#ONALondon Session: Crowdsourcing as the ultimate strategic engagement

Panel: Mimi Onuoha, Research Fellow, Data & Society, Tow Society for Digital Journalism, Katerina Stravroula, freelance journalist and radio producer based in Athen and Tobias Dorfer

MO: Co-author of Tow report on the subject and before you read any further, you probably need to open this http://towcenter.org/research/guide-to-crowdsourcing/

Broadly defined by the Tow report as ‘The act of specifically inviting a group of people to participate in a reporting task’

People engaged in crow sourcing need to feel they have agency in contributing to a new story – we are not talking about scraping; people must not feel they are doing work for you. Everyone is getting something out of it.

The Two report says there are six types of crowdsourcing:

1. Voting – prioritising what reporters should tackle

2. Witnessing – sharing what you saw during a news event

3. Sharing personal experiences – tell us what you know

4. Tapping specialised expertise – contributing data or unique knowledge

5. Completing a task – volunteering time or skill to help create a news story

6. Engaging audiences – joining in call-outs (either informative or playful)

Crowdsourcing is about opportunities for communication via web technologies. As in the first session of the day it is about leveraging the collective intelligence of communities. People have something to gain, and it is it is crucial to the entire element of the entire story. It is just another part of the journalism process.

It is high touch, resource intensive and iterative. It allows journalists to tell stories that could not otherwise have been told, and it asserts the audience as an active participator in the story – the journalism is a relationship rather than a commodity.

TD: Engagement Editor at German news organisation Zeit Online which has about 10m unique users a month. User debates are at the heart of what it does and it has 67% of its audience aged under 49.

“Crowdsourcing is a really important part of our audience engagement strategy. It is not just about getting information that we might not be able to get otherwise, but it is about credibility. Crowdsourcing is the possibility of giving our readers the chance to be a part of project rather than consuming a product and it allows us to gain trust”.

Case study: Zeit Online investigated overdraft rates and asked the audience to send in their postcodes, BIC and overdraft rates. The project got 10k participants, information about 691 banks, and from that created a map of the two highest overdraft interest rats for every state, alongside several articles.

Case study: Bakeries that bake bread on the premises 

Crowdsourced for readers to share the bakeries they knew of that sold handmade-on-site bread and rolls, and what baked goods they recommended. 15K participants, with more than 2,500 such bakeries identified. A map was created and included readers’ favourite products from those bakeries.

With these two case studies, Zeit Online used Google Forms and ran the campaign call outs for around two weeks.

KS is a member of the radiobubble.gr community, contributing to the rbnews and rbdata teams. Radiobubble comprises journalists and activist in Greece.

She was part of the team behind Generation E, a data driven investigation into migration; with a small team she crowdsourced for people to tell their experiences and stories. (The E stands for Europe, Emigration, Erasmus, Economy, Exodus, Escape.)

The team wanted official data, but also the stories of those impacted by it. We used a form online – we first invited people to participate, and tell their stories alongside sharing their data.

They received 2,400 stories and their top level findings included the driving factors for emigration, the registration of non-European migrants, and the inclination emigrants had to return to their home countries.

Tools: Open Refine, Datawrapper, Trello, GoogleDrive and Forms. Doodle, Twitter, Facebook, and also the team worked with media partners.

Takeaways from the panel

You need to plan but be prepared for what comes back to be different to what you expected

If you have a data journalism project, as a freelancer, you cannot continue indefinitely without funding

 

*

So, a few thoughts from me as a result of sitting through this very rewarding session…

Personally I think the big point journalists can take away from this was just how much information and time people are prepared to share – IF you can hit a topic they care about.

A few years ago, when I was editing the Daily Post, we ran a survey on a notorious road, the A55, but – crucially, I think – as well as asking people if it should be given a 3rd lane (no brainer answer: Yes) we asked them to share their views on what the biggest problems were, what they thought should be done, and any experiences they wanted to share.

It was incredibly successful in terms of response and richness of detail and made for several days with of content.

