Two Steps To Success: Ride the Google Wave, Then Focus On Longer-Form Quality

This post is a response to the February  Journalism Carnival, which asked us: “What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead? And how do you see it playing out in terms of application by journalists, and impact?”

I already did a little prognosticating just a couple of months ago over at Nieman Lab, but here’s a somewhat half-formed  idea I’ve been playing around with in my head and talking about with my research buddy, Jonathan Groves of Drury University.  I don’t have any hard data on this yet. But here’s one possible “digital trend” we could see developing…

Recently, there have been a number of encouraging pieces like this and this suggesting that long-form, serious journalism on the web, or on the tablet as the case may be, is thriving. Exciting, almost too-good-to-be-true for democracy-depends-on-journalism nerds like me.

What I’m wondering, though, is if news organizations have to go through a series of  stages in order to find success with serious, hard-hitting, longer reads on the web.  Sure, some sites like the Atavist may be able to bypass a step, but maybe most news organziations have to do some hardcore SEO, shorter pieces, aggregation, and other aggressive page-view garnering tactics first, before you can move into the second stage where your longer pieces get traction online.

Bear in mind again I’m just speculating here.

Groves and I did a study at the Christian Science Monitor, which eliminated its daily print edition a couple of years ago, going not only Web-first but Web-only, although they do still have a magazine-like print weekly. The Monitor aggressively used SEO techniques, shortened their stories, increased their updating frequency, and monitored Google Trends in order to assign stories on popular newsy search topics, and  was able to quickly reach a goal of increasing their page views from just three million to 25 million by 2010. Just the other day a non-journalist friend of mine who has never heard of the Monitor sent me a story from it she had found via searching Google for stories about the then-hot Komen vs. Planned Parenthood story; it was one of the top results. I’m pretty sure she never would have come across one of their stories before the transition. Not only are they boosting page views, they are increasing their brand awareness as a place to go to for important news. If the Monitor would have kept doing exactly what they were doing, just repurposing print content for the web, I’m not sure they would still even be a player in the space, regardless of how much great journalism they are doing, even though these tactics caused understandable anxiety for many staffers and journalism lovers alike.

But once your brand has been established as a web player, can you then start to focus on doing the kind of stuff journalists do best,  more in-depth reporting? Do sites like Slate and the Atlantic have success with long-form because they’ve already established themselves as web-savvy?

Sometimes I think we want a one-size-fits-all, linear solution to the tumult in the news business when the the real “answer,” such that it is, is that you have to walk before you can run, and that your transition for success SHOULD, and indeed must, have a lot of pivots in it, as most good entrepreneurial thinkers know.  It reminds me of teaching beginning news reporting. I don’t want my students to only know how to write boring, inverted pyramid, formulaic, inside-baseball news stories. But I’ve learned from experience it is hard to teach them how to break the rules until they’ve learned the rules in the first place. Somehow, learning to write the most basic, simple story launches you into a space in which you can then start doing some more interesting things as a reporter and a writer. Some times you have to learn a certain skill – how to be smart on the web – before you can start creatively melding that skill with some of your higher values of investigative journalism. You have to experiment and learn some of the rules and norms of a new medium and get out of your comfort zone while doing it, and then you can move forward from there.

Every time I write a blog post, I think, well, that was not as profound as it seemed when I first had the thought. But anyway, I wonder if that is one “digital trend” we will see in the future – a kind of two-step process to great web journalism.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Two Steps To Success: Ride the Google Wave, Then Focus On Longer-Form Quality

  1. Interesting – I think a bit of what you’re saying is laid out here – http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/01/david-skok-aggregation-is-deep-in-journalisms-dna/ – apparently, Time started out as a print aggregator. And the two-step process does seem to be working for Salon and Buzzfeed, so it is refreshing to think that their time spend chasing pageviews was not a waste.

  2. mediatrope

    Agreed. Thanks for writing this. I never understood this mentality that THIS thing or THAT thing is going to save the industry. It’s all about a process of development and not about a miracle drug.

  3. John Hill

    Well said! I’m reminded too of the “Panorama” issue published a year (or more) ago by McSweeney’s in which they took a stab at rethinking the newspaper. They asked themselves: what is it that print can do better than digital? The obvious answer: well-written, long-form stories, but also big images and killer graphics. Oh, and comics, lots of them. Of course, one also has to have, or make, the time to read and ponder all of that great content, and that’s another issue and therein lies a big challenge for all of us in this fast-paced, hyperlinked, socialized world.

  4. I also focused on a resurgence (or web-emergence) of long-form journalism as an emerging (for this month’s #JCarn)

    I there there’s a real opportunity for serious journalistic organizations to take existing short or breaking content, rework, repackage, curate, provide context and then use the beauty of the Internet (no news hole, links, etc.) to share and build an audience of serious readers.

    I also see that individuals may take these same tools and bypass the “professional” journalists to create their own long-form stories.

    http://benfranklinfollies.com/2012/02/the-resurgence-of-long-form-journalism/

  5. Pingback: The Resurgence of Long-Form Journalism | The Ben Franklin Follies

  6. changingnewsroom

    Thank you. Dani, thanks for that article – I often read Nieman Lab, but I missed that one, and you are right, it is on the same wavelength. I didn’t think to connect it with innovator’s dilemma, but that makes a lot of sense.

  7. Great post, Brown. One great example of this strategy is ProPublica, which also adds smart media partnerships (with This American Life, the New York Times and others) to the mix to help boost its credibility and reach. It does great short pieces on timely topics as well as the type of investigative journalism — such as the Magentar story (http://j.mp/9OLEPf) — worthy of the Pulitzer Prize.

  8. “But I’ve learned from experience it is hard to teach them how to break the rules until they’ve learned the rules in the first place.” – your quote brings to mind one of B. Dylan’s that I really like: “But to live outside the law, one must be honest.” Thanks for your insight.

  9. changingnewsroom

    Love that Bob Dylan quote, Pam!

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