Social Media Done Right Is Reverse Narcissism

I often get asked to speak to journalists and student groups about social media and how they should be using it.

This is, to say the least, a broad topic. It’s hard to know exactly what to focus on. I’ve taught entire courses on social media and journalism, and although the new social journalism MA program I lead at CUNY is about more than *just* social media – we believe in using all the tools at our disposal to listen to and engage with our communities – our program is infused with the idea that social tools are a great way to connect people and help communities to achieve their goals.

But after thinking about this a lot over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can, in fact, distill the essence of social media for journalists rather simply.

It comes down to getting comfortable with an ethic of sharing and listening. If you don’t want to do that, fine, but frankly, if so, social media is a waste of your time.

But it’s all so narcissistic, gross! Plus, I have nothing to say.

I still hear something along those lines all the time,  even though we’ve generally  gotten past the idea that social media is only about what you had for lunch.

Look, I get it, to a point. We all know one of those people who are still taking duck-lipped selfies in the bathroom long past the age when such “look at me” behavior is at least somewhat understandable. There are numerous examples of people online doing all kinds of stupid, self-aggrandizing things.

But here’s the thing. If you are Doing it Right (imho), social media, especially for journalists and/or journalism academics, is NOT about saying  “look at me!” It’s about sharing, and about having a healthy curiosity about what others share and what you can learn from them. Others have written things along these lines before, but I think it still bears repeating and amplifying, given the amount of misconceptions that abound.

Fundamentally, it’s a mindshift. You are on social media to share stuff that that is genuinely valuable to other people. It makes their lives better or more interesting. You have knowledge that others can use. Every single day, any journalist or professor reads at least one interesting thing. You talk to one interesting person, or even a LOT of interesting people. You have an interesting thought or insight. You see something beautiful or unique. You make a funny.

So, drop into your stream and share it. And spend a few minutes listening and learning from the stuff other people share. Engage with them as relevant. Repeat.

This obviously and naturally means that you are sharing other people’s stuff. This doesn’t mean you can’t share your own work, of course. But if you are *only* using social media to promote your own stuff, you are  spam. I see so many authors, for example, who *only* or almost always tweet about their own books, for example. I love books, and am probably interested in yours. But if that’s *all* you do, you are basically like a telemarketer as far as most people are concerned.

This is not a technical skill. None of these tools are all that hard to use, and unless you have a big budget or a lot of time, no specific targeting tactics or carefully-wrought strategies are going to be all that helpful (I’m talking here about your personal use of social media, here, not that of institutions, which is a different story).

If you do this, the self-promotion and the personal branding and all that stuff people talk about is a natural byproduct. People start to associate you with being a reliable source of info about a few topics, with some humanity thrown in – and even the most serious among us generally prefer to engage with people not brands and enjoy some levity from time to time. It’s just that it has to come from a place of authenticity, rather than a contrived effort to get people to think you are so great, because the latter is just annoying.

And not only can social media be a source of news tips and a way to cultivate sources, it gives you a window into other people’s lives, attitudes, and beliefs that is both fascinating and valuable.

For me – and this may be a byproduct of my nerdiness – I was always doing this kind of thing through a weird compulsion to share things, long before there was social media as we know it today. I was *that person* back in the day that was constantly emailing you with articles I thought were interesting or so enraging that I wanted everybody to know about it, damnit! (Most watchdog journalism gets me pretty riled up.)  Or sending my friends in far-flung places little newsletters with attempts at humor about dumb little things I had done or had happened to me. Hell, I was collecting articles of interest and filing them away for reference when I was kid, before there was an Internet at all. When sites like Twitter and Facebook came along as places to share and connect with others and create a stream of valuable things you had read for future reference, well hot damn, it was perfect!  I’m pretty sure I’d be tweeting away even if not a single person was  paying attention, because doing it is fun  just for myself – a kind of sticker collection for adults, I suppose. Instead of scratch-and-sniff, now we collect experiences and knowledge in an accessible stream we can share with everyone. How awesome is that?


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A resolution for journalism for 2015

Journalists aiming for success in social media in 2015 and beyond need to awaken from their bubble of like-minded media mavens and join digital conversations in ways that enhance authenticity and build trust.

While I love “journalism Twitter” as much as the next person and find it a valuable source of ideas and inspiration, I think Nieman Lab director Joshua Benton is right that “journalists and their audiences often value different things in the news they consume.”

Journalists need to start listening to the communities they plan to serve in much broader and more focused ways and participating in conversations already happening online in ways that add information and insight, rather than simply broadcasting the same messages through new channels or talking amongst themselves. They need to use social media to be transparent about their process in a way that helps reassure a public that currently trusts little about any major institution, much less “the media.” I’ve got my eye on as one great example that may show us the way forward in 2015 on how to do this.

