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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.


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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.



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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.


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Design Thinking and Journalism: A Vital Match in Changing Times

This post is part of the Carnival of Journalism monthly blog conversation. Big thanks to University of Reno journalism professor Donica Mensing for posing a great question this round: Have you applied design thinking in your work? Has it been useful? Why or why not? 

I learned about design thinking only recently at the Memphis Innovation Bootcamp last fall, but it has had a major impact on both my research and teaching, dovetailing well with my interest in journalism innovation, organizational change, and media entrepreneurship.

#jpreneur students doing design thinking exercise at Crews Center

#jpreneur students doing design thinking exercise at Crews Center

Like any other process or tool, design thinking is not an end-all, be-all, but it’s valuable for journalism innovators for the following reasons: 1)For a long time, journalism was dominated by the ethos “the editor knows best, and will tell you what is important for you to know,” which often extended beyond standard news judgment to the way news organizations were run and new products decided on. Personally, I value the judgment of many of the excellent editors I’ve worked with, but in the digital age, the most important thing we can do to build news products that people will actually use is to learn what our audience really needs and wants. And to do this with empathy and care as design thinking suggests, not just through the use of metrics we may not fully understand.  2)Design thinking can be taught and practiced, making innovation more practical than relying on a sudden brilliant insight that may never come.  3)The newsroom of the future is nimble and capable of constant learning, and that’s a big part of the  overall philosophy of design thinking.

Developing empathy to discover user needs

Developing empathy to discover user needs

In the classroom, design thinking engages journalism students. It helps them unleash their creativity, reinforces the need to start building a new product only after talking to users, and to iterate constantly rather than waiting until you’ve invested many hours in your ideas to test it, a strategy also common to agile development. This semester, I took my entrepreneurial students over to  our brand new campus Crews Center for Entrepreneurship to do a design thinking exercise I learned about at the bootcamp. Instead of just telling them what design thinking is in a lecture, an exercise allows students to experience it.

The design thinking exercise, designed by Stanford’s d school, puts students in teams of two to solve a common problem, taking them through all of the crucial steps: Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. At the Crews Center, we were lucky to have access to lots of great prototyping materials – everything from pipe cleaners to modeling clay. It was fun. Then, throughout the semester, we use  design thinking as part of our process of developing media startups. Students talk to real potential customers for their products they are building, engage in lots of brainstorming, and do some basic prototyping using wireframes and other things. I’ve also started to incorporate this kind of thinking into my other classes as well, getting students talking to users before starting a new blog, social media strategy, etc.

Getting feedback on the prototypes

Getting feedback on the prototypes

Design thinking has also informed my research on organizational change in newsrooms. The ability of organizations to LEARN is a key element of the theory of organizational change,  as described by scholars Chris Argyris and Donald Schon. My research buddy Jonathan Groves and I are seeing many parallels between this body of theory and design thinking as well as the lean startup methodologies advocated by Eric Ries and others that we think could be useful for newsrooms, based on our extensive ethnographic fieldwork. We are going to be writing more on this topic  soon.


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Be kind. Be curious. Be present.

No, I haven’t taken to writing self-help slogans for kicks – this is my entry in this month’s Journalism Carnival, where we are asked to write a letter to our younger selves, sharing “advice, things to look out for, things you wished you did differently, regrets, hopes, what you’ve learned about your life, choices”

Dear wee Brizzyc,

You are in for an interesting ride.

Believe it or not, soon enough people will be utterly flabbergasted at the notion that you possibly could have ever been shy, or that the people in the pizza joint you work at sometimes can’t hear your soft voice when you announce a new order to the kitchen. Hustle up and get over that already. College is going to be SO much more fun if you stop being so g-d self-conscious already, and your early stints as a reporter will be more successful if get some confidence and realize you are mostly an extrovert more quickly.

