The problem with engagement? It involves other people

There have been several social media conferences recently where, from hashtag evidence, person after person stood up and urged listeners to “go where the conversation is”,  “be part of the conversation” and “if your brand isn’t engaging on Facebook, ask yourself if YOU aren’t engaging on Facebook”.
Which is all very right (although possibly repetitive) but quite often you see brands attempting to engage, and then getting caught up in a social media storm for striking the wrong note.
Remember the admittedly-baffling Greater Manchester Police tweet ‘there are no excuses!’ (now deleted) around the riots sentencing last year?
It saw GMP go from the Darling of Twitter for its commitment to engagement and social media to a pariah within moments and was quickly followed by…

That made it into the Guardian, no less. And yes, it was a stupid editorial to add to a tweet about a sentencing, but feeds are run by people, and people make mistakes.
This week it was London Midland having to apologise for tweets about a suicide on the line causing delays.
Among the tweets complained about was:

@louhaffner Go to the pub – things will be rubbish for at least the next hour.
— London Midland (@LondonMidland) February 12, 2012

Hmm. Maybe I’m being insensitive but I can’t get exercised about that. And having looked at the London Midland Twitter page, which responds not just to @messages but also to tweets generally referencing the company, I think it’s pretty exemplary and the result of decent training and, possibly, some harsh lessons.
Whoever helps run it (assuming it’s a team effort) has a good line in engagement and conversation, understands hashtags, doesn’t overdo the emoticons and generally sounds, well, human. All in the face of people tweeting intelligent responses such as

@LondonMidland yes you can,stop hiking the fares,have the trains on time & you would have no one jumping in front of trains. #frustration
— PIEnMASHgeezer (@PIEnMASHgeezer) February 12, 2012

Tweeting as a brand is a hard balance to strike. You need personality, but not too much, and a degree of familiarity might work some of the time but not always – or at least not always with everyone.
Some people are apparently keen to be offended, some people will respond in inappropriate ways, but expect you to remain respectful and informative.

Engaging as a news brand is an even bigger minefield. You ask a question around, say, what people would be interested in reading about and get a “Why should I do your job?” tweet back from someone.
At which point, you can either shrug and respond to those who do want to engage, or try to strike some common ground with those who prefer to complain.
The benefit of the latter could be very real… it could also end up being a mutually dissatisfying time-suck.

I’ve got some personal rules about responding to people who are in full fighting plumage – usually on Twitter rather than Facebook – as a brand (ie. tweeting as WalesOnline or WalesonSunday)…

1. Are they simply grandstanding? (Generally, they don’t want a response, they want a reaction)
2. If they are grandstanding, who follows them? (If you’re broadcasting to 3 pornbots and a couple of mates, fill your boots)
3. On Twitter, do they have an avatar or are they an egg? (Often indicative of whether they’re likely to engage or not)
4. 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)
5. Are they agent provocateurs? (if their Twitter stream comprises complaints, whinges and attacks then there’s a good chance they just enjoy annoying people)
6. Am I responding simply because the person is bone-crushingly stupid, and I’d quite enjoy smashing their point out of the park? (If yes, it’s generally not worth it)

Four years ago I would have said it was wrong to have a criteria for responding to anyone online, but now I’m not so certain.
I’ve closed two online forums because in both cases my overstretched digital teams were intervening in rows not only between users of those communities, but with some of the community-appointed moderators. The horse hadn’t just bolted, it was accelerating into the next county.
Shutting them down wasn’t a decision lightly-taken – the page views were advertiser-friendly (100k+ in one case) but the spite and fighting weren’t.
Getting those channels back on track might have been possible with concerted, full-time community management. Ergo, from a team manager point of view, it wasn’t practical or desirable. Putting new efforts into Facebook, Twitter and site users elsewhere proved far more beneficial, and led to lessons learned and better engagement.

The beauty of social media for brands is that it brings a connection with other people.The drawback is that other people will be, well, people. Add a little anonymity, distance and the opportunity for some manufactured outrage, and the results can be illuminating.