Crowdsourcing, I think, means you cede control of your questions and your line of investigation – what people want to tell you about may be only indirectly linked to the question you ask initially, but if you follow that line of inquiry, you may find the rewards, engagement and validity of the journalism is far, far greater than you imagined at the start.

Crowdsourcing is not “send us pictures of your children in Easter bonnets”; that’s a UGC shoutout. It is the collaborative act of putting inquiries into the world, and seeing what develops – of making stories with people who are outside of your newsroom and your bubble of perception.

#ONALondon ‘When news breaks bad: UGC in the newsroom’ session 

Panel: Mandy Jenkins, VP ONA board, head of news, Storyful; Fergus Bell, ONA Ethics committee, and Dig Deeper Media 

Ok, so for this blog post to make much sense you probably need to head straight to http://toolkit.journalists.org and have a look at that, because this is what we’re talking about.

Done that? Good – the roundup from the session starts… now:

In 2012 the first discussions around UGC and eyewitness protection began.

FB we didn’t have the luxury of several years to develop; we needed to come to a level of understanding quite quickly, and so we set up a working group and many conversations have ben held over theyears.

MJ: We are constantly dealing in a world of unknowns and what we have learned has meant we’ve started to figure out the day to day world of news.

The ONA Social Newsgathering Ethics Code is a document to gather the support of news and journalism organisations internationally to endorse a set of standards and practices.

Here’s a quick screen grab:

ONA Social Newsgathering Ethics Code – ONA s Digital ToolkitExample: ‘The Eiffel Tower has gone dark’ – many news organisations were posting on social in the aftermath of the Paris attacks that the tower was switched off out of respect. Actually, the lights are switched off every night.

Example: The video bandied around as being of the Brussels terror attack that turned out to be Moscow, 2011.

MJ: Readers and journalists are coming to standard terms that indicate where we are in a breaking news story. We will say ‘confirmed’ and how we know what we know, or ‘unconfirmed’ or ‘checking’ which says ‘we are looking into this right now’. The transparency is there and our audience can see what our status is with regards to verification of a story.

FB: For journalists, thinking of how we say we are reaching conclusions around stories is an alien concept but what we need to get our heads around is that the audience is now searching social media themselves, and if it doesn’t look as though you are going through a verification process as a professional journalist they may well question why.

Considering the emotional state and safety of contributors is about the way we deal with people who are creating content we need, and who we are using to tell stories.

FB used the example of a campus shooting eyewitness who was asked by hundreds, if not thousands, of media for her experiences – while it was still going on.

Journalists were getting abuse from other people who could see them asking for content.

Storyful approaches it like this:

 

FB: Be aware there is a difference between getting that story when someone is in fear of their life, and when they are safe. If you are communicating with someone who is hiding from a gunman, as in this case, what happens if their phone is not on mute and it makes a noise when they receive a notification?

Or if there is a particular geographic reference point or angle on a photograph that shows where they are?

MJ within your own newsroom there needs to be communication to say if someone has reached out to an eyewitness, so they are not getting bombarded.

Assignments v discovery – asking people to create content for you is different to finding content they have made. A snowy day photo shout out is low risk – a hurricane pic shout out is not.

MJ: during the Kenyan mall attack you could see people hiding while journalists reached out to them asking them to shoot video. These people were being asked to put their lives at risk to film for a news organisation. It was very ethically unsound.

Storyful works with content that exists and does not create assignment situations (i.e. asking for content to be created rather than provided post-creation)

FB: I worked with UGC on various uprisings in Libya and other areas and we would never ask them to capture anything that was live. What they captured informed the reporting rather than vice versa. We had a responsibility to their safety.

It is not only about protecting the source who provides the content but also protecting those who are featured in it – like making sure witnesses captured in a video are not identifiable.

Embedding can also be an area that needs negotiation: Sometimes people also don’t realise their content is public – they think it is contained within their network and don’t expect to see if in other media.

In breaking news if you are asking for permission to use something, do you have archive rights? Use beyond one time? Multi-platform? What if people later change their minds? If someone retracts at any point, if you’ve negotiated use on Twitter, you have to comply.  (This is a key point that newsrooms need to understand, as far as I am concerned)

If you throw a bunch of legalese at someone around usage, you aren’t likely to get anywHere.