Over and over I hear from journalists that are reluctant to do more than post a few headlines and links on social media because it feels to them like the whole thing smacks of narcissism and self-promotion. I get it, believe me, but I think that gets the whole thing exactly wrong. Participating in the distributed digital conversation *is* about sharing your work as well as some parts of your personality and interests. However, if you are doing it right, it’s not all about you. The mindset should be one in which you are willing to genuinely and openly share your knowledge and ideas, mindful of what might be useful or interesting to others,  and then get some back in return.

This sounds simple and even trite but I think it’s critical and often misunderstood. Think of it this way — lurkers who just read posts but never share anything of their own are just taking and taking from the community but never giving back. I had a former colleague once who prided himself on reading everything in my Twitter feed and that of others but never posted himself. While I always argue to my students that listening is more important than talking, this felt voyeuristic and strange to me. If, as a journalist, you really don’t believe that the things you are uncovering and reading and learning on the job aren’t worth sharing, you are in the wrong profession.

Equally perplexing, however, was one journalist that recently told me about Twitter: “I never actually read my feed anymore.” Social media is a rich resource for reporting, and even if it’s only for a few minutes each day, these tools should be helpful for getting all kinds of perspectives that the traditional media Rolodex (remember those??) of typically old white men in power didn’t offer access to.  If tragic events and the resulting outrage in places like Ferguson, MO have taught us nothing else, it is that there are any number of important issues simmering in many communities that have been historically undercovered in mainstream media that are now finally getting a larger voice. Best we listen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Social journalism is here and coming at you in January 2015!

It is official: The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism is launching a new Social Journalism Master’s degree program in January. On October 15, we got official approval from the state of New York to launch this program, so now we are moving fast to process applications and enroll a new class to begin soon.

As the brand new director of the program, I’m still trying to get everything figured out, but I’m pretty thrilled.

Here’s what I think is cool about this degree. I suppose you can dismiss this as as shameless self-promotion, but for real:

  • We are trying to reinvent journalism for the digital age and inject a much-needed mindset that envisions journalism as a service, not a product, with a relentless focus on engaging communities. At the end of the day, if what animates you is a passionate belief that journalism is vitally important to a functioning democracy, the only way we can hope to sustain it is to keep finding new ways to ensure that we can find audiences for our work and sustain it financially. It’s pretty simple, but that’s what I keep coming back to, over and over, throughout my career: Invent or die.
  • While I don’t think everything we are proposing is completely “new,” there is no doubt that we are not seeing large-scale execution of these concepts in the profession today. Many of the core ideas of social journalism have long philosophical roots and are tied to earlier efforts to improve journalism and its connection with its readers. But, even as more and more journalists have adopted social media and other digital tools, many still do so with a “broadcasting what we think you need to know” mentality. There are many notable pioneers in social journalism who are constantly finding new ways to engage audiences, but we need to help spread their techniques much more broadly.
  • As heart-warming as all this “serving-your-community” stuff is to do-gooders like me, evidence is mounting that this is all critical to the bottom line. Researchers like my friend Doreen Marchionni have learned that readers expect and demand interactivity and that conversation builds credibility and trust. Big brands are capitalizing on things like native content and using the same terms, like “engagement,” as crucial metrics because they give you more bang for your buck than pageviews.

CUNY sign

  • Jobs. Few things are more satisfying as a professor than seeing your students get jobs. Especially cool, interesting jobs. We’ve been told by both well-established traditional media organizations and startups that these are skills they prize and are often hard to find. For example, Meg Pickard, who helped to establish the Guardian’s leadership in interactivity and now is a consultant to the industry, told us that in her seven years of hiring, she found that direct experience with communities is missing from the talent pool. Since I started working here, I’ve gotten many emails or direct messages from employers that are ready to hire our graduates.
  • CUNY Graduate School of Journalism brings together a lot of folks with seriously impressive traditional journalistic chops and an experimental, entrepreneurial mindset.  I mean,  I’m new, I’m not totally biased yet – this isn’t just marketing. I’ve long thought journalism schools need to be leaders, not followers, in helping the industry know what it needs, given that overall in academia, we have lower risk. That is what CUNY aspires to do. And as a newcomer to New York myself, I can say these are the kinds of people you dream of learning from, not to mention that we are able to draw adjuncts and guest speakers from the many major media organizations and technology and social media companies that call this place home. Heck, we are practically next door to the New York Times!

All of this is what made me bid adieu to tenure at the University of Memphis. I think this is going to be a great ride at a place where your professors want to work with you rather than just talking at you about creating the future of news. As Amanda Zamora of ProPublica put it:

“That is why I’m in journalism, is to tell stories that need to be told, elevate voices that need to be heard, and I really want us to be talking about using social, using technology, using the internet to tell stories and accomplish some of these things, and not just focus on metrics and chasing our tails.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Upcoming #Edshift Chat on Social Journalism: How Can We Recast Journalism as a Service?”

