What should a local news source be?

suzie_dreamingI was thinking today about an upcoming reader project and started jotting down what I’d want from a regional news provider. I don’t mean  section headings (‘news’ or ‘information’ are givens, surely?) ; I mean, what values would make me think of them as more than a purely geographic recorder and pusher of information.

In no particular order, this is my list so far. God help me it reads like a WLTM ad but that’s no bad thing – I am, after all, talking about a potential life partner here: 

  • Invested
  • Participating
  • Wise
  • Funny
  • Understanding
  • Witty
  • Smart
  • Reliable
  • Correct
  • Knowledgeable
  • Strong
  • Questioning
  • Caring
  • Observing
  • Honest
  • Useful
  • Listening
  • Helpful
  • Critiquing
  • Critical
  • Assured
  • Championing
  • Leading
  • Anticipating
  • Analytical
  • Trusted
  • Friendly
  • Measured
  • Known
  • Familiar
  • Intelligent
  • Accurate
  • Optimistic
  • Transparent
  • Collaborative
  • Open

It’s an impossible list and yet it’s a list that you could (almost) use as a checklist for every piece of content you make. How many of these elements does your content contain? It might be just a handful, but is the relevant handful?
At the end of the day, as the last screen powers down, can we say we have striven to fulfil as many of these criteria as we could?

What’s missing? I struck off ‘engaging’ – the words listed seemed to have that in ever part of them already and I’m rapidly going off the idea of engagement as a measure for anything – it’s such a vague term.
So what about ‘profitable’? It’s essential for a business – is it essential for a reader to know about a business’s state of affairs? If I were an advertiser I know I’d be interested, as a reader I’d also want to know the stability and long-term prognosis of my news source.
Tell me what I missed, and why it’s important, and I will be a grateful and happy blogger.

Afterword
I realised as I jotted my list that tech and system requirements were naturally suggesting themselves. I started a separate list for that but it’s a work-in-progress. So I suppose that makes this post Part I.

 

 

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.

 

 

Newsrooms: Not what they were, but that’s no bad thing

Been catching up on some thinking around “what future for newspapers?” this week; this one by Michael Wolff was part-anguish and part-nostalgia and of the “on the one hand, [opinion], nevertheless, having said that [counter-opinion]…” school of writing.

This one is a pretty unsentimental look at the issue from David Carr, of the NYT, which warns against the cosy sentiment that  has dogged publishers for too long (and there is a spirited riposte to Carr’s print obituary here):

Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.

And this one, by Steve Outing, which considered and suggested outcomes, and promoted quite a few replies and retweets when I tweeted the link, including one voicing a view I’m sure strikes a chord in the hearts of those who think newsrooms aren’t what they used to be and journalists are stuck at their desks, unable to interact with the communities they cover because they are too busy writing listicles.

Lots of people have been lost from the industry as a result of title closures or redundancies in their titles; editorial teams are much smaller these days ( side note: I once worked for a newspaper where the Opinion Editor did only that daily duty. Now, if I had a job where all I did was write a 350 word Voice of the Tribune column every day – which was probably read by about five people including the revise editor – I would look elsewhere for my salary and job satisfaction.)

Personally, I don’t think the editorial size (and geographic location) of a newsroom matters.  It is true that newsrooms are not what they used to be but that isn’t a wholly bad thing – they had to evolve because the news gathering and distribution operation had ceased to be all about newsprint. The old models – the news desk gets a flat plan of the next day’s paper, the newsroom spends the day filling the pages relating to said flat plan – simply did not translate.

So the newsroom operation is a vastly different thing now to what it was ten years ago. Today’s newsrooms are:

  • Noisy:  Not in the clattering-of-typewriters way. Look at the Tweetdeck columns of the average reporter and they will be humming with conversation, feedback and chat.  This social conversation and hubbub is, as far as I’m concerned, a more productive,  energising backdrop to work in that any amount of clacking keys (here’s another thing newsrooms were when I started out – a haze of cigarette smoke. Can I get nostalgic for that? Nope. I do get a bit misty for spikes and blacks though, those old-skool filling systems that were pretty foolproof… until you had a desk clean-up)
  • Accountable: Any link to a piece of journalism posted on a title’s social media can be challenged and discussed in the real world; if a title doesn’t respond it no longer means the conversation is confined to ignored Letters to the Editor. In fact the silence might spur on more comment on Facebook or Twitter, or bloggers might take the issue to their own platform to explore it in more depth.  It’s a more open and transparent world now – as a journalist you can get called out on an error, or add context to a discussion, or stamp on a misreading of facts quickly. You can also get some lovely thank yous and expressions of gratitude for the work you’ve undertaken. Sometimes, anyway
  • Moveable: Newsrooms can be virtual and still operate in the real world, via social media cafes and reporter surgeries. Online, they operate via Facebook, Twitter, Google Apps, Trello and a host of other sites. I was involved in the Crewe Chronicle’s shift to become an office-less title; with the right tech and training the team there has done an amazing job of proving a newsroom is not about a postcode
  • Informed: When I was a local reporter – in an office based right in the middle of the town I covered for a weekly paper – I knew a lot of people, some of whom told me things. Now I’m no longer a reporter, I still know a lot – more, in fact – about what is going on in any particularly locale ( potentially, anywhere) I choose to search, thanks to social media. An example – say I know Phil who owns the local grocery and he sees me passing daily on my way to the local police station to write up the log book (let’s pretend this quaint old custom still happens); he might remember to tell me the interesting thing his customers were talking about the previous day. Or he might tell me in a few days time when he drops by the office to pay his ad fees.  However, with online networks and decent geo searches set up around the town, the need to rely on sources is vastly reduced.
  • Attuned: Thanks to analytics we know what our readers want and like. Even if a post has several snarky “Slow news day?” comments on it amid the 90-odd other comments, it’s a fair bet that it has proved one of the more popular stories of the day. Analytics tell us more about our audience than we could ever know before. If you read a news website the information, direct and extrapolated, that might be known about users includes the broad geography of where you live, when you get up and go to bed, what tech you like to use, when and how you commute, what TV shows you like, what football teams you support, what you plan to do this weekend. Potentially we know where your children go to school and how you plan to vote in the next election. Some of this information readers provide voluntarily, some of it is data derived from how they use and interact with a brand’s website or social platforms. None of it is particularly difficult to access, and decisions around digital and print content are made on the basis of these analytics every day.  So today’s newsprint products are built from the ground up by newsrooms who have real insights into how readers consume information and react to it. Theres very little guesswork about it these days.  What do I know about someone who buys a newspaper every day, without going through the circulation department’s files and spreadsheets? I know that they buy a newspaper every day
  • Diverse: I guess newsrooms have more people in them who aren’t doing traditional journalism jobs than ever. I head a team with job titles that didn’t exist 12 months ago. Social media editors are viewed as integral to most regional newsrooms, but five years ago, they were exotic creatures. There are audience editors, data analysts, online content planners… all bringing different perspectives on the agendas and content audiences are looking for. Also, an empty reporters bench doesn’t mean there are no reporters. They might be working remotely from a surgery in town, or sat live tweeting a case from the crown court, or videoing a debate in the council chamber,  or they might be hosting a live blog debate with readers – when it comes to ways of creating online information, the list is extensive and exciting

 

 

 

 

 

Innovation and the perils of “yes, but…”

There’s an interesting post on the WAN-IFRA blog now, which details are the key attributes of an effective editor, leading at a time of industry disruption.

It’s a subject close to my heart as it was the topic of my MA, and I agree with a lot of the points made by David Boardman, Dean of the School of Media and Communication at Temple University, Philadelphia.

Among the points he lists (and if you want all of ’em, this link takes you to WAN-IFRA’s post) that resonate with me is ‘Practice innovation as a means, not an end’; I completely agree with that, especially if it means the end of the dreaded “yes, but…”.

Most projects involving innovation will need a system of checks and balances, and the voice of a critical friend is often the one you least want to hear but most need to. However, to achieve innovation often means suggesting something you can’t quite articulate – it’s more of an idea-in-progress. Of course, every  now and then ideas spring, Pegasus-like, fully-fledged from someone’s brow but more frequently they venture forth tentatively and are encouraged to grow by the wider collective. In the face of a “yes, but…’ they can flicker and die before they have the chance to fully develop.

Journalists are trained to be questioning skeptics, who often want to analyse things and see the stages along a route. Furthermore, not everyone involved in the gestation of a project will feel able to support a burgeoning idea, sometimes simply because of the stark reality of just getting it out of the starting blocks is so tough. Or perhaps the existing CMS won’t support it. Or maybe it’s summer, and too many people are on holiday. Or… or… or…

And so it goes, as Father Kurt tells us.  

Innovation tends to happen when you can see your end point; the game is getting there.I was taking to Dave Brown of Apposing the other day- a true innovator and entrepreneur, if ever there was one – and he explained his approach was to imagine the desired outcome, and then plot the way towards that. And if something didn’t work, you take a detour around it. Ultimately, the way might not be direct but there is a way, if the idea is worth doing. I like that.

So, because the editors/innovation/disruption discussions looked so good, I grabbed the #editors14 hashtags stream from the World Editors Forum and dropped it into a Tweetdeck column to read at leisure.

I’m not sure what ‘editor’ constitutes for some of the speakers – I wonder if the US speakers are referring to managers with a different responsibility to UK editors, for example – but the message is still pretty clear:

  • Know what you should have knowledge of to fulfil your role
  • Accept what you don’t know and employ smart people who do
  • Be the strongest advocate for digital in your newsroom

Ideas thrive in newsroom cultures that don’t have a lot of truck with “yes but…” and when it comes to changing newsroom cultures, I would suggest an editor needs to be a lot more visible and accessible than ever, so the tentative, half-formed ideas have an advocate higher up the food chain.

If, as a parent, you’re not supposed to have a favourite child, when you edit a title I guess you shouldn’t have a favourite platform. However, if you want to make something succeed you have – in my opinion, at least – to advocate for that thing as hard as you can, doubly so if you’re doing it in the face of doubt or uncertainty.

So when I was an editor, my websites were always my favourite children, not because I didn’t believe in print but because that advocacy was important.

To try and make sure their teams believe, I’d argue editors need to believe twice as hard as anyone else in the newsroom, because the “yes but… [the paper has to come out on time]” and “yes, but…[there aren’t enough staff to do X] are compelling arguments.  They’re just the wrong ones to be having at this late stage in the game.