By being more ethical you can also be more effective.

Keeping journalists safe online

MJ: I have had a member of staff stalked by someone they reached out to in pursuit of a story. We have to know that we are not supermen and superwomen when it comes to dealing with this.

FB: I know investigative journalists who will meet some potentially unsavoury contacts in public places with colleagues nearby. If you have a junior staffer reaching out through social to people, as newsroom managers do you know that staffer’s exit route? Do they know how to protect themselves?

Not everyone is bad out there of course but perhaps if you are able to speak to a source on the phone or company email rather than expose your personal account is useful in some cases.

*Also see the work by the excellent Eyewitness Media Hub. I’ve been some small involvement with this, and and blogged about it here and here.

Audience engagement and newsroom attitudes

Several years ago, when the words ‘content is king’ was everywhere, I remember Joanna Geary observing  ‘collaboration is queen’. I loved that.
I’ve been thinking about Jo’s twist on King Content because the phrase ‘audience engagement’ is so prevalent right now, and I think that if collaboration is queen bee then being part of the conversation swarm is a vital part of it.
‘Content is king’ became a cliche thanks to a combination of overuse, misuse, and buzzword bingo; essentially, it holds truths, but it’s hard not to groan when you hear it.
Today we’re all about ‘audience engagement’; everyone (mainstream media, brands, marketers or social media players) is looking to, y’know, #engage the #audience with #content that is #shareable and possible even #viral. It’s in danger of becoming disengaging; a phrase on the precipice of becoming a placeholder in strategy documents for the future of journalism.

I think about audience engagement a lot because it’s the cornerstone of my employer’s strategy – Trinity Mirror doesn’t do paywalls, it does audiences – in a nutshell we want to increase audiences, keep them coming back, and know them well enough so that advertisers find the right customers. This isn’t a blog post about TM, it’s about my personal view of how audience engagement should be considered in (many) newsrooms and  what the phrase means to me.  It means this: Creating a newsroom where the process, culture, planning, and output takes the reader/audience/customer/end user – whatever you want to call it – into consideration, and produces stories that begin a second phase of development post-publishing.

I heard Alan Rusbridger speak last week (funnily enough, I had already written most of this post, and so I’m not plagiarising him, I promise) and he spoke of his admiration for Glen Greenwald. Greenwald, he said, was a journalist who thought the real and exciting part of his job started after he’d published his story, and people started talking to him about it on social media. How brilliant (and fearless) is that?

When we hold our news conferences, we’re deciding what the parameters of what is a good story, how it is presented, what platforms we are going to market it on and how, and what time people can read it.
Once a story is in the world, and going great guns on social or on the live analytics board, the most important thing to ask is not “what else are we doing on this?” but “what are people saying about this?”
How are they reacting? Do they see the story as we do, or have a different view point? What aspects chime with them? When they share it, what editorialising of their own are they doing?
If they’re not saying anything, are we
* looking for any conversations in the right places
* inviting people to talk about it
* listening and making ourselves available to discuss further

Getting audience engagement right isn’t a complicated equation (it doesn’t take a vast cognitive leap to know a news story about heavy overnight snow will leave the morning audience wanting to know if the roads and schools are open).
It doesn’t begin and end with the idea of simply making content people want to view/interact/share either – it’s far more sophisticated, and it is also understanding your audience well enough to know how to tell the stories that probably don’t trigger an automatic urge to click.

I was in a news conference recently where a mildly-important-but-dull story about business rates came up. As regional and local reporters, it’s not enough to cover the story that and then expect people to work hard to get the sense of it – if you think it’s boring, ask yourself why would readers care, unless they were directly impacted (and even then, why would they chose your content over a rival publisher’s? Or a social media update from a councillor? Or – more likely- a business owner directly impacted by the change? Competition for attention is brutal and the audience is a promiscuous beast. Similarly, if/when Twitter adds the option to bust 140 characters, user options for storytelling become far more open. So the business owner can write a considered 200-word piece on how rates affect them instead of a short view, or a jumbled rant over several posts. The context available to Twitter audiences will grow – and that is an area where, for the moment, news media have been able to claim an advantage simply by being able to link to a story on a website.