Speaking of college: You are already pretty nerdy, let’s face it, but I don’t think you fully appreciate the exquisite privilege learning is; someday you will muse that it is wasted on the young.   To be able to listen to smart people share knowledge with you, to read fascinating books and articles, to think about complex issues and ideas and ask questions is pretty amazing; lots of people in the world never get the chance to do so. Right now, school is still something that, while you sort of enjoy it, you primarily conceive of as something to be achieved under constant pressure and fear of failure. When you are older and become a college teacher yourself, you will come to cherish opportunities to be in someone else’s classroom who is willing to share their thoughts and insights with you. Sure, there’s always a lot of extraneous BS involved in any institution of higher learning, but really, when you stop to think about its essence, school is damn cool. Professors are much more willing, even thrilled,  to help you and any student with motivation and interest than you think, so stop being so afraid to ask.

Of course, that said, the best part of education, not to mention the future jobs you will have,  is the friends you will make along the way, and all the people you’ll meet on your journey far away from your hometown to six other cities. You will always look back on time with them and your family as well-spent, no matter how tired you are the next morning or how many things aren’t crossed off your to-do list. Indeed, you will regret almost nothing in terms of your personal relationships. They won’t always be easy, but they will always be worth it. Don’t take them for granted.

You will learn that often, when you are trying your best to do what is right, people won’t like it, or you. This is incredibly difficult. You really, really want to be liked, as I think most people do. But if you aren’t pissing anybody off, you probably aren’t doing anything interesting, because there are a lot of people out there who don’t like new things and they especially don’t like bold women who do them. (Sexism still exists, by the way. Sometimes it’s not even subtle. I could give you a few examples of things you’ll experience you won’t even believe right now. Just, you know, don’t be naive.)

Finally, the last and most  important lesson is perhaps the hardest one. That old cliche: “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention” isn’t just a pithy platitude. You will be outraged, I’m afraid, because you will be paying attention.

You will, as the years pass, engage regularly with people from a wide variety of backgrounds very different than yours, read voraciously, leave your comfort zone, seek out quality  investigative journalism from around the world that exposes injustice and corruption,  and take jobs and roles that require facing a number of messy realities, such as a broken education system and a variety of economic and racial disparities. You may end up in the so-called Ivory Tower, but you will not cloistered within its walls; if anything, it will be among the things you often see as wrong.

As a result of all of this, you will witness, firsthand,  examples of bigotry and inequality, and read about many others in great detail as well.  All of this will make you angry.

It should. But what it should never do is make you bitter.

The way to handle ignorance, adversity, and bad experiences from the tragic to the mundane, I have found, is to try to remember three simple things: “Be kind. Be curious. Be present.”

It is NOT to pretend bad things don’t exist or to chide yourself not to be such a Debbie Downer or to always try to put the best spin on everything. Positive people are great, but the world also needs those who see things for what they are and to have the courage and determination to fight. There are far too few of them.

The difference between confidence and arrogance is empathy, as Cody Brown wrote with eloquence. Kindness is what will keep you grounded, and prevent outrage from stewing into a sense that you are somehow better than others. Kindness is necessary because in one way or another we are all suffering.

Curiosity fuels magnanimity because even in failure or adversity, you are always learning. We can learn even from ignorance: About what fuels it, how to fix it, why it persists. Side bonus: A genuinely curious spirit will take you incredibly far in a knowledge-dominated world. For example, you are a natural-born curator who will bother your friends by sharing links to stories with email long before social media comes around, and while some people will dismiss these new media tools, you will learn to use them productively and get a great deal of satisfaction from them. (And yes, you were right about that whole “blogging” thing – you won that fight in the end.) And even better yet, curious people embrace experience over owning things, which leads to a very rich and never dull life.

Being present I stole from the yogis, but I think the ability, however fleeting, to be in the moment, is among the most profound gifts we can give to ourselves and others. You are terrible at multitasking, so don’t even bother trying – your gift is the ability to focus. Use it. Be there. And good luck.


Your future crazy self

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Marketers need journalism skills to drive engagement

On Tuesday, December 3 at 3pm Central, MA student Janine Tano will present her final project: Is Publishing the 5th “P” of Marketing? Why Marketers Need Journalism Skills to Drive Engagement. All are welcome to hear her presentation using Adobe Connect software – you can sign in as a guest, just be sure to mute your mic so we don’t get feedback.

ImageJanine conducted a content analysis of  Facebook posts by three international retailers: Sears, JC Penney, and Macy’s. She examined the relationship between types of posts and the level of user engagement with the content, such as “likes,” shares, and comments.

Her work is instructive for any marketing professional hoping to maximize ROI on social media and capture the elusive but increasingly important metric of engagement, and persuasively makes an argument that the kinds of journalism storytelling and reporting skills taught in journalism schools are now applicable to many areas beyond traditional news.

When she is not working hard as a journalism graduate student at the University of Memphis, Janine is a marketing manager at Walt Disney World, and she brings her professional experience to her research work in productive ways.

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College Media in the Digital Age

The Carnival of Journalism is BACK. This month we are asked to describe how we would set up a student news organization in 2013 or how an existing college news organization could modernize itself.

What I would love to see is college media organizations reinventing themselves like startups, using some of the tried-and-true techniques used by experienced entrepreneurs.  This doesn’t mean that they have to or should throw out everything that they are doing now, but it does mean that they need to do some hard, creative thinking about the audiences – and the advertisers – they serve, what their needs and problems are, and what kinds of key digital products and features they could offer that will meet those needs.

In other words, instead of getting mired in the endless debates about what skills they need to master [are blogs journalism? do you need to code? etc. etc.], they can learn the PROCESS of innovation , and THEN develop the skills they need to make the create the kinds of news products they and their audiences decide they want.  Bonus is that it is far more motivating to learn skills in this context than purely in a classroom setting, and as a professor, I’d also be happy to adjust my teaching to what students told me they wanted to learn for this purpose.

I would urge college media editors and staff to attend some kind of 48-hour or similar launch program either at their own university or a at a local accelerator, like this one hosted by in Memphis. Or take a hands-on course on media entrepreneurship. Or find somebody that teaches design thinking and then use those processes to reinvent yourselves. Entrepreneurs know a lot about innovation and how to come up with a solid and sustainable plan for the future that is based on more than just intuition, and I think the experience can be incredibly valuable for students who face a future in which they will also have to help media companies they work for evolve.  For example, in my entrepreneurial journalism class we use the founder’s toolkit and the Business Model Canvas to guide us in creating and pitching media startups. These resources would ensure college media organizations leverage digital tools in ways that help ensure their ongoing relevance, impact, and financial sustainability, rather than just flailing around trying to blindly grasp at new ideas.

Overall, I encourage college media to experiment. Those core writing and reporting skills you are practicing aren’t going away, and you can never get enough practice at either of those in college. The Elements of Journalism are as important as ever.  But the relatively safe environment of college is the best time in your life to take lots of risks and try new things.

Side note: Journalism education can be vastly improved. I’ve spent the last 5-8 years of my life trying to change it, with plenty of frustration along the way However, I think far too many people 1)are making assumptions that we can teach every single skill required and churn out idealized graduates who are highly proficient in multiple areas [sorry, that’s impossible] 2)Assuming that people who are ~19 years old know exactly what they want out of education, are extremely motivated to learn, and generally behave with a similar mindset to a middle-aged person working at an elite national news organization [did you think the way you do now when YOU were 19?}  3)that so-called “digital natives” are naturals when it comes to producing digital content. [They are native consumers, not producers.]  We need your fire to help us change antiquated academic thinking, but we also need to to be somewhat realistic about what we are asking and expecting.  Remember that if we graduate critical thinkers who genuinely care about journalism and can write,  learn quickly, and engage well with others, we are doing pretty well on setting them on a path to what will undoubtedly be a lifelong learning process.


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