* Update: The subject of engagement and brands has also prompted a blog post from David Higgerson. Recommended reading: SOCIAL MEDIA: THE PERILS OF GOING TOO FAR WHEN TRYING TO MAKE A BRAND INTERACTIVE

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For love not money: wise words from Cardiff Bloggers Meet

Now I’ve moved from Liverpool I miss the social meets a lot. Things like Ignite Liverpool, tweetups, Twestival, TEDxLiverpool, and Social Media Cafe turned online mates into real life friends and it was great.
Plus, there’s a kind of comfort in walking into a room and knowing you’re among people who can recognise any given Last Exit to Nowhere logo instantly.

 So although work meant I couldn’t make the first Cardiff Bloggers Meet I was able to get to last night’s – I think it was the first the second one organised sans Hannah Waldram and Ed Walker – held in Jolyons, and it was a packed house. 

Liverpool didn’t have a bloggers meet so I didn’t know what to expect from Cardiff Bloggers. The answer was a buzz of chatter, and a lot of friendly types.
I’d gone with No.1 Friend Glyn Mottershead, and we skipped the blogging surgery that preceded the meet, arriving just ahead of the first talk by Amy Davies, whose Cardiff Arcades Project chronicles the city’s fantastic Victorian and Edwardian arcades through photos and interviews with the shops and occupants.
She spoke honestly and very engagingly about the project – which recently resulted in an exhibition – and had some great tips on blogging and blog projects, around the ‘love not money’ theme.

So, some of the standout points from Amy’s talk:

Pluses: Blogging can give you confidence, you get a buzz from doing things other people are enjoying. (For Amy, it also enhanced her career as a prospective employer knew the arcades project site)

Pitfalls: Others taking your work without consent – particularly relevant for Amy’s photo project. She said: “People take the piss” (sad but true)

Use your community: When she started out Amy canvassed the idea on Twitter and got a lot of positive support from her networks. So she did it.

Cost: A big blogging project can bring losses. Amy warned that as well as being an investment of time, there are financial implications that come with buying domain names, business cards, equipment etc. On the plus side, Amy now sells her photos from her project and received donations towards staging her exhibition. But she said: Think before you start about how much time and money, because it can be demanding. Some exciting blogs start up that don’t continue because of that commitment”

Traffic: The arcades project site has between 3-4k hits a month but, Amy stressed, “targets don’t matter. They did, but I don’t worry about it any more”

 One thing Amy said that struck a real chord with me: “Remember why you do it. Love what you are doing and never forget the reason why you started. As soon as anything becomes too much step back and reassess what you’re doing, because if you don’t love it there is no point.”

Also guest speaking at the event was Jeremy Rees, a volunteer broadcaster for the community-driven Radio Cardiff.
Now, Radio Cardiff came as a bit of a surprise to me as I’d never heard of it – Jeff explained why pretty quickly; there are parts of the city that can’t receive it, and I live in one such dead space.
“If you live in Weston-Super-Mare, you’ll get it” Jeremy said, ruefully.

From what I learned about Radio Cardiff, and it’s small but dedicated team, the theme of ‘For love, not money’ couldn’t have been more true:

Little acorns: Radio Cardiff operates out of a converted garage in Cardiff Bay and purely run by volunteers. It is the only radio station in the UK that has receives zero grant funding and survives by benefits and advertising.

Passion is everything: Jeremy has a Saturday morning show on Soul and Motown music – “I have a passion for radio; I work full-time but get up at 5am on Saturday to do the community radio, because I love it it’s not a chore”.

Collaboration is vital: One of his other jobs is to coordinate the news output on the station. He said: “My dream is that people throughout the city write news and send it a central point and it gets disseminated via the radio. I would love local people to get involved”

Planning for the future: Radio Cardiff licence ends in 2012 but there will be moves to keep it going and to increase the number of people who can hear it. The volunteers are also looking into internet radio.

