Archives for June 2015

In journalism, true digital expertise takes much more than multimedia skills

Part of a series on newsroom transformation to serve digital news consumers, originally published by Knight Digital Media Center @ USC Annenberg.

Jay Rosen, NYU journalism professor and news media analyst, blogs this week about an emerging skill set that will make journalists highly marketable to employers.

Rosen says people who are looking to hire journalists often cite some version of this:  “I need people who can look at the news and information situation they are handed, look at what we know about our users and how they behave, look at what we say and believe about our brand, look at all the digital tools we have now… and just make good decisions” instead of reverting to familiar forms.

Knight Digital Media sought to instill these skills in 13 news organizations that are now part of the Journal Media Group (formerly E.W. Scripps newspapers) during a multi-year partnership, the Four Platform Newsroom initiative. The initiative is transforming newsrooms from highly print focused to multiplatform newsrooms that created content and engagement on the web, phones and tablets and then used that content to produce a newspaper. (Our report on that effort so far.)

A lot of our work focused on raising newsroom expertise in these areas:

  • Platforms and story forms. The journalist must know tools and forms are available and what works best in what situation. This requires breaking away from a print-first 15’’ story mindset. Training helped the journalists raise their digital literacy before they became immersed in learning and apllying new digital skills.
  • News consumers. The journalist must know how different news consumers access news. That means learning to conduct, analyze and act on consumer research. The journalist also must understand the consumer’s information needs – which may not conform to traditional ways of framing important topic coverage but calls for strong journalism nonetheless. (More on this aspect, which was pivotal to culture change and digital adoption by journalists.)
  • Company strategy. The journalist has to understand the company’s strategy (and the company has to have one) for capturing digital audience engagement. The Four Platform initiative emphasized data, real-time news, watchdog and grassroots journalism. KDMC added the concept of franchise topics – ones in which digital news consumers were highly interested and dissatisfied with what was already available.

A fourth important skill is the ability to analyze and act on digital metrics. While these metrics are no substitute for direct research with news consumers, they are vital to strategic efforts to put resources where they have the most impact. For the new Journal Media Group, raising metrics expertise is a challenge for the coming year.

This takes nothing away from the importance of multimedia skills. But training in skills alone may not produce results that are worth the effort.

In his post, Rosen asks what the new skill set should be called. We have called it “digital literacy,” for lack of a better term. I am not sure that really captures the sweep and depth of what is now required to be a successful journalist on digital platforms. Whatever we call the skill set, it ought to be a central focus for journalism organizations and educators as well as journalists who want to stay in the business..

Newsrooms struggle with priorities on path to “digital leads” footing

Part of a series on newsroom transformation to serve digital news consumers, originally published by Knight Digital Media Center @ USC Annenberg.

DigitalLeadsCoverFiguring out what to stop doing in order to serve new priorities was a significant  challenge as newsrooms move to “digital leads” footing, where they produce content and engagement on phones, tablets and the web and then repurpose digital content for the newspaper at the end of the day.

The pull of tradition – those routine stories, that focus on the next day’s print newspaper, the idea of being all things to all people – can undermine the transition from print focus to digital.

One strong trait of the culture in many newsrooms is “perfectionistic” – the fear of making a mistake. This serves journalism well. But organizationally, it can translate into fear of missing anything or of leaving anything out. That’s highly non-strategic.

We saw this play out repeatedly in KDMC’s work with 13 newsrooms that are now part of the Journal Media Group (formerly E.W. Scripps). As part of the company’s Four Platform Newsroom initiative, we facilitated a process that enabled newsroom teams to determine priorities for digital work after they connected with news consumers and figured out what topics and delivery methods were valuable to those consumers. (More about our work in “Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation.”)

Determining those priorities, however, was just the start.

“The biggest hiccup was getting staff to identify what work they could stop doing and in getting them to agree to stop doing work of low priority. They were willing to take on the new tasks but also wanted to keep doing old tasks that no longer made sense to do,” Mark Tomasik, editor at Treasure Coast Newspapers and www.tcpalm.com, said.

The newsroom in Treasure Coast developed a practice of measuring time-consuming work against three priorities: franchise topics, breaking news and investigative reporting. “Resource-intensive efforts that do not fit at least one of those categories are not a priority,” Tomasik said.

Adam Neal, an editor who lead the staff team that developed franchise topic plans and other digital strategies, said initially it took constant discussion in the newsroom to help people understand and follow the new approach. (Neal has since become Managing Editor.)

Building on Treasure Coast’s approach, KDMC recommended that each editor work with staff and the publisher to develop a short list of priority “filters” to use to test which stories were worth a high level of resources. The idea was to separate high-priority coverage from lower priority items. That way, the lower priority items would be competing against each other but not sapping resources needed for higher priority items.

Developing the list through discussion with the staff was designed to increase understanding and the likelihood that the filters would be used. Having publisher buy-in would be essential if the filters were going to be meaningful.

