Tag Archives: #jcarn

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.





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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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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 Start.co 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 Start.co 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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Dangerous Ideas: Higher Ed Disruption

This month’s Carnival of Journalism asks: What is your most dangerous idea for pushing the boundaries of journalism?” and requests the response via video. LOVE ME some dangerous ideas.

Of course, my laptop mic is broken, which has caused me no end of problems for quite awhile now, so I kind of look like I’m looming in this video because I had to prop up the phone somehow (sorry). I’m en route to a baseball game (hence the t-shirt), but if I get time later I’ll post some words to go along with the video.

I’m not news that higher ed may be next up for the kind of digital disruption we’ve seen in journalism; in many respects it has already begun with the popularity of online courses. In this video, I speculate on whether journalism may be one of the first academic fields to undergo the kind of disruption that could ultimately dismantle the university as we know it, fueled by faculty members who have had to think about and utilize digital tools and new methods of information distribution.

I should perhaps note that I’m not arguing this would be all to the good – it is, indeed, dangerous. Universities do important things for students, knowledge, and communities. But it could be an exciting ride with some positive outcomes for education and for journalism. If you are one of those who think that journalism schools are obsolete and should just disappear, well, you are wrong 😉 as I’ve written about that before here and here.


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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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Can a Good Journalist Be a Good Capitalist? [Yes]

The January Carnival of Journalism wonders why journalists seem adverse to the idea of making money.

I’ve never noticed this phenomenon, but Michael Rosenblum says that Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Dean Nick Lehman “recoiled” at the notion of creating an entrepreneurial journalism program. Wow. Yikes. That surprises me.

My journalism school at the University of Memphis  is not nearly as elite or well-resourced as our New York City counterparts, but we are making strides in this area. One of my colleagues, Dr. Lurene Kelley, is leading an effort to transform one of our graduate courses that used to focus on “administration” into an exciting entrepreneurial class in which students will learn to build a business plan and pitch it. She is partnering with LaunchMemphis, a local group working to grow our city’s entrepreneurial community, and students will get real, hands-on exposure to the world of startups.  I’m thrilled about this development and hope to help continue to expand these efforts in our department.

I also agree that making money can release journalists from the thankless, soul-sucking constrictions of moribund institutions. To speak for myself, if I wasn’t shackled to a largely irrelevant and outdated academic system that rewards me primarily for publishing studies recycling tired ideas in journals nobody reads, I could be doing much more innovative work to help prepare students and journalists for the 21st Century.

To take just one small example, just yesterday I saw the call for proposals for the Knight Community Information Challenge. I already know of some local foundations that are interested in this issue and could be possible partners with our journalism school in creating something new and exciting on the web and on the ground – and our community, wracked by massive cutbacks in local news organizations, desperately needs it. Instead of pursuing this, I will spent 15 hours over the next couple of weeks changing the academic citation style in a paper I wrote, which is rote, useless busywork.  Things like this do make you want to go into business for yourself so you can take advantage of these kinds of opportunities in the exciting time we live in. Maybe one day I will.

However, I will say this. Being SKEPTICAL about money and its power to corrupt good journalism is a different thing. I think that is perfectly healthy. The desire to make money doesn’t mean that I will do anything and everything to make that happen, and, in the long run, that’s good for business, too, given that what we sell is credibility. Journalists *are* particularly sensitive to financial pressures because in the course of their work they see how money corrupts the political process, the environment, and so and and so forth, though it also can do good, as evidenced in this article about Paul Allen I found inspiring. When I worked for the Committee of Concerned Journalists, almost 10 years ago now, long before the idea of entrepreneurship in journalism was “hot,” venerable but forward-thinking journalists like Bill Kovach talked all the time about the foolish false dichotomy of the old proverbial “Wall” between the business and editorial side of news organizations. Both sides need each other. Newsrooms need to communicate with and share information with the business side, but yes, financial pressures on editorial will ultimately compromise the business.


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