Audience engagement is a newsroom where the reader is considered at the start of the story process. It’s thinking about the people we’re telling stories to, beyond the timings of audience spikes and social uploads. I think it’s about bringing a blogger mindset to our journalism – that live construction of a story that happens, and is refined with reader input to show how it’s developed. People might leave a comment on this post, for example, about what audience engagement means to them, or they might tell me on Twitter (and I could embed a collection of tweets if there were enough).
They might write their own blog post and link to this, so my post will track back to theirs and anyone reading this can find it.

For newsrooms it’s about starting the day looking for and asking what people are talking about, what they want to know more about, what stories they’re reading, sharing and responding to – and what they are ignoring, and why.
It’s about holding regular open sessions with readers (and this can be an exposing and difficult thing to do) such as an editor committing to hold regular, scheduled hangouts to discuss ideas or decisions with readers, reporters doing live debates on Periscope or in Facebook Q&As on their work, news conferences being held in public (and if you think that’s impractical, the Liverpool Echo once held theirs on on a bed in an art gallery).
And it’s about sustaining the practices you put in place not because they are the flavour of the month, but because they bring you as a journalist, or your newsroom as an exec, closer to readers.

That’s the other thing about audience engagement, you can’t be half-hearted or engage a little bit; all you do that way is confuse people (including your newsroom, if you are an editor who blows hot and cold on the subject), or end up sticking with safe trivia that allows a bit of easy bantz but isn’t meaningful.  It’s a commitment but the outcome more than repays the investment made.

 

 

15 thoughts on innovation for smaller newsrooms

How do you innovate in smaller newsrooms, was one of the questions that was sought to be addressed at the WAN IFRA international newsroom summit I attended in Hamburg on October 5. My answer is an emphatic: “Better, and more ambitiously than anyone tends to give us credit for”.

The big guns, like the NYT and The Guardian, are rightly lauded for the innovative work they do; they also have the staff and resources to make sure those things are done excellently. When you work in a regional newsroom and have a burning idea that you just know will be amazing in terms of providing great coverage of a story, or driving audience engagement, or shaking up the way things are done in your workplace, necessity can be the mother of invention (and innovation).

I see first hand how hard the Trinity Mirror regional newsrooms make their innovation stretch, and the lengths they go to make ideas happen, so it was great to be asked to talk about the opportunities for innovation in smaller newsrooms by WAN IFRA. Innovative, experimental storytelling is not the preserve of large newsrooms.

So these are my points on the how and why of innovation in smaller newsrooms.