Social media can be a double-edged sword: “Increasingly it is how we find out what is happening, and now people find out about us” … but the Radio Cardiff Twitter feed was set up by an “inspired volunteer who left and now no one has the password” (This is a nightmare I’m familiar with; a former, enthusiastic colleague set up myriad Liverpool Echo accounts on social networks, didn’t tell anyone, forgot the passwords, left – and it took a long time to get them shut down. We didn’t manage to close all of them and just had to start again.)

Your audience is… unpredictable: Radio Cardiff was set up to broadcast music of black origin to minority groups in Cardiff but its’listener base is diverse and large, only in the evenings is it a markedly younger demographic.

Your audience is… listening: How do you know if you have an audience? “I’m reassured when I make a mistake and people get in touch no matter how early it is”.

So, two very different, fascinating projects – both with messages that I took lessons from. I had a fantastic time at the meet and I did indeed meet a lot of truly nice people.
So – blog advice, interesting speakers, friendly faces and red wine… not your average blustery Monday September night at all. Thanks @cdfblogs!

An attempt to turn a newspaper inside-out

How do you turn a newspaper inside out? That’s been the question bugging me for about a week and I’ve found myself thinking about it more and more in the context of the Register Citizen Open Newsroom project.

I broached the subject with Glyn Mottershead and Neil MacDonald over a pint recently; this is how it unfolded.
Me: “You know, like, you have skin and, uh, it contains everything and you can’t see your organs and stuff…”
Glyn: “Er…”
Neil: “I’m going to the loo.”
Me: “Well, that’s like a newspaper. It comes out and it’s complete and finished and it presents this skin to the world. And it would be great to turn it inside out, show what’s underneath.”

Essentially, I wanted to be more public about how the paper came together. Glyn and Neil are social media nuts; they love the idea of media engagement and had lots of encouragement. 
So, last Wednesday, an experiment started from to show how Wales on Sunday is created and try and engage more with people.
I used Storify to track the start of the project (kudos to news editor Steffan Rhys for working so hard on it, and I especially love Adam’s video capture of his page design) 

[<a href=”” target=”blank”>View the story “Turning Wales on Sunday inside-out” on Storify]</a>

Using Twitter and a Facebook  page is the obvious starting point but I’m open to suggestions for developing it (and expanding it). These accounts aren’t about pushing links to the website or giving cryptic hints followed with a ‘buy Sunday’s paper’; I want them to be about what we’re doing. Or about what we should be doing as far as our audience is concerned. Or what we’re doing wrong/right/not enough of. Stories that are going in the paper will get discussed and displayed (but I’m not ready to put an exclusive splash in the public domain three days before publication – maybe this will happen but I’d like to keep my job for more than five months).
Right now it’s a journo echo chamber – especially Facebook (and why do Facebook pages have to be so complicated? I had to draft Ed Walker for assistance) – but that will change over time, I hope. 

It’s not a Citizen Register project – I’d like to work towards that but the logistics are beyond my ken right now – but it’s a toehold in something I feel strongly about. If I was doing this three years ago it would have been mostly journalists and early adopters getting involved – now it’s a much larger audience. That’s a good thing, of course, and also means we’re more likely to get told exactly what we do wrong in no uncertain terms. Customers – past, present or potential – have standards and expect them to be met or failures accounted for.
Of course it’s not all about growing engagement; it’s about fostering an audience’s emotional investment as well. 
How to develop it? All ideas welcome…
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Moderating comments on Facebook

How do you moderate a community on Facebook? Should the same policy exist as for a title’s website moderation or do the disparate fans and friends it has there require different handling?
I use Facebook for content, for sharing information, for instant polls, news gathering and just taking the temperature of the public mood on an issue but wall comments can sometimes be horrific. From wildly inappropriate link-sharing to libelous comments to outrageous Anglo Saxon to attacks on other users or writers… I’ve seen these shoulder their way onto Facebook pages associated with newspaper titles at one time or another and have had to sort it out – sometimes with an un-friending and a block.