On Oct 3 at Noon Central/1p  Eastern, #EdShift (part of PBS MediaShift) is going to host a chat on “Social journalism: How can we recast journalism as a service and make it more responsive to communities?” It’s obviously promotional for our new initiative at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism to some extent, but really we want to talk about the larger issues raised by this idea, and how we can best prepare students for a landscape in which they will need to go beyond just creating content to connecting people with each other, engaging in conversation, producing tangible impact, etc.
If you’d like to be a participant, let me know in the comments or via Twitter. It is all pretty informal, but I’ll be hosting and we are lining up some folks in advance. Also, feel free to share with others that might want to participate, pros and academics welcome.
Some questions I’m hoping to cover, but open to ideas:
  • What  skills/knowledge journalism do students need to help communities meet their goals…
  • What are the best digital tools we can use build stronger relationships with our audience?
  • What are some of the challenges involved or obstacles?
  • How can we become better informed of communities needs and often neglected voices?
  • …and more

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Meaningful content with lasting value and engagement

For this round of the Carnival of Journalism blog fest, my friend and research buddy Jonathan Groves posed the following questions: How do you define meaningful content that has long-lasting value? What is the best way to evaluate content that fosters deep engagement with the audience? Groves wants to find a way to go beyond just “immediacy” to properly value pieces of content  with “longevity” that people return to repeatedly for connection, reference, or enjoyment.

First of all, I think that in order to increase the longevity of a meaningful piece of journalism, you’ve got to surface it for your readers at the right time, in the right way. A lot of that comes down to creating better systems for tagging and organizing content. For example, in the New York Times Innovation Report, they discussed the value in being able to do things like sort recipes by cooking time, restaurants reviews by geolocation, and similar. It’s difficult and time consuming to do this after the fact, they point out, so having a good CMS and established processes that make it a priority to do so at the time of publication are important. There is great potential here that remains untapped, even at well-resourced news organizations like the NYT.

I think Groves is right that not all of this kind of oft-returned to content has to be quite so utilitarian as recipes or restaurant reviews, although that’s an obvious place to start. What about investigative pieces that are relevant to a particular place? What about pieces that could resonate during certain events or milestones, like graduations, weddings, holidays, festivals etc.? I think there is a way to give many well-reported, well-written stories much longer lives, but it starts with making them easily findable, both through search and serendipity.

Second of all, I’m increasingly convinced that it’s less about choosing any one particular “golden” metric that will help us to quantify quality or impactful or engaging content, and more about being smarter and more sophisticated about the way we think and talk about the constellation of metrics available to us – and especially the story we as journalists tell advertisers.

I’m not an expert in advertising, but from talking to newsroom leaders at API’s Research Advisory Board meeting in February, what I understand is that right now advertisers  are also trying to parse the effectiveness of rapidly changing digital and mobile strategies. I have often heard that most advertisers don’t think click-through-rate is a great metric but continue to use it because they aren’t yet sure about  alternatives. I think journalists need to make a stronger case for higher ad rates on the basis of being associated with quality content and venerable media brands, especially on mobile. There’s nothing new about wanting to be associated with a credible brand, of course – it’s never been “only” about the volume of eyeballs. But it seems as though in the “Wild West” of trying to understand mobile and digital metrics we’ve been distracted from emphasizing these fundamentals.

For example, in her book “Saving Community Journalism,” Penelope Abernathy argues that publishers need to move from selling space to selling solutions to advertisers. She notes that a lot of the growth in digital advertising in recent years has come from search, which is all about helping consumers find products they are already inclined to purchase, but that “historically, advertising has served many other functions, from creating demand for a product to reinforcing the loyalty of customers.” She argues that newspapers should aggressively re-position themselves as a cross-platform medium that can provide ALL of those functions to the advertiser.

Similarly, the recently published API report on mobile argues that advertisers buy audiences rather than publications and that publishers need to think more creatively about cross-platform possibilities to provide useful services to people and capitalize on their unique strengths.

Maybe I’m too far off the topic of specific metrics, but I think it’s not so much about numbers, but about the stories they help us to tell about the kinds of people who read a publication, how they feel about it, how loyal they are, etc. and what that means for your credibility as a news organization and your ability to charge enough for your ads to sustain yourself.

Finally, I’m curious to follow the Financial Times’ recen t decision to move from CPMs to “time spent” going forward. They feel this metric will better value their highly engaged audience. As Sam Petulla writes for Contently:

This strategic shift is part of the broader vision that the The Financial Times sees for the future of advertising. [Commercial Director of Digital Advertising]  Slade said that The Financial Times wants to distinguish every aspect of their brand through quality, and using time as an advertising currency fits that mission perfectly.