  1. Know your audience – who are you trying to reach, where are they at various points in the day, what devices are they using, what platforms are they moving towards? How does your idea fit into that, and support the over-arching goal of growth and engagement? Knowing the answers means you’ll make decisions that connect your content to the people you want to reach.
  2. Resources are finite. Be realistic – how likely is it that you are going to spend several months and several thousand pounds developing a ‘look how innovative we are’ game or piece of content. So where can you piggyback? What 3rd party tools exist to help you tell your stories in other ways? Is your idea the best way of reaching your desired audience anyway?
  3. Most questions that begin ‘how to I connect with X audience?’ end in an answer that contains, to a greater or lesser extent, ‘social media’. If you’re a regional newsroom you need to get your social, mobile, local approach right.
  4. Something cannot work on one mobile OS and ‘sort of’ work on another. Either it works on mobile, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, don’t do it; you’re just halving your potential audience reach.
  5. Run a trial, assess the value – share the knowledge. If it works, great – you’ve got a best practice model to refine across other newsrooms who know they are getting a tried and tested success. If it doesn’t, you know you’ve used the resources wisely and attempted something that you can still take learnings from.
  6. Publish where your audience is; make those pieces of content entry points for your other platforms too
  7. Use analytics to help inform all your decision-making.
  8. Newsrooms that harness that expertise can achieve faster culture shift
  9. Using 3rd party tools that work on your platforms is a practical solution for small newsrooms – just make sure a) they don’t break your platforms and b) they work on mobile
  10. Share that knowledge where possible – collaboration = creativity. Hack days, social media cafes, training days, help build relationships, community engagement and  spark ideas
  11. Free your content – don’t just work in a CMS silo. Not everything has to drag the audience back to your website. We need content packages that go out into the world with their boots on, editorially and commercially. The disaggregation of the homepage is happening; news providers have to have a sound plan for ‘discovered content’.
  12. Be an early bird: Beta testing is a great option for small, agile newsrooms. Startups knock on many, many doors with their idea; it’s good to give time and attention to them because you never know when it’s going to develop into a mutually beneficial relationship. Or, to put it another way, be nice, because you never know where someone – or some start-up – is going to wind up.
  13. What resources can you devote – staff, time and cash? What stops being done to make way for your project? Honestly, if your great idea is going to suck the air out of other projects, and test colleagues’ patience and work flows, you’ve got to know it’s worth it and be able to articulate the benefits.
  14. Just because others do it, it doesn’t mean it will be right for you. Sometimes the resources, the audience and the returns mean that a great idea in one newsroom is a lukewarm one in another. That’s ok if you’ve looked at it from every angle and can’t replicate the success, what can you take out of it? There probably are elements that will work.
  15. Where’s the money? What are the commercial opportunities of your idea and have you involved commercial colleagues at an early enough point that they can a) think how it might be of interest to their clients and b) where they can point out opportunities you’ve missed? Generally speaking, newsrooms don’t talk to Advertising enough, but we’re fast enough to employ the Patented Journalist Eyeroll when they fail to sell around planned content they found out about 3 days ago, but that we’ve been working on for the best part of a fortnight.

The end of ‘behind closed doors’ journalism

There are times in a journalist’s career when you are going to have to approach someone who is not having the finest moment of their life, and ask them to help you.

It might be calling on a grieving family, or approaching witnesses to an accident, or asking someone who has just emerged the loser in a tussle with Justice to talk about How They Feel.

The outcomes are sometimes unedifying, occasionally unpleasant but – more often than the non-journalist might credit – can also be mutually successful and beneficial. These interactions were also largely unwitnessed, except by those participating.
They happened behind closed doors, or, more accurately, on doorsteps – whether you got inside said door or not hinged, no pun intended, on how you conducted yourself, and represented your intentions.

I called it the Black Edged Voice and it would be employed for death knocks (low, respectful tone, apologetic demeanour for intruding, much stressing of the fact that I would leave  if the door-answerer wished, and would not return) and I was more often than not invited in.

I would interview the person or family; I would do my utmost to do justice to their dear one with a tribute. My goal was to give them a cutting that they would come to regard as a mini-memorial. Every newsroom had reporters who were ‘good on the knock’ – I suspect it comes down to empathy… and luck.

Things started to change in… I’m going to go out on a limb and say 2008, because that was when the first pebbles of social media sliding down a slope became a rumbling avalanche. In 2009 this happened, which gave me a personal insight into how my old-school ‘contacts’  had become my (much-wider) network and a plane crashed in the Hudson and (most) mainstream media suddenly got what was going on.

Now, when a news break happens, you can bank on Twitter being at the heart of it in some way, and often that’s because it’s where the witnesses are. If I’m passing a huge traffic snarl-up on the M6 my instinct is to photograph or video it and post it on Twitter with a hashtag (from the passenger seat, officer, of course) – my natural instinct is to share. And it’s a common mindset; whether you’re wondering what the noises overhead are, or seeing the Clutha tragedy unfold sharing the experience on networks is now a common thing.

But as a witness, or someone who acknowledges a connection to someone caught up in a newsworthy event, when you share that on Twitter you invite reaction, and a side effect of that is that the massed ranks of media are likely going to be in your @ mentions within minutes, asking for a) your content or b) an interview or c) probably both. For a journalist, it means these interactions are happening in the world; they aren’t behind closed doors or in a one-to-one exchange on a doorstep – you’re asking your questions on Twitter and onlookers may well view them as intrusive.

It’s not necessarily pretty but that’s beside the point – asking the questions, respectfully, within the Editors’ Code of Conduct, and knowing that varieties of “NO” may be the comeback are part of the job. There are two problems: Dozens of other media may well be @-ing the same “can we [use your photo, speak to you, ask you to put us i touch with X]?”; others witnessing the Twitter scrum get outraged (sometimes with good reason) and start throwing abuse back. This will usually include references to vultures, lazy journalism, disgrace etc etc.

This week’s Smiler crash saw a spate of no-closed-doors journalism approaches. Mercifully no one died, although the terrible injuries (I would imagine mental as well as physical) suffered by those caught up in it meant it was an incredibly sensitive story to stage a “can we have…” media grabfest on Twitter. This is pretty typical of what went on:

and this

Followed by

There are scores of these exchanges – I imagine her mentions column was in meltdown. She obviously was sanguine about the journalists who approached her (although if you read the full exchanges, it shifts from journalists asking for interviews to some fairly nasty tweets from non-media, taking her to task for the original tweet). But there are also variations on a theme of this

And it wasn’t unique – other people tweeting photos were getting similar requests, and similar views were being expressed

Is it fair? No. Do they have a point? Yes. Am I contradicting myself? Sorry but I don’t care. Publicly requesting content like this is a legitimate part of the journalist’s job, while taking photos without asking is obviously not; and yes, it can look shoddy to the wider world. That’s ok – most of us don’t come into this job to win an award for our high-minded purpose and nobility, we come into it to tell stories and let people know things they otherwise wouldn’t.

If someone wants to tell a journalist their story because said hack asked the right questions, politely, mindfully and within the Code of Conduct, that’s a valid exchange. When it fails is when the question is posed in a crass way, or we barge into exchanges between friends, because we had a Tweetdeck search running.

The above tweeter posted her content and opinion to broadcast it – she was happy for journalists to amplify the message. But an enormous amount of Twitter users don’t understand the network, or think that when they @ a friend, it’s not public. Leaping into what they think is a private exchange is a bit like opening the front door and walking in the room to ask if you can interview the grieving family, without knocking.

Just observe for a few moments and follow the conversation – you’ll soon work out whether it’s something you can step into (or another journalist will jump first, and you can take a cue from the reaction). Being first isn’t a great thing when all you’ve achieved is a mentions column of abuse, and retweets with added angry comments. It damages you, the brand you work for, and the wider journalism community.

When you’re using Twitter to find witnesses, treat it like a door knock. Sometimes, in real life, the journalism pack gets there first and you can ask them what reception they’ve got so far. On Twitter, a couple of minutes of observing conversations, or watching others rush in to the breach, can be very valuable. Knock at the metaphorical door if you think it’s appropriate, and be prepared to have it shut in your face – or to have someone else tell you to clear out.

But if you aren’t respectful, or you don’t conduct yourself in a way that reflects well on you and the title you represent (quick sense check: How would you react if you were the person you’re about to approach?) you can expect to get flung off the metaphorical doorstep and land in a heap.

Update: Here’s a link to Robin Hamman’s post on the VirginiaTech shooting – it’s not a new phenomenon.

Pix or it didn’t happen?

Embed from Getty Images

So, Meerkat, eh?

It was, by all accounts, the darling of SXSW and digital acres have been given over to assessing its worth (and here I am, adding to them). Search Twitter at any given time and it’s everywhere, being [LIVE NOW]…

//

I downloaded it a few weeks ago when it still had access to Twitter’s social graph, which meant that as people I followed also joined there was an onslaught of notifications.

When I tested it in the BelfastLive newsroom, and later discovered my timeline was subsequently full of me @-ing myself, which was a puzzle until I realised it was a kind of reverse-publishing of my Meerkat conversations, back onto Twitter. This tweet-conversation feature did cause some controversy and at one point was switched off by Twitter, although it’s been reinstated.

I like the idea of another live streaming app (I liked the late, lamented Qik although I’ve always returned to Bambuser) but I just don’t know that I’m that sold on the idea of ephemeral livestreaming for news organisations, as unless you save the Meerkat video to your phone, it’s gone.

Your livestream has a mayfly-like existence, no matter how large your audience for the stream was, if you forget to save it down. In the heat of breaking news moments, I like to know my livestream is already safely stored, with an option to download or embed, on a site somewhere.

Of course, ephemeral conversations can offer wonderful opportunities for journalists (hello, Snapchat!) but I also think newsrooms should attempt to put down permanent markers of their work, because a) certain events that merit live streaming need to last, and b) with permanency comes authenticity and the opportunity for checks and verification. It’s harder to challenge inaccuracy if there’s no permanency, both in terms of the journalist and audience. It’s definitely easier for People With Agendas to call out journalists for errors if there’s that piece of work’s lasting testimony is this: joshconstine on Meerkat So, yeah. Meerkat. It’s fun, it’s insanely popular, and it has a social cache right now that means most of us working in digital journalism are interested in trying it for new things. But, as with a lot of The Shiny (and, yes, I am guilty of loving The Shiny)  it should also come with a caveat: When you’re planning to go live, don’t just think about trends, think about what is fit for purpose in the long term as well.

The beige world of clickbait journalism

Embed from Getty Images
Things I worry about:

  1. Why the airport tax charged by cabs from Belfast City Airport fluctuates by £1 for no apparent reason
  2. Is Rick from The Walking Dead aware of how awful his beard is?
  3. In the rise of Junk Food News, how do I avoid being a part of the problem?
I like a good internet meme, and have enjoyed the odd diverting scroll through tweets in a Twitter row between mildly famous-in-certain-spheres people to see mud hurled in 140 characters or less.
But The Dress depressed the hell out of me and it was only the latest in a round of mildly-diverting-but-ultimately-non-stories that are sucking up readers attention at the cost of… what?
At the point of Peak Dress, 99% of my Facebook feed was related to it – either news brands posting their own content about it, or friends complaining about it being everywhere, or friends discovering it for the first time. I hide posts to start with, and then I just gave up on Facebook for several hours.
My social feeds were boring, stuffed full of the same topic. It briefly started again tis week with that photo of cheese and biscuits (which is, I believe, 5 years old) cropping up everywhere.
If everyone is talking about something does that make it interesting? And does that interest make it news? Logic suggests the two go hand in hand, so at what point does a topic swing in the audience’s mind from diverting to dull ?
News should not be boring – news about a dress that can apparently be one colour while being another one entirely should certainly never be boring. But the sheer proliferation of stories, quizzes, explainers, polls and memes made it boring.
The quest for hits killed the golden-or-blue dress.
When it comes to weird news, what’s seldom is wonderful. Otherwise it ceases to be weird, and is merely tiresome.
'Divided a planet'? oh Washington Post,
‘Divided a planet’? oh Washington Post,
If you put up a post about The Dress on Facebook, you might wind up within as many as 500 comments in a few hours. You can put up a gallery or a poll, and get a lift in page views and uniques off said same garment.
This works for national news brands because the pool they fish in is both deep and wide. But the regional press has, in my opinion, to walk a fine line between audience expectation and audience interest.
If a brand’s unique selling point is its locality and ties with the area it covers, that should be protected as it has lasting value and impact.
When it comes to quick hits, social traction isn’t  really being boosted in the long term, just as those comments aren’t engagement in the useful sense of the word. Often they aren’t even comments – they’re picture memes (“lookit mah unfunny and ctrl alt v-ed picture of Jean Luc Picard face palming”) or ’slow news day’ complaints.
I was part of a team launching a new website last week and for the first few days we had no analytics to go by except social growth. And it felt odd to be making decisions blind – moving stories up or around the homepage, and creating more of some content because we thought it would do well.
It made me understand how valuable analytics are to me when I come to make content decisions.
However, if you are only led by analytics, a stretched local angle on a clickbaity story will seem the answer, because the figures will back you up – in the short term.
Analytics show us volume and interest, but they can’t measure sentiment (ok, some social ones can in a fairly basic way). They can’t measure the long-term damage done to a brand by some careless clickbait fishing.
So last week drove home just how important analytics have become to me not only when I come to make decisions, but also when I take a flier, and learn from it.
But if online readers are attention and time-poor (and they tend to be) … if shortform or snacky pieces of information are more highly prized,… if visual socially-shareable content drives hits… if analytics shape our decisions, then how does the local council budget report compete for and hold attention?
It’s a tough sell, even if you think you know which of the day-parted audience spike you should be targeting, but I think it’s a sell that we have to keep on our toes about.
 Related articles

Up the Boro! Tapping into the fans’ mood on Twitter

This is my new favourite thing, courtesy of the @GazetteBoro team in Middlesbrough (disclosure: yep, they’re part of Trinity Mirror Regionals, like me).

The gif (you might need to click to activate) is a simple, neat idea, and really summed up the how fans feel about being up in the rarified atmosphere of the top of the table.

Lots of great engagement too. Just goes to show, you don’t need to break the internet to be awesome sometimes.

Six thoughts on emerging opportunities for journalism

https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CAYQjB0&url=http%3A%2F%2Fmagictorch.com%2F%3Fp%3D62&ei=xIxrVL7vC8e0sATyvoCACg&bvm=bv.79908130,d.cWc&psig=AFQjCNHbdgW8g1Er8Ob1oHVzTX879Q3oSw&ust=1416420924455214

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.

Open season on audience stalking

Stalking the venison
Photo by Trojan_Llama

The quote below is taken from an interesting post on It’s All Journalism today, that raised the question of why news media push content to social sites and engage users there, rather than on their own sites. 

“I think that we have to start driving our audience back to our freaking websites because we have managed to put ourselves in an awkward position in terms of Facebook, where we’re paying to play with people who were our consumers in the first place. We kind of give them to them,””

 
It made me think of the Guardian’s social reader on Facebook, an experiment that the brand launched in September 2011 and pulled back from last month, but which – at the time of it’s launch – was seen as a bold and engaging step. 

 I am of a ‘go where the audience is’ persuasion – you can’t set up shop and demand people come to you or stalk them like a sheepdog and herd them where you want.
However, I also think Kate Gardener makes a valid point in exhorting journalists to take back their audiences. 
But it strikes me that the attraction for most FB users is either a) sharing information with a selected group of friends (via personal profile sharing) or b) sharing with people who are like-minded (in the case of FB sharing). 
Google+ is similar in that, and it gives us (incorrectly, I know, but nevertheless…) a sense of ownership of that space. 

Newspaper websites aren’t social media and no matter how much we want to build our own communities via forums, blogs and comment threads, with all the moderation in the world they aren’t ‘safe’ spaces. 
Post something on your Facebook page and your friends will like, and give positive responses. Post something on a news website, and anyone can disagree – harshly or unfairly perhaps – or troll for the lulz, and there isn’t much you can do about it. 

As a user of a newspaper website, you can report someone for snarling at you, but just because they’ve hurt your feelings, it doesn’t mean they’ve contravened the rules of that  website.
You can’t unfriend them, block them, throw them out of circles or lock down your privacy so they can no longer see your content. 
The only thing you can do is take yourself out of that space, and -*puft* – there goes a member of the site’s audience, possibly sharing accounts of their bad experience with others, as the depart.

If Facebook didn’t exist, would newspapers have invented it? Not back in 2004 when FB launched; maybe now we would know what was required, but only because we have a model to copy. 
So the solution can’t be to withdraw from social media, but to learn from social media to the extent that we employ its best characteristics in our own news sites.

Then people have a choice. That’s key, as far as I can see. 

Photo credit: The pic used to illustate this was taken by Trojan_Llama. It’s part of a wonderful monochrome set of husky photos, and I’d seriously recommend having a look at his work – it’s great.

Related articles

Enhanced by Zemanta