Stretched newsrooms with small digital teams have to juggle the management of website comments, as well as the importance of participating in conversations on Twitter and managing @ replies and Facebook wall posts. 
I’ve had a few Twitter mates DM-ing me recently for advice/thoughts/verbal chicken soup over dust-ups with members of the Online Community on Facebook (usually football or crime related, where emotions are running high), and I sympathised and offered some thoughts on what to do.
The new e-guide from Buddy MediaHow Do I Respond To That? The Definitive Guide to Facebook Publishing and Moderation is useful; once you get past the corporate language and the fact that it’s not written for newspapers but for business it contains some helpful advice. 
The Buddy Media report highlights, in a nutshell, are:  

  • Forget to check your Facebook page regularly – you have a space where users are commenting in all sorts of language and ways that may or may not be appropriate
  • Turn a volatile thread into a back-and-forth argument with someone
  • Respond to one person but not others
  • Ignore requests for information 
  • Automatically get rid of negative comments – respond and give the community a chance to engage as well
  • Respond to comments on accuracy/ability of journalist 
  • Take advice on brand value/stance before you respond on issues (eg. political) 
  • Block haters; life’s too short 
  • Moderate by communication; encourage the Facebook community to flag inappropriate posts
  • Have a clear strategy so all page admin know how to respond in situations 
  • Create a written policy about what types of posts you don’t want to receive, and place it prominently on your wall or page 
To which I’d add

  • Turning Facebook chat on gets you lots of interaction
  • There’s nothing wrong with auto-posting links but do also show there’s a human, not a bot, behind status updates
  • Indulge in a little curation and share things from other media
  • If you have breaking news in your status update, FBers will expect you to update them there too as it progresses 

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What readers think of Big Numbers

Sometimes a picture (or three) is worth a thousand words…

First we have this…

Followed by this…

And finally, courtesy of a quick Google search covering the last two working days, this…

Sometimes it’s convenient to wrap up the big numbers for a headline (and the bigger the number, the better the headline, right?) but the fact is that it can be meaningless to a reader. Not saying I’m going to completely stop putting Big Numbers in headlines, but I’ll certainly think about whether I’m making it easier or harder for readers to decipher whether justice was done*. After all, a ten-strong gang jailed for a total of 100 years could well equate to10 years apiece, and each defendent might serve seven years of that sentence. Which is actually not that long.

* So well done Click Liverpool for a nice clear intro, which I didn’t spot it until after my screengrab.

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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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Giving readers data means stories don’t have endings – just evolutions

I found this from the New York Times interesting not just because of the high levels of engagement that it led to, but also because readers were actively comparing the respective results, as well as the data they had used to reach their conclusions.
The idea of data never really coming to an end – once a conclusion is reached, the conclusion is scrutinised and new data around that produced – is almost overwhelming in it’s implications for the lifecycle of news. Quite simply, data can evolve and move forward for as long as someone is prepared to scrutinise it I guess.

In my work, we have found when we run surveys online (particularly sports) readers want a very detailed breakdown of responses and numbers – they want all the detailed statistics that come out of a survey (ideally with visualisations of some form – even a basic bar chart) if it is to have value.  It reminds me of what my old Maths exam papers used to say – SHOW YOUR WORK.

As the Times highlighted*:

…”many readers asked for a tabulation of the responses, and taken together, they offer a glimpse of specific preferences within two groups: those who far prefer spending cuts, and those who want to mix cuts with tax increases. The responses also point to a deep divide between those two sides, illustrating why a solution is difficult”…

Some weeks ago a Liverpool Echo survey of LFC fans accidentally missed out on of the questions in the big results round-up. We had several stern comments from readers who wanted to know why a question was missing and what the results had been (not just the number of votes, but how many had voted, skipped the question etc). When we realised, and restored the missing information with an apology, we had more posts from readers marking their appreciation that they had been listened to and the data provided.

So, not enough to just tell – you have to show how you got there too. Not exactly an earth-shattering conclusion, I know, but both examples made an impression on me. A lesson to carry forward with me, I think.

* Big hat-tip to Doreen Marchionni who first flagged the NY Times article and reader demands for information on her Journalism as a Conversation blog. She observes: “Online news audiences not only love to hear it but perceive such interactivity as contributing to a story’s credibility”. I agree.

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Making newspapers – as addictive as ever

An illustration of the box juggling pattern.Image via WikipediaThis hasn’t been the most updated blog recently but that’s because, for a while, I found myself doing two jobs. I’m back doing just the one now but it’s a bit different to what I’ve been doing for the past two years. To start with it left me somewhat mentally taxed, and not a little perplexed.
This demanding new job is… making newspapers.
My usual job as executive editor, digital, sees me editing print titles on an ad hoc basis (and the Echo on a Sunday rota) but generally my multimedia day is more weighted towards the web, mobile, online journalism and online strategies or projects. But for the past month I’ve been on a job swap with the executive editor, Echo, and for a chunk of that time, due to absences, I was also engaged in day-to-day digital editrixery as well.
All this was set, Margaret Mitchell-style, against a backdrop of the Liverpool FC club sale/saga – a frenzy that sent reader usage spiralling upwards and led to near record print and online figures.

Some days started at 7am and ended at 10pm, several front pages were made during the course of edition changes but never actually lived to see it to the presses because the story had zoomed forward during that short window, and on the day of the actual sale there was a special Late Final edition of the Echo.
Here’s one that never made it out into the world…

A front page that didn't make it

… as, in the 20 minutes between designing that and the edition being sent to press, the LFC sale had moved on again and taken the lead slot on the front. It was relentless, frustrating and exciting. I was happy we still had an on-day edition of the Echo, and sad that the 3pm late City Final edition was no more. And I was delighted that online we could react/predict fast enough to keep ahead of things.

Print or online, changes were made only when people were absolutely confident of their sources. When the tip came through that the sale had been completed we were nearing absolute deadline to make page changes for a one-off Late Final edition (about 2pm) and still no white smoke had emerged from the room where Christian Purslow, Martin Broughton, NESV representatives and various legal types were closeted, difficult choices had to be made.We had a solid tip, but no confirmation… was it enough for a late final?
Everyone in the newsroom was becoming increasingly desolate as the late special idea looked set to fall down. The confirmation came, we managed to get it online (and cached, for once) before Sky and the BBC were even reporting it and there were celebrations at landing a web exclusive.

Then it turned out we had a print one as well… Echo editor Ali Machray had quietly got the front page change made – including a story announcing the sale, and had sent to the printers on the off-chance. So bundles of the latest news were in vans heading back to outlets on Merseyside…bundles that would have been pulped if no announcement had come through.
It was a true real leap of faith and it paid off.

For me, it was an especially fascinating story because I got to be immersed in both print and web areas of the story. A fans-crowdsourced online survey had nearly 2,000 responses in 24 hours and made a front page, tweets by John W. Henry regarding the sale were packaged for web and print, and compliments/complaints about the coverage (especially the scale of it) came in from fans and non-fans alike.

A breakdown of what had value for readers… Demonstrated by online comments/tweets, letters, phone calls and emails. The brackets show on which platform(s) something appeared

  • Breaking news (online – switching to a liveblog for the last day was particularly popular)
  • Accuracy and clarity, not re-running other titles’ speculation (web/print)
  • Repackaging reader comments as articles and inviting more comment (web/print)
  • Timelines (web/print)
  • Archive front pages charting the Hicks-Gillett-NESV progression (online)
  • Image galleries (web)
  • Short video – esp. of scenes outside the High Court (web)
  • Word clouds contrasting NESV and Hicks&Gillett ownership statements (print/online)
Not Valued
  • LFC sale updates on the general news @LiveEchoNews Twitter (online)
  • Breaking news not validated by other news sources* (online/print)
  • Impartiality – there was a clear desire for the Echo to display attitude and partiality by fans, not merely report (online/print)
  • Unsubstantiated claims (online) – even when stating ‘reported by’ or linking to an article referenced, readers often rejected it. This was interesting – an article linking out to a speculative story on another media source would attract negative comments; however, a commenter adding a link in their post would often attract ‘thumbs up’

Anyway, I go back to being a webbie next Monday. I’ve missed it and yet I’ve learned and re-learned more in the past month than I would have thought possible. I’m not sure I fulfilled part of my brief – which was to ’embed digital higher up the story-gathering process’ because it turns out that executive editors for print spend as much time sat in meetings, away from the real world of the newsroom, as executive editors for digital do.
But making print pages – working with designers to produce front pages, designing blurbs myself, discussing what sold, and where, with the newspaper sales dept, has helped open my eyes wider to newspapers. Why I stayed when colleagues went to lucrative pr jobs, why I remained in the regionals instead of chancing my arm with the nationals, why I get hate headaches every time someone posts a gleeful ‘death of newspapers’ article.
I had to go to hospital today and a nurse asked me my religion. When I told her I didn’t have one, she was a bit baffled as to what to put, and asked a colleague for advice.
It’s just struck me, I could have replied “Journalism” – and it would have been 100% true.

*An exclusive article on Tom Hicks and Mill Financial bidding to delay the deal was not followed up by the BBC or Sky. As the day progressed without some 3rd party also reporting it, readers online began to complain it was untrue. This, of course, was possibly because it didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear – that NESV was a shoo-in)

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The problems with second-guessing our online audience

Trying to second-guess what a newspaper’s online audience wants from its website is a tricky business. Apart from those who come to our sites for information there are huge numbers there purely for commercial services, and who find our sites through searches, not unflagging loyalty.

The second most viewed news article on the Echo site so far this month is a beauty contest semi-final; at the time of writing, it’s more than 5,000 hits ahead of (and two rankings higher than) an exclusive interview by the sports editor with the CEO of Liverpool FC, a club that can truly claim to be a global brand with fanatical followers around the world. In short, that was an article you’d have put money on securing the number one spot in the rankings, but it’s being beaten by a local beauty pagaent which is generating thousands of page views (possibly from proud relatives…)

The phrase ‘We Know What They Want’ is a kissing cousin to ‘If It Bleeds, It Leads’; murders sell papers and a news editor is always going to put the big crime story at the top of the newslist, but… a violent death isn’t always the best story of the day, and not all readers appreciate being served up a diet of crime.
They tell us so, in surveys, on forums, in phone calls, comments under articles, and on blogs. We can’t risk doing the same thing online – a YouTube video of some TV singer might do wonders for hits but considered retrospectively I’d say it’s a false positive and gives a skewed view of what our core audience values.

A slideshow presentation into the US news industry brought home to me the risks that accompany assuming you know your readership well. It details the results of a survey of 2,400 U.S. newspaper executive and was presented to last week’s American Press Institute’s Newsmedia Economic Action Plan Conference by Greg Harmon, of Belden Interactive, and Greg Swanson, of ITZ Publishing.

I discovered it via Steve Outing’s blog and I think the slides illustrate how out-of-touch some of the newspaper executives who took partwere. The survey shows the majority incorrectly assumed readers found their content very valuable; they also stated a belief that readers would struggle to find adequate replacements – the reader response was that they wouldn’t find it difficult.

Cutting the contributions budget could really cost us

In my reporting and newsdesking days I sometimes got asked by a caller ringing in with a tale if there was any hope of us paying for the information. In the regionals I’ve worked on, we never paid for information although if the story was likely to sell, and good enough, we’d help arrange syndication and the subject would get a cut.

We bought did pay freelance photographers and writers for their work but the freelance budget has shrunk down to the barest of bones in recent years; I suspect most freelance writers now view regional newspapers as a lost cause, and freelance photographers probably wonder if the fee will cover the cost of the fuel getting there.

Yes times are hard, but a slashed contributions budget is a frustrating and humiliating thing for a newsroom. We want those dramatic rescue photos but can we pay for them? It’s not that we won’t, it’s that often we can’t.
Believe me, when you have to say “sorry but we don’t have a budget for that” to someone who has captured something of real local significance you feel cheap, and you sound cheap.It’s making local newspapers look bad at a time when they can ill afford it and invites ‘price of everything, value of nothing’ comments.
Newspapers have taken for years, and known the value of what they were taking. In the future, we’d better be a bit more accommodating.