Filed under Uncategorized


A few weeks ago I came across this piece in Harvard Business Review imploring companies to embrace questions like: “Why are we doing it this way? Is there a better approach?” For some reason – maybe just my usual end-of-semester frustration – this one really hit home with me. The essence, when you get right down to it, of being able to adapt to change, to constantly improve, to be the “best you can be, whee!” is to:

Question all the things


In journalism, even the most traditional of our institutions are all about “experimentation” these days as they seek to evolve and remain relevant and viable businesses:  the New York Times Innovation Report mentions this several times; Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron told all of us at ISOJ in Austin that it’s a major goal of his newsroom. Most experiments begin, fundamentally, with a question, and an atmosphere that welcomes it.

A willingness let go of:  “This is the way we’ve been doing things for 20 years — who are you to second-guess us?”

One might think the spirit of inquiry is endemic to the academic mission, but one would be wrong. Even as our sector, much like the media, stands ripe for disruption, I’ve never worked in another field in which one is more likely to see resistance to even the slightest threat to the status quo. An article in the New York Times today on G.M.’s years-long failure to fix a deadly safety issue in its cars described the “G.M. nod” – aka “the nod as an empty gesture.” While thankfully most of the issues I deal with don’t have life or death consequences, I’m often amazed by how questions are met with just that kind of passive resistance.

I use theories of organizational culture in my research, and I’m well aware of how defensive mechanisms get triggered and how and why resistance to change occurs. But I wonder if something as simple as encouraging people to always question how they could do things better  and rewarding them for doing so would be a great first step toward building an experimental culture.

There’s always a better way to tell that story. There’s always a more efficient process. There’s always a new reporting technique. There’s always a better way to teach a course. There are always questions. Maybe it’s a wholesale overhaul, maybe it’s a tweak, but there’s always something that could be improved or better understood.

In many ways, I think being able to question is also what allows us to be satisfied and feel our work has meaning. Instead of simply pointing out what we are doing wrong, bosses that encourage questioning such as “How could we do this better?”  are not only more supportive but produce the kind of atmosphere in which everyone is working collectively to come up with creative solutions to problems rather than just slinging the blame around. I find questioning invigorating and intellectually satisfying, personally, whereas when somebody just tells me something I do isn’t good enough, I get defensive and angry.

Entrepreneurs know this – this is why many tech startups are constantly engaging in A/B testing and other ways of answering their questions. For example, in his book,  The Lean Startup, Eric Ries talks about using the “Five Whys” to evolve processes. When confronted with a problem, he writes, ask “why” five times, and you will often uncover the root of the problem.

The Harvard Business Review piece points out it’s also no good to say to people who have asked a good question and uncovered a problem: Now it’s your job to fix it – without any new resources and in addition to your regular job. That will shut everybody down and create frustration real quick. People need time and space to question effectively.

George Carlin knew about questioning, too:





Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Culture change at the NYT: A look at the Innovation Report

The relentless work of assembling the world’s best news report can also be a form of laziness, because it is work that is comfortable and familiar to us, that we know how to do. And it allows us to avoid the truly hard work and bigger questions about our present and our future: What shall we become? How must we change?” 

Resistance to change. It never ceases to amaze me how disruption prompts strikingly similar reactions across organizations and industries….change is constant, but human nature is far less mutable. In our research on newsrooms from the Christian Science Monitor to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to a smaller local daily and others, Jonathan Groves of Drury University and I heard almost exactly the same things the NYT Innovation Report chronicled in its interviews with staff (although to be sure, our research participants could scarcely have even contemplated the resources at the Times’ disposal –  445 engineers in its Technology Department?! Holy crap.)

And this is why I decided to study organizational change in the first place: In the first class I took with Dr. Michael Diamond at the University of Missouri, I was bouncing out of my chair (yeah, I’m a nerd) with recognition at how well theories of organizational culture and learning helped explain the things I had heard and seen in newsrooms across the country.

NYT newsroom

NYT newsroom

The NYT Innovation Report is well worth the time to read, and not just for news nerds, but for any newsroom ready to think seriously about innovation and how to overcome its roadblocks. It offers a pretty good diagnosis of the problems most newsrooms face and some excellent, specific solutions. I agree with Joshua Benton at Nieman Lab who called itone of the key documents of this media age…an astonishing look inside the culture change still needed in the shift to digital, even in one of the world’s greatest newsrooms.”

To some degree this is a shameless plug, but it fits so well I have to do it: Groves and I are working on a book that essentially hopes to help newsrooms respond to the clarion call issued by this report to develop an aggressively digital-first, experimental culture. To ruthlessly examine print-based traditions, routines, and processes with an eye toward radical restructuring. To step back from the daily demands to develop a forward-thinking strategy that allows for better prioritization of work and coordination of effort.