In Redding, the staff came up with a list of 26 possible priorities. They asked each member of the company’s management team, including the publisher, to rank their priorities and came up with a list of the top 10. Then they got feedback from 19 people who represented a cross section of the community and came up with the final list of five:

  1. It’s urgent/breaking or affects public safety
  2. It’s franchise topic coverage
  3. It’s hasboth high impact and high interest in the community
  4. It’s investigative journalism
  5. It supports our business goals (including growing subscriptions and activations and rewarding “membership”)

While Treasure Coast used its filters to hone daily priorities, Lyons, the editor in Redding, said his leadership team has since used the filters at quarterly strategic planning meetings.

“The work of filters is upstream. We have had three significant planning meetings since we arrived at those filters. For each, we started by reminding everybody what our filters are.”

Can other newsrooms adopt this approach? I think so – with careful discussion at the outset of what the priorities are, why they matter to digital news consumers, and how they will be used by everyone in consistent fashion.

This post is adapted from Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation.

Previously:

Leadership and culture: Linchpins of digital transformation in the newsroom

Personas: Connecting with digital news consumers

Owning the local news franchise

“Digital leads” newsrooms push print to the back of the line

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Two pioneering online community news entrepreneurs move on

This post originally was published at Knight Digital Media Center @ USC Annenberg.

Two prominent online news entrepreneurs are moving on.

David Boraks, who operated two local news sites north of Charlotte, N.C., ceased publication June 1. Susan Mernit, who heads Oakland Local in California’s Bay Area, is looking for someone to take over the site or it will cease publication June 15.

Both decisions underscore the commitment it takes to operate a local news start up as well as the challenges publishers face in many markets. Both operations have long been both highly entrepreneurial and highly vulnerable on the revenue side.

Boraks said he concluded he needed to expand his operation to cover two additional towns and the entire Lake Norman area to build a sustainable business. He and longtime business manager, Lyndsay Kibiloski, also concluded that they had neither the time or the energy to do that.

Mernit, meanwhile, co-founded and is CEO of Hack the Hood, a highly successful program that teaches young people tech and marketing skills . Mernit says working both jobs in unsustainable and she wants to focus full-time on Hack the Hood

Market challenges

Boraks founded DavidsonNews.net in 2006 and launched CorneliusNews.net in a nearby town in 2011.  He reported revenue in the range of $101,000-250,000 in 2014.

The publications operated with a couple of critical challenges:

  • Operating in a highly competitive market where potential advertisers have lots of options, including print publications and Facebook ads, most of them offering less expensive options than he could.
  • Inability to recruit a full-time ad sales rep until 2014. The site struggled financially as part-timers proved ineffective.

“We couldn’t find the right person who could work for us for what we could pay They were six-figure persons. The other jobs around here are that. We can’t afford that,” Boraks said in an interview. A full-time sales rep did significantly increase revenue in 2014, but sales and reader donations slumped during the past winter.

In a farewell post, Boraks noted that traffic to the sites was at an all-time high with more than 100,000 monthly unique visitors, making it the largest publication north of Charlotte.

“We are very proud of what we built. We proved there is an audience for news on the web,” Boraks said. “But we did not get all the way to sustaining it.”

Boraks plans to continue to work as an announcer on a local radio station and look for his next opportunity.

New venture

Oakland Local, meanwhile, has also taken a hit on revenue, as co-founder and editor Susan Mernit has made Hack the Hood her primary focus. The project trains young people to do tech and social media, and they in turn help local businesses improve their web presence. In just a couple of years, it has grown to a $1.2 million operation.

“I’m proud, six years is a big accomplishment,” Mernit said in an interview.

Oakland Local, launched in 2009, is seeking new management and recently posted a request for proposals to take over the site. Oakland Local operates as a nonprofit. But it has been entrepreneurial in seeking non-philanthropic revenue, including advertising, in an economically challenged market.

Mernit said she hopes individuals or an organization that can focus on revenue development as well as editorial will come forward soon. The site will continue to publish until June 15. The RFP says applicants must commit to raise $75,000-$150,000 to operate the site.

Which narrative?

Some will add these developments to a narrative of failure. (Here’s one example from a blogger I respect, and my response questioning his numbers.)

I spend a lot of time looking at news start ups to see if they should be added to my database of promising sites, Michele’s List. I interview them about their business practices and I survey them about their revenue.

I see a narrative of experimentation, innovation, and, yes, disappointment. I see progress on many fronts, stagnation on others. I see a narrative of learning, and this was in evidence this weekend as I followed #lion15, the Twitter feed of a meeting of online publishers in Philadelphia, sharing best practices with their peers.

Boraks and Mernit have been an important part of this narrative. They blazed trails in a dynamic, challenging field. They launched in the great unknown of independent, “born on the web” local news sites. They demonstrated to more reluctant journalist founders that adopting business practices can produce financial results even though a stable revenue model was elusive their highly challenging local markets. They consistently shared what they were learning with other publishers. They deserve our thanks as they move on..