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..

Personas connect journalists with digital news consumers

This post originally appeared on the Community News Leadership 3.0 blog at Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg. It is the second in a series based on a report I wrote, “Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation” about work I have been doing with KDMC to speed the digital transformation of 13 Journal Media Group (formerly Scripps newspapers) newsrooms. 

A major goal of an initiative to drive digital transformation in newsrooms was to help journalists understand and engage with digital news consumers.

The newsrooms had deep knowledge of their local communities. But with their intense newspaper focus, they had not developed strong awareness of digital news consumption.

To change that, we taught staff teams in each newsroom how to conduct, analyze and act on consumer research, including creating personas that reflected target audiences for journalism on digital platforms.

Working with news organizations in 13 markets (previously part of E.W. Scripps, now part of the Journal Media Group), Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg developed a process designed to facilitate newsroom transformation.

The process is described in a new report “Digital leads: 10 keys to transforming print newsrooms into digital news providers.”

The persona exercise sometimes engendered skepticism at the beginning. But it turned out to be one of the most impactful parts of the process.

“The persona exercise had the most long term impact,” John Moore, editor at the Ventura County (CA) Star, said. “We, like others, had presented readership data before. But now staff members had to gather the data themselves, had to interpret the data themselves and – most importantly – had to attach that data to real people. It was that step of attaching the data to real people that helped them connect with the readers for their franchise.

The company provided the staff teams with local consumer research that illuminated how different demographic groups – primarily defined by age, gender, income, family status and education – used different platforms to find their news.

It underscored for the print-focused journalists that many potential readers under 55 were highly unlikely to seek news in print but were eager to find news about certain local topics on digital platforms. The research also confirmed that more and more people were accessing news on smart phones and tablets.

It highlighted two key questions about topics: What topics were most people in specific demographic groups highly interested in? What was their satisfaction level with the information currently available?

The answers enabled newsrooms to identify local news topics that fell in the sweet spot: High interest and low satisfaction.

From there they defined demographic groups with high interest in the topic to learn:

For example, the staff committee in Treasure Coast Newspapers and in Florida targeted a female aged 35-54, with an interest in local politics, business and the outdoors. The second target was a man, age 55+ with an interest in the outdoors and who had adapted to digital devices.

The committee at the Redding Record Searchlight and in northern California targeted a man and a woman each aged 34-54 who were interested in local government and the economy.

“Things to do,” either in the form of entertainment or outdoor recreation, was a topic of high interest in nearly every market. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times/ in Texas, targeted a woman 35-54 with children and a a man, aged 18-34, who were active on social media.

The journalists then indentified and interviewed at least several dozen people who fit each profile to learn:

  • How they framed the topic and why it was important to them.
  • When they looked for news and information and what platforms or devices they used to access it.

The interview material was used to create composites, or personas. While personas are fictional, they serve to make real the information needs and news consumption habits of potential users or subscribers. Though the concept was difficult for some newsroom leaders and staff members to grasp at first, it underscored the value of bringing consumer-first thinking to each newsroom team. Once they had created their personas, the teams designed coverage plans to meet the news needs of the personas.

Mizell Stewart, the company executive who leads the Four Platform initiative said the persona process won over many skeptics. It “convinced a significant proportion of our journalists that they needed to go in that direction,” Stewart said.

This post is adapted from “Digital Leads: 10 keys to transforming print newsrooms into digital news providers,’’ which I also wrote..