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Ethical Dilemma: Following Our Own Terms of Service

November 27, 2011 Leave a comment

A screenshot from the online discussion board at tampabay.com about the Norm Roche story.

Earlier this month, the St. Pete Times had a really interesting article about a Pinellas County commissioner, Norm Roche, who was posting snarky comments on the newspaper’s website. The comments frequently included racial connotations and other points of view that reflected poorly on such a high-ranking official.

In the Nov. 17 article that broke the news that Norm Roche was using the alias “Reality” to post on the St. Pete Times website, journalist David DeCamp wrote:

Times reporter noticed similarities between Roche’s public statements and those made by Reality.

This is the kind of observation skills that make journalists good at their jobs. It’s also all too easy to figure out the online personas of well-known public figures most of the time. But as some of the commentors on the original article and some follow-up articles, “outing” Norm Roche may have broken the Times’ own privacy policy. The privacy policy reads:

Use of Information by TampaBay.com. When we collect personal information about users, that information could be shared with advertisers, but only in the aggregate. We will never provide personal information on an individual basis to any third party.

This opens up a couple of important questions for journalists (especially journalists who are involved in their news organization’s online policy-making).

  1. Do the readers of the St. Pete Times qualify as third parties?
  2. Does the news value of exposing a public figure making irresponsible comments in a public forum take precedence over following your own privacy policy?
  3. If a journalist identifies a citizen on the forums through similarity of language, does that bypass the privacy policy, since it was not done through the identifying information collected through the use of a commenting account (such as name, email, IP address, etc.)?

I think these questions – and others also connected to the incident – are ones that should be discussed at the Times. And since journalists and editors there thought that their decision on the matter warranted a flurry of articles, I think it would also behoove them to publish an article or editor’s note about how they felt this journalism was done in conjunction with the privacy policy. I haven’t seen any explanation from them as of yet, but I think it would be interesting to know what discussions were had behind the scenes.

Categories: journalism industry

Facebook vs. Twitter: The Future of News Distribution

April 13, 2011 Leave a comment

I referenced an Inside Facebook post, Facebook for Journalists: More Work Than Twitter but with a Bigger Payout, earlier this week in terms of the Journalists on Facebook Page. My earlier post was “Facebook for Journalists – A New Frontier to Distribute News?

However, the Inside Facebook post was much more thorough than just announcing a new feature on Facebook. It was a discussion about why journalists should be using Facebook (despite the higher rate of return cited to stories told through Twitter) and the advantages thereof.

It was a good piece. I just happen to disagree with it. I’ll have to take it point by point to really share my thoughts on the subject. That looks argumentative but it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be conversational.

First of all, the promise in the headline (“…with a Bigger Payout”) was not justified by the post that followed. There was no evidence that Facebook gave a bigger payout in terms of ROI, reach or influence than Twitter. There were a lot of assertions that were used to support the idea that there COULD be, but I’ll do my best to objectively evaluate those claims.

Twitter’s short-form nature means journalists aren’t expected to do much more than tweet the headlines and links to their articles, unless they also want to engage in discussion.

I’d say that almost all journalists want to engage in discussion. Yes, there are automatic feeds that send out an RSS feed of every article in a newspaper, section or other part of a news organization. But there are other news organization feeds that are hand curated and are used primarily as a way to instigate discussion. For instance, the @theledger feed has more followers than any of our other feeds, but we devote much more time to individual feeds that are hand curated to give interested readers a look at traffic conditions, weather, local politics, local business and local music. The journalists who run these accounts are specifically trained on how to engage readers and respond to inquiries, ideas or feedback. Many other large news organizations do the same thing on their hand curated Twitter feeds. In the end, if you’re just Tweeting headlines and a link, you’re doing it wrong.

Facebook on the other hand, requires journalists to craft compelling updates that stand out against the social content that is produced by their audience’s friends.

Yes, this is true. But the other major problem is that Facebook is considered as more friendly and conversational. I would argue that more people see Twitter as a professional tool and Facebook as a personal tool – one they use to look up their friends before a high school reunion or check up on how their cousin is doing raising her new baby. It’s not the place to go to find out what’s new in the world – it’s where you to go find out what’s new with the people you know. That sometimes collides into finding out your friends’ opinions and interests in certain world or local events, but these links are almost always generated from the content producer’s website itself and NOT a Facebook share function.

To have an impact on a user’s newsfeed, you need to have a directly influence on their lives (and, preferably, the lives of the people they went to school with, work with or live near). This is rarely done with a general news page – especially large news organizations who can cover several regional areas. Instead, you need to have a narrow focus to have a chance to break through to the interests of your readers. Probably several narrow focuses to more collectively harness the power of your audience.

Twitter does benefit from niche accounts, but overall news accounts can also do very well. That’s because Twitter is seen in more of a business capacity. People are there to specifically learn, share and click on links. Twitter is also a very skimmable medium – people continue to see the newest posts at the top of their feed with little interaction on their end. This is different from Facebook where people have to purposely click on “latest news” to see the latest content. Facebook users typically have specific tasks in mind when they visit the site, whereas Twitter has more of an on-the-spot “What am I going to find out today” mentality. So news content, even in a general, uncurated form, can do very well on Twitter.

There’s an air of mystery to the news feed that might be discouraging to journalists. WIth Twitter, if you tweet it, it will appear in a follower’s stream. But on Facebook, a journalist’s updates might not make it into the Top News feed, requiring users to actively sift though their Most Recent feed to find a journalist’