We hope to use more than eight years of our own research and the theories and insights of people who have studied organizational change across many industries to offer some actionable guidance on how to do these things.

Best recommendations in the report

A number of the reports recommendations are consistent with what Groves and I would suggest based on what we have learned:

  • Examine reward systems carefully to determine if the behavior leaders are encouraging are consistent with their espoused digital priorities or long-standing underlying assumptions. Sadly but not surprisingly, Page One still exerts what the report calls a “gravitational pull” on the newsroom and is heavily used in performance reviews, even as reporters and editors remain unsure if social media “counts as doing work or avoiding it.”   Leaders can talk all day about “digital-first,” and they do, but all people hear is “blah, blah, blah” if they know what”really” matters is something else.
  • Leadership is critical. It matters that most promotions seem to be going to people with more traditional print skills, even as digital types feel their skills are marginalized and they are treated more as “order-takers.” Change starts at the top. Groves and I also found that in newsrooms big and small, one of the main things people are looking for is some specific guidance on what their priorities should be. Even curmudgeons are more willing to change than you might expect, but when you tell people the current priority is “mobile” or “video” but they don’t hear any specifics about what is desired, they go back to doing what they know. As one desk head put it in the report: “We do respond, but it is a matter of shifting our burdens.
  • Build that culture of experimentation. In our book we hope to apply some of the lessons of The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and those of other entrepreneurs to newsrooms, all of which dovetail nicely with academic theories of organizational learning. The Innovation Report gets it right when it says “experimentation is about adopting a rigorous, scientific method for proving new concepts and constantly tweaking them to be as successful as possible.” It is also dead on when it talks about pushing back against perfectionism and releasing new products quickly and then iterating as they learn from users. Increasingly journalists’ competitors are the likes of Google and Facebook, which are relentless when it comes to A/B testing and other experimental methods. One person said in the report:  “Currently, the risk of failing greatly outweighs the reward of succeeding at the New York Times.” This needs to change if you want people to try new things and learn from them.
  • The need for better communication can’t be overstated. Reader data and lessons extracted from successes and failures must be shared. If people don’t even know where to begin when they want to collaborate with somebody with different expertise,  that’s a huge problem for any organization. The report’s suggestions on creating contact lists and having more open meetings and emails lists are excellent.
  • Collaborate with the business side and get rid of useless metaphors like “The Wall.” Journalism’s finest stalwarts like Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel were talking about getting rid of these even back in ~2001, because at the end of the day, everyone should be working toward the same goals. Great journalism that doesn’t get read or can’t support itself can’t do all that important democracy stuff we all care so much about. It actually really kind of pisses me off that even in 2014, even incredibly smart people like those at the New York Times don’t seem to realize the rich trove of information folks on the business side of the organization have about readers. These are people, and lots of them, who spend ALL DAY talking to readers, interviewing them, doing focus groups, surveys, etc., but the newsroom basically doesn’t communicate with them at all?? All our journalistic talk of “public service” is a wee bit hypocritical if we have no interest in what our readers want and need, and I agree with those in the report that suggest it’s a bit precious and overly dramatic to suggest that all such information will lead immediately to cat GIFs and bikini models. The report also makes the good point that in the past, the business side was mostly focused on advertisers, but today, with that increasingly becoming a smaller and smaller piece of the revenue bundle, everybody in the organization is more squarely focused on serving readers. Startups place high value on understanding their customers and that’s partly what allows them to iterate quickly in a fast-changing landscape.
  • Critical evaluation of process and structure and workflow. These things matter and are currently heavily steeped in print tradition.
  • Change is constant. That’s why building a culture of learning and experimentation, as previously noted, is so important. I really like this: “Build the newsroom out of Legos, not bricks,” because the structure may need to change. “Too often, we’ve made changes and then breathed sighs of relief, as if the challenge had been solved. But the pace of change is so fast that solutions can quickly seem out of date, and the next challenge is right around the corner.”
  • Researchers like Doreen Marchionni of Pacific Lutheran have been building up a mass of evidence that the report is correct in arguing that readers increasingly expect connection, two-way conversation, and participation. The report has a lot of great suggestions on how the paper can do that without sacrificing its reputation for quality and careful vetting. I especially like this insight:  “The first step is getting more comfortable with the idea of pulling back the curtain and providing readers with a bit more insight into how we do our work, which will only deepen their connection to it.” I also like the idea of expanding op-eds and developing that part of the paper as a place for sophisticated, expert conversation about ideas. The Times has a great advantage there in that it has the kind of brand people are eager to be associated with, making it easier for it to be more than a troll playground.

Why can’t people just get it already?

New York Times journalist and developer Derek Willis expressed some frustration about some of the report’s findings via Twitter. He said, among other similar things: “You cannot convince me that my very smart & talented colleagues can’t learn about new things & new tools. But they have to *want* to.” I suspect many other of the more digitally-savvy people who read the report wondered that at times as well. 

On a personal level, I agree. I spend a disproportionate amount of my time banging my head into a brick wall because many smart people with advanced degrees in my own organization dig their heels in at change. I’m in the category of people who basically can’t imagine NOT wanting to learn, iterate, try a different way of doing something, etc. I find it baffling.

But another thing we learned from scholars like Diamond who take what is called a “psychodynamic approach” to looking at organizational change is that people’s defensive reactions are deeply embedded in individual and group psychology. People are shaped by their past relationships and experiences, and not always in rational ways. I think we all have a tendency to assume that our interpretations of statements and events are more universal than they actually are.

In newsrooms we’ve studied, there is a tendency to assume that resistance to change is mostly occurring at the individual level  rather than structurally, when it is actually happening at both. The structural barriers come up over and over and over again in similar patterns because they are real, and people are also wired differently. In most newsrooms today there is an overall, if grudging, acceptance of the need to change, but some people will take easily to experimentation and others will be more comfortable with guidance, specifics, rules. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating for people like me who want change to happen already, but we either have to face this reality or launch our own startup (I’m starting to thing the latter is a great idea, BTW).

This is where academic theory becomes practical: It helps us understand some of the triggers for defensive reactions, allowing organizations to remove barriers to change. It helps identify all the ways in which leaders may be sending mixed messages or working at cross purposes in ways that undermine their stated goals or intentions.


Filed under Uncategorized

ISOJ 2014 Highlights: Building an Experimental Culture for News

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to return to Austin for this year’s International Symposium of Online Journalism, always my favorite conference. My biggest takeaway was perhaps a selfish one, given that my research buddy Jonathan Groves of Drury University and I are working on a book bringing together about eight years of our research on newsrooms to help news organizations develop experimental, learning cultures. At ISOJ it came across clearly that from our most venerable legacy brands to new media upstarts, experimentation is a priority for today’s journalists.

For example, I was thrilled to hear Washington Post editor Marty Baron discuss his overall  optimism for the news business and his description of his efforts to foster an experimental culture by encouraging people to try new things and rewarding them for it.  Specifically, Baron noted that the Post has made an effort to expand its video content, and that they have learned that explainer video and video attached to news events works better for them than live video.  He  his encouraged by what they have found out so far, but noted that they remain in “the mode of experimentation” in which some things just won’t work, “and we aren’t embarrassed by it. I think of a scientist in a laboratory.” Exactly. This is what giants like Google and Amazon do – and is a big piece of their digital success. Caroline Little, president and CEO at Newspaper Association of America, also noted in her talk: “If people aren’t experimenting, we are never going to get there.”


Daniel Eilemberg, senior vice president, chief digital officer at Fusion, a new cable and digital content platform and joint venture between Disney and Univison, also talked about building a data-driven learning culture. He said: Our goal is to produce more content, test it….and then continue to invest in things that really resonate. Bring to the screen content that already has an audience from digital.

And even when new ventures do fail, or perhaps more accurately, are killed before they are given a chance to succeed: Jim Brady, one of my favorite journalists to hear from, and, sadly, soon-to-be-formerly of Digital First Media, noted that the demise of Thunderdome is NOT a bellweather that means we can’t do innovation in newsrooms. Much was learned, and the battle goes on.

Jim Bankoff , chairman and CEO at Vox Media, also verified the importance of culture, although he said it was one reason why he left legacy media to help start something new. In his view, you need the kind of experimental culture and financial commitment that many in traditional media may say they want, but when push comes to shove: Don’t. Other interesting highlights:

  • Bankoff of Vox also noted that that his company continues to hire passionate experts on a given topic and said that their revenues are growing at a rapid rate, roughly doubling year over year; they are operating at about even right now, and they expect to be profitable later this year. Huzzah!  
  • Loved hearing John Keefe, senior editor for Data News & Journalism Technology at WNYC talk about Arudinos and all of the creative projects he has led using these small, programmable computers. For example, many have probably heard about the cool cicada project they did in which 800 people made a simple device to measure soil temperature, predicting when cicadas would emerge. Keefe also was wearing a hoodie that pulsed with a heart monitor, and talked about a device he built for his wife – it was her idea, he swears! – to track her monthly cycle. Keefe learned how to do all of this cool stuff basically just by Googling it. Pushing the frontiers of journalism FTW!
  • Fun fact about Google Glass from Tim Pool, producer at Vice Media – while it’s good for taking and publishing quick photos during a breaking news situation, it overheats quickly when used for live broadcasting. Yikes. Pool also talked about, launching soon: With one touch it will allow you to add location and your logo to your photos.
  • Matt Waite, professor of practice at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of Journalism Drone Lab, FLEW A DRONE for us. Need I say more? Drones clearly have many exciting possibilities for journalism, but Waite pointed out that the legal environment is currently very unsettled – “this is a $500 constitutional challenge in a box,” he said. Will be interesting to see how that plays out. Waite noted that drones DO pose safety issues – those blades are sharp – but not to aircraft, given how low drones fly.
  • Discussions of journalism ethics can get pedantic. Refreshing take from  John Cook, editor-in-chief at First Look Media’s digital magazine Intercept: While we are all as human beings bound by basic ethical precepts such as honesty,  the ethics as applied on a professional level to journalists have been used to keep people out of the priesthood. This was echoed by New York University professor Jay Rosen, who noted that people can use ethics to “escape their anxieties” about new things and City University London professor Jane Singer, who noted that when new technologies come along, journalists stretch to find a reason not to get out of their comfort zones. Great exemplary quote from a US magazine journalist she interviewed in her research: “Blogging is little more than hype dished out largely by the unemployable to the aimless.”
  • Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a new book coming out called “Saving Newspapers” that sounds good.  Her key takeaways when it comes to pursuing new revenue: Advertisers are confused and look to news companies for answers. Come up with a rate card that encourages advertisement across mediums. Have a compensation system that rewards people who prospect and a good digital sales training system.
  • Jay Rosen was big-time preaching to at least this crowd of one when he said: Journalism schools allowed the teaching of practice and the making of academic knowledge by PhDs to evolve away from one another. Bad decision. YES,  INDEED. Philosophically, I am also a pragmatist, which, as Rosen said, means we believe knowledge advances when we try to improve things.  I agree that we need to put everybody we can to work on the problems of practice, and that we shouldn’t just be training grounds for future journalists but also as an R&D wing for newsrooms.
  • If you aren’t aware of startups like Homicide Watch and Policy Mic – you should be. Their passionate founders will restore any lost hope you had for journalism. For example, Jake Horowitz, editor-in-chief and co-founder at PolicyMic, argued that contrary to popular belief, young people DO care about news. They just need sites like his that know how to make the news relevant, and that a news site is only as good as its distribution channels.
  • Also from Baron:  The Washington Post is hiring three dozen people this year alone. Doesn’t count people  in business and technology. WOW. Thank you, Bezos, sir.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Enhancing engagement and a culture of experimentation

Increasing engagement remains a key priority for newsrooms today, and was another topic of focus at the American Press Institute’s Research Advisory Group’s meeting in February in Miami (I wrote about mobile earlier on this blog).

Engagement, while notoriously hard to define,  is conceived by most in journalism as some combination of as loyalty, stickiness, and/or a consumer’s likelihood to interact with and share the brand’s content. While many news organizations have slowly but surely become better at garnering pageviews, they increasingly recognize that this is a difficult game to maintain and that they ultimately can’t compete on volume with tech titans. Instead, they are looking to bolster ad rates and/or subscriptions by boosting metrics tied to engagement.

View from meeting hotel...not bad.

View from meeting hotel…not bad.

Two things stood out to me in the discussion on engagement at the meeting among some of the smartest journalism academics and professionals I’ve seen in the same room in a long time. The first was the need to create a culture of experimentation in newsrooms. This is close to my heart as somebody who studies organizational culture and change in newsrooms as well as how journalists can learn from startups to become more agile and improve their ability to learn and adapt quickly.

Lisa George, an economist at Hunter College, noted that at tech giants like Yahoo, they are running around 100 experiments at any given time, trying to find out how they can make the user experience better and get people to stay around. This was echoed by Matt Hindman, associate professor at George Washington University, who discussed how Google constantly uses A/B testing to measure ways to maximize stickiness, and recommended that news organizations conduct more robust user tracking and test multiple site versions. As I’ve become more immersed in startup culture through my teaching, I’ve learned how critical the build-measure-test cycle is to some of the most successful and fast-growing technology and information businesses. Other academics like Steve Lacy of Michigan State also noted the importance of getting more longitudinal data.

For example, one of the key insights from this kind of constant testing by Google is that even small differences in loading speed make a massive difference when it comes to stickiness. Small variations can compound quickly over time. Hindman said that Google’s first foray into A/B testing involved trying to determine the ideal number of search results to return for a query. They found that because giving more results increased load times, they saw as much as a 25 percent drop in traffic over six weeks if they offered 30 results instead of 20. George similarly said that even an additional half-second of load time is incredibly important to user experience: “How quickly can I find what I’m looking for?” is a critical factor for information seekers.

The second thing that stuck out to me was what academics do know about stickiness, in addition to the previously mentioned insight on load time – although it should be noted that all were quick to point out that these factors are always dynamic.  Hindman said that personalized content recommendations and sign design, usability, and aesthetics are the other key ways to keep digital visitors staying longer. More specifically, he said that news sites in search of boosting stickiness should consider: 1)More stories 2)More frequently updated 3)SEO and social media optimization 4)Headline testing 5)High-immediacy content (e.g. live blogs) 6)Affective content 7)Computerized story prospecting 8)Utilization of the news brand/individual journalist brand.

Of course, at the end of the day, these research-based insights are only as good as the ability to execute on them, as Lacy pointed out – and that, I think, is where those of us interested in how to galvanize change might come in.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Mobile Isn’t “Coming.” It’s Already HERE

Jim Brady, editor-in-chief of Digital First Media, gave me the idea for title of  this post at the American Press Institute’s Research Advisory Board meeting on February 10 in Miami, effectively summing up the strongest theme I heard that day from top editors at the nation’s leading newspapers.  Figuring out how to serve audiences’ mobile needs and build sustainable revenue streams from doing so is overwhelmingly top of mind for most news organizations today. Because it has to be.

Today’s news organizations are seeing explosive growth in the amount of their traffic that comes from mobile devices. At the Boston Globe, for some hours of the day, it’s over 50 percent, according to Senior Product Manager Damon Kiesow. Brady described similar statistics at many of the newspapers in the Digital First Media chain, and noted how quickly the numbers have risen even just over the past year.  At the New York Times, mobile traffic is more than one-third, and spikes during breaking news events, editors from that paper said. All of this points to another wave of disruption that may affect the news industry much as the web did.

The problem, of course, is all too familiar. Mobile advertising revenue remains abysmal. Meeting attendees largely agreed that news organizations need to do the following: Create a solid case to convince advertisers to pay higher rates for mobile ads appearing with their engaging, credible content; develop new kinds of mobile-friendly advertising products or models, such as content marketing; and/or create mobile products so crucial to users  that they will pay for them.

Miami, not a bad location for a meeting in February

Miami, not a bad location for a meeting in February

The first step is understanding emerging news consumption behavior on mobile and how it meshes with other things users do with their device. For example, Brian Brett of the NYT said that they are increasingly seeing more scanning and “snacking” behavior on mobile and are trying to understand how that may change the meaning or form of news.  Brady and Gregory Moore, editor of the Denver Post, agreed that news organizations are swimming in data, but they often lack the tools or knowledge to parse the data into actionable strategy and to predict where things are going so that they can get ahead of the curve. They looked to us researchers at the meeting, like Esther Thorson, associate dean at the Missouri School of Journalism, to plan new studies that will help editors better understand the data they have, identify clusters of users, their needs/interests, and how their mobile behavior may change in different circumstances. Longitudinal data is needed to be predictive.

Another key insight from Brian Brett at the NYT is that currently advertisers are buying audiences not environments, and news producers need to convince them to do the opposite. Even with their mobile growth, news organizations can’t compete with the Googles and Yahoos of the world when it comes to pure volume. They need to make the case for higher CPMs based on the quality of the content and the brand that the advertisements will be surrounded by. The latter is obviously not a new idea by any means; for example, UNC’s Phil Meyer wrote about the “influence model” in his book The Vanishing Newspaper in 2004,  or the idea that a newspaper’s main product is societal and commercial influence, in which the former enhances the value of the latter. But as Brady points out, newsrooms have, in recent years, been on the race for pageviews at all costs, and this may have done damage to their influence, not to mention the journalism and the audience experience.

In many ways, the challenge comes down to identifying valuable metrics besides page views and helping journalists figure out how to monetize loyalty rather than chasing traffic, an imperative that many people have discussed in future-of-news circles. Several meeting attendees said that advertisers are coming to think that Click Through Rate is an awful measurement, but they continue to use it without an obvious alternative; some noted that academics could play a leadership role in helping the ad industry understand why they should use better measurements such as attachment to a news brand, which can be linked with propensity to buy. Rachel Davis Mersey of Northwestern, who  has expertise in studying identity, gave the example of Fox News, a company that is very good at attracting advertisers because it can show that whatever it advertises, viewers are into it – the same basic principle as celebrity endorsement. Having a formalized relationship with subscribers can be be a unique selling proposition.

A few other items discussed/suggested:

  • Newspapers should partner with creative local ad agencies, Thorson said. They understand mobile better than most.
  • What would cause the mobile consumer to just buy a product right there, on their phone, immediately after seeing an ad or a coupon, Moore wondered. This means understanding different levels of comfort among consumers in terms of willingness to buy online.
  • Could reading the paper be a kind of membership like you get at Costco? You get access to certain sales/products?
  • Brett observed that in some ways mobile is not a new channel, it is a  horizontal disruptor. A lot of people are using their devices from their couch, meaning that sometimes it’s not location that is the most relevant difference about consumption.

Bottom line: Don’t make the same mistakes of 10 to 15 years ago when it comes to dealing with disruptive technology.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized