-Barclay to visualise his social media activity over a year.

Interesting idea – Ethics statement contained in online bio of Walt Mossberg, co-executive editor of All Things Digital: “…I am not an objective news reporter, and am not responsible for business coverage of technology companies. I am a subjective opinion columnist, a reviewer of consumer technology products and a commentator on technology issues…”

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"A new kind of thinking is required…"

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBaseImage via CrunchBaseI read Judy Sims’ excoriating blog post on (some) newspaper execs today; it struck a chord with me in the light of my last post on five things I thought newspapers should do next year as she also has an issue with the iPad goldrush:

“So along come the steering committees, working committees, pay walls and subscription models and the dream that consumers will be willing to pay for their rarified opinions despite the countless free alternatives.  And along come the $30 million iPad apps that attempt to recreate scarcity by rolling back the clock to when news was a once-a-day occurrence and the public didn’t expect to comment, contribute or find links”

 You can read the full article here. If you happen to be a newspaper executive, I suggest you move anything breakable off your desk first…

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Five things regional newspapers should aim for in 2011

How do you answer this question…

What do regional newspapers need to do in 2011?

…in less than 100 words?
It taxed my brain sorely last week when Peter Sands asked me for a few pars in response to include in his annual newsletter; I eventually sent back this:

Don’t waste time and energy wondering how to charge for news online; readers won’t pay for commodity news, and unique content has a half-life of 30 seconds. Instead, build thriving, engaged communities that can be commercialised by marketing and advertising teams, growing relationships across all platforms through data-capture, collaborative reporting, contextual and behavioural ads, crowdsourcing, linking and conversation.

I’m not sure it’s the single most important thing newspapers need to do next year but I believe community is a far more significant indicator of a newspaper’s online performance than we always appreciate or give time to.
Also I just don’t buy that page impressions without context satisfactorily address advertisers’ needs; as customers become more aware of the transient nature of web traffic, I reckon advertising sales teams will increasingly find themselves being quizzed by clients about specific details on page views and unique users.

I’ll be interested to see the responses of others he asked. Also, as I start a new job, with new responsibilities and accountability for addressing just such issues, in 2011 I’ve found myself thinking about it as the days have passed. So, what would I have said regional newspapers need to do in 2011 if I had had no word count to work to? So many things but in no particular order…  

1. Communicate better
I suspect that grammar should dictate this read Communicate More Effectively but I couldn’t bring myself to write the phrase in cold blood. Communicate better with the outside world, of course, but mostly I mean internally. Between departments and between colleagues in the same departments; a journalist working in digital can often offer a different perspective on things because they spend a lot of time unconsciously noting trends as part of their job – what people are commenting on, what’s trending on Twitter, how fans on Facebook reacted to a specific story, and what tone their conversations took – digital desks can lightening responses, in 140char sentences, and these offer valuable insights. Equally, painstaking research by a reporter into data could be sped along by involving others (including PAs – the true Excel Gunslingers in a newsroom). Communicating between departments can so often depend on knowing the right person to go to, or knowing an approachable person to go to; sales reps know they can go to the newsdesk if a customer has a story, but would a reporter know who to go to in Advertising with a client lead? Ideas and opportunities stifled by lack of dialogue must be a feature of every business, not just newspapers, but we’re the ones that purport to be experts at communication.

2. Accept change
In our newspapery heart of hearts we don’t always accept change. We talk about cultural chance, structural change, changes in the way we produce and distribute news, and we perceive that more change is inevitable – consider the debates about paywalls, or about iPads, but I don’t think it’s the same as accepting change. Accepting it all the way down to your journalist’s soul means we make digital is as much an understood part of the day as missing the last print deadline by several minutes. You don’t ask ‘did we get video?’ you discuss in advance how stories should be told across the different platforms your brand has because, frankly, video may not be the best option, and you don’t do things based on your gut – you do them because you know your audience, talk to them and listen to what they tell you.
That’s accepting change – making an iPad app that is basically a page-turner of your paper isn’t the same thing at all.

3. Be creative with shovelware
In today’s newsrooms, where Churn – by which I mean relentless writing and filing of copy, not the rewriting of press releases – is a fact of life, much online content can be a mirror image of print  – aka shovelware.
Using the wit and thought we’d put into a print headline to make shovelware sing should be a 2011 goal. It doesn’t have to be static – something as simple as a reader comment can take a story in a totally different direction as readers move from what the journalist has written about to adding their own views and links. Shovelware can accrue layers of interest; sometimes I start reading the top articles on the Guardian website from the bottom up as I know the essential facts of the piece (from the headline and intro, or from radio or a discussion on Twitter) and what I’m interested in is how people feel about it. The comments add a layer, and sometimes links in the comments add further layers.
Knowing how your audience feels about something allows you to make more informed editorial judgements, whether it’s to repackage comments, or more follow ups (or to stop ramming a hobbyhorse down their throats).

4. Not every training need is filled by a law course
Not every story needs to be seo-ed within an inch of it’s life, not every article needs a page break to drive up impressions. And even a little bit of creativity within content – like a street view grab, or a quick visualisation – adds something valuable and potentially memorable for the reader.
We need to ensure all journalists  have the right skills to source information properly, use online tools to interpret and present it in ways that are relevant and valuable to audiences, and that make the collection and collation of such information simple, rather than painstaking, even if there’s a digital team dedicated to making online content.
Knowing that data can be scraped, that rss feeds can be pulled together in a reader, or that postcodes in spreadsheets to populate maps quickly is time-saving, valuable information. Legal training can keep a newspaper out of court and, rightly, it’s the hardy perennial of pdrs. Learing how to use an Excel spreadsheet and online visualisation tools might not help a reporter challenge dodgy Section 39s, but it would help him or her quickly identify which magistrates were most likely to impose incorrect orders or easily research potential postcode lotteries surrounding local courts, court officials, and severity of sentences.  

5. Collaboration can led to commercial opportunities
Use online analytics and ad tools to create better, richer, more appropriate content for audiences, and use that information to build thriving, engaged communities that can be commercialised by marketing and advertising teams, growing relationships across all platforms through data-capture, collaborative reporting, contextual and behavioural ads, crowdsourcing, linking and conversation. Seek opportunities for collaboration: Internally, with marketing, advertising, newspaper sales teams who really know (via data, not hunches) what sells what people are searching, reading, buying and talking about, online or otherwise. Externally with audiences via crowdsourcing, data investigation, social media, and being engaged in conversations.
You’re less likely to hear the phrase “We already do data journalism – it’s called school league tables” now than even four months ago, but to do data journalism to the best of your ability and resource can seem like a commitment. But from those papers who have used it (like Birmingham Mail’s Race for a School Place) the payoffs have been tangible in print sales and online value.  
Also, whenever we can (and whenever technically possible) making that data freely available so others can use it to create content. should be an aim Link out to sites that have relevant data, link in to stories you’ve previously done on the subject, and credit externals who have done work that you then benefit from (like posting FOIs on What Do They Know?)

I didn’t plan to write about five things I’d like newspapers to do better in 2011 but those are the headings I started to note down when thinking of a response for Peter. Of course, ‘five things newspapers should do better’ actually translates as five things I’d like to do better in 2011. Maybe in January 2012 I’ll have a look back at this post and see whether I managed that.


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"I want to write for the New York Times…"

I think this little Xtranormal skit has gone around the world twice now but it did make me Laugh Out Loud twice.

Much as I like Xtranormal, I hadn’t used it in a while because it was pretty limited but when I logged in again today I see there are a host of new character types added in. It would be nice to upload audio though – the text-to-voice is distracting for all the wrong reasons.

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