Working the web into your work flow

It’s a nice virtuous thing that Meranda Watling is proud to work for a newspaper. But that’s not the reason I’m linking to her post. This is:

That story that broke at 4:30? It came in via an e-mail tip. I actually “broke” the news about 4:40 p.m. I had quickly confirmed the gist of it and wrote two paragraphs to post immediately. Because the editors were in the daily budget meeting, I had another reporter read over it, and then I had a copy editor post it asap so I could begin chasing the sources who were leaving their offices at or before 5 p.m. After I reached those sources, I wrote into the online version and updated. When my editor got back he swapped it out and posted it in the No. 1 spot online.

I went to my board meetings armed with notebook and pen — AND a laptop, Internet card and my Blackberry. I continued to report and write during the meetings. On my drive between the two meetings? I made calls on the A1 story.

When I got back to the newsroom around 8:45 p.m., I made a few more calls and banged out the A1 story and then two more about the meetings I’d covered. All before the 10:30 print deadline. I made cop calls, and half-way down the 10-county list we heard a shooting over the scanner. I went there and called in a Web update from the scene.

That is a sampling of what “newspaper” reporters are expected to do today, at least at my newspaper.

Now that’s a fine description of what today’s news reporter needs to do to help keep his or her community completely informed. Too often we hear, “but we don’t have time.”

Well, you only don’t have time if you don’t know how to weave the digital responsibilities in with your traditional duties. Reporting for online is A) more efficient than reporting for print; B) really doesn’t add that much extra time or work.

It can be done. Meranda just proved it.

Rockford making great progress with web-first strategy

Part of my job is to travel around the country and visit our newsrooms, where I make a presentation about our online strategy.  The Rockford Register Star is an example of a newsroom that has totally embraced the web.  They produced the video below to incorporate into the GateHouse training program.

The decentralized, unpackaged media world

Howard Weaver linked to this post from Zac Echola before I saw it, but it’s an important map of how the wired get and filter news.

The following quote should be required reading in every newsroom in the U.S. tomorrow morning.

Shortly after polls closed last night, my wife got a text message from Obama’s campaign. He was the projected winner of the South Carolina primary.

A few minutes later I logged into Gmail, where Obama had already sent me an email about the victory and where I could watch his speech.
About a half an hour later a friend in Washington sent me a text with the percentage breakdowns.

This morning I logged on to Facebook to see a notification from Obama, a simple copy/paste job from the email sent earlier.

Sometime today, I’ll watch his speech and Clinton’s concession speech on YouTube, since I was busy playing Super Mario Galaxy while he actually gave the speech.

Except for a CNN breaking update I got via Twitter last night (after Obama’s text message), I knew who won the primary without ever seeing a newspaper or TV site.

Only today, when I checked CNN’s excellent primary elections section did I go to an MSM site. News that I care about comes to me, despite the source.

I, like many other people, only go looking for news (on my days off) if something has first come to me to pique my interest. Then I find a site with valuable, contextual information laid out in a way that I can explore the data (in this case, exit polls). I can passively receive information I’d like to know.

If you’re not actively seeking out your audience, you’re doing something wrong.

Media organizations should be doing the same thing Obama does. It should be everywhere I am and it should provide valuable, easy-to-use added context and content if and when I decide to hit their sites.

There’s obviously one point to be made here — that news organizations need to make it a practice to push out their content to every available channel.

But the other lesson is: Your audience is also sharing what they know, either informally, or via special-interest sources.  The big question is, when your audience wants more and trusted information, are they going to find it on your web site as soon as they want it?

Web-first publishing needs to become a newsroom habit.  It’s the thing you do automatically, so that when any size story breaks, and your audience wants more and trusted information — and a place to discuss it — your site is ready for them.

San Diego staff good at getting it first, getting it right

Here’s a good piece on the success of’s break news team:

Team members confer with their editors frequently, but they often edit postings for each other, and they don’t wait for assignments or debate whether to head out for a promising story.

Karen Kucher, one of the original members of the team and an assistant editor, said, “Our default is supposed to be to go.”

And for those who think web-first publishing is somehow an affront to journalistic propriety:

Through its speedy postings, the team competes directly with TV, Baker said. “But we get it right, we don’t run stuff that’s not confirmed yet, and we don’t sensationalize it.”

Greg Gross, who’s been in this business more than 30 years, said of the team’s work, “There were all sorts of uncertainties on the mechanics and maybe the wisdom of it. That has all faded away with amazing speed.”

And some might be surprised to learn that not only does this approach help grow audience, it is also journalisticly satisfying.

Mallory said, “I’ve never experienced more gratitude from readers for anything we’ve done in journalism than for the simple postings on the news blog, three or four paragraphs at a time, of reliable, confirmed information, sortable by area.”

With this kind of breaking news, readers care more about the information than the prose. As Gross said, “I don’t feel as if I’m writing or reporting for the ages . . . and much to my surprise, I’m fine with that.”

Somebody should send this piece to the cranky copy editors, or whatever other forum is out there where newspaper people spit bile at web publishing.

An example of using a blog to cover breaking news

If you want an example of how to cover a major breaking story in a blog, Jason La Canfora did a great job of covering the apparent murder of Sean Taylor.

This isn’t straight news reporting. This is both personal and professional. This is reporting what you know when you know. Some times items need updated. Some times there are new developments worthy of new posts. Some times you need to answer reader comments and e-mails with points of clarification. This is serving first and foremost the public responsibility to provide important and relevant information.

Full archive here.

Let’s stop putting the entire newspaper online

This post will seem counter-intuitive to long-time readers of this blog.

It’s a message to the average, and the message is simple: Stop posting all of your newspaper content online.

When I ran, I did a very fuzzy calculation. I looked at our circulation declines, our web traffic gains, our registration data and came to a best-guess conclusion that the web site was contributing about two points to circulation declines.

When I look at a chart like this, I think my calculations can’t be too far off. It seems safe to conclude that some switching is taking place.

Back when I did that initial calculation, and for a long-time after, losing some print audience to the web seemed like an acceptable price to pay. We simply MUST grow our web audiences. If we have to eat our own to do it, well that’s just battling against the innovator’s dilemma. And besides, if we didn’t get those local eyeballs on our sites, somebody else would.

I considered getting that whole paper online a necessary evil, without stopping to consider that in reality, building a great local web site was is in no-way dependent on putting the entire paper online.

The flip side, of course, is that it’s hard not to rely on that daily dump of shovelware if your newsroom isn’t engaged in your web operation. That is still a problem today, but it was a much bigger problem in 2004 and earlier.

Putting the entire paper online every day (most papers do a daily dump between midnight and 5 a.m.), causes several problems for the average newspaper company:

  1. It retards organizational growth. Journalists simply must learn to take the web more seriously, and the daily dump is a crutch that makes it easier for newsroom personnel to ignore the web.
  2. It gets in the way of building a truly robust web site. That “we’re a newspaper” feel is never shaken from the site structure and it makes it harder to draw attention to the real web features of your site.
  3. It entrenches core readers into the notion of “I’m reading my newspaper online” instead of getting them to see your site as something different and maybe better than what you do in print.
  4. It encourages too many people to think, “why should I pay for this when I can get it for free online.”
  5. We’re in a tough situation with circulation anyway, and encouraging people to switch only hastens the migration away from print. It may be inevitable, but our web sites aren’t ready yet to shoulder the load.

The good news is, there is a better way.

If, and that’s a big if, we can get our newsrooms to take the web absolutely seriously, and make doing web stuff a vital part of the daily routine, we can eliminate the daily dump.

What would a community news site look like that doesn’t overly rely on the entire paper online every day?

It would include:

  • A continuous flow of news. Reporters would be active in web-first publishing, publishing what we know when we know it, and letting the community know what is going on now.
  • There would be lots of opportunities for user participation and contribution — everything from comments on stories to UGC video and blogs.
  • The mindset would be, we’re part of the flow of the conversation, not the whole conversation, and there would be lots of links out to related community content.
  • Video (and other multimedia, but primarily video), and lots of it. The primary strategies would be a point-and-shoot video camera in the hands of every reporter, some better cameras for staff with the appropriate time and training, and some well-honed webcasts.
  • Lots of utility pieces, such as calendars, movie listings, and strong advertising tie-ins for classifieds and internet yellow pages.
  • Strong search. Almost no right now has really good search. We need good search. And it’s not about providing search for just our own web site, but serving the whole community.
  • Blogs. This is part of being about conversation (see above), but it’s also about creating original web content, more web content and developing staff literacy about online culture. Of course, not all site-affiliated blogs should be staff-written blogs. Many should be from community members.
  • Databases. Lots and lots of databases. If it’s data, and it’s relevant to our community and we can make it searchable and/or sortable, we should have it on our web sites.
  • We should also make sure our articles, our videos, our databases — pretty much everything on our web sites — is easy to share. We create individually-addressable links for discreet pieces of content, we use embed tags, we certainly have RSS feeds and e-mail links, and we also create widgets where it makes sense.
  • We have user profiles/social networking and the ability for users to customize their local online experience, including saving favorite stories, creating custom SMS and e-mail alerts.

If we can do all those things we will certainly have a community site that stands apart from the print-package newspaper. It compliments it rather than competes against it. It helps us serve our journalistic obligations better on so many levels. It helps us put out better newspapers (because we’re more engaged with our community and producing more content than we could ever use in print, so the print edition becomes our greatest hits).

Our web sites should be web sites, not newspaper sites. The daily dump doesn’t help us either in print or online and probably hurts us a lot more than we realize.

Will this strategy slow circulation declines? I don’t know. But I also think it’s conceivable it could lead to small gains. Who knows? It hasn’t been tried yet as far as I know. But it certainly can’t hurt, at least not the way current strategies are hurting. And I’m quite sure building better web sites is our number one mission.

What we’ve learnd from blogs — how to grow audience

Since becoming online director in Ventura in 2004, I’ve included a slide in all my presentations on web content strategy called, “What We’ve Learned From Blogs.”

Typical bullet points:

  • Post often
  • Post irregularly
  • Stay on topic
  • Post chronologically
  • Engage in conversation

These are things that the most popular blogs do.

Frequent updates, unfettered by deadlines, and coming in reverse chronological order are proven traffic drivers.

Blogs are also about conversation — even bloggers who don’t allow comments on their sites, still engage in conversation by linking to and commenting on posts from other bloggers, or MSM articles.

Most popular bloggers also focus on a particular theme, be it politics or culture or sports, etc.

Blogs are arguably the first web-native publishing model, so it only makes sense that blogs would provide a template for how to publish online.

Howard Kurtz writes this week about the breakout success of HuffingtonPost.

Is it any surprise that one of the fastest growing online publishing operations is powered by frequent updates, lots of content and lots of links?

This is a formula that works. I’ve seen it work first hand, and continue to see it work.

The significant variation for HuffPost is the broad range of topics the site covers.
Too many newspaper web sites are still focused on being the newspaper online. That’s a mistake. Newsrooms should focus on making their sites a community news platform. That’s how you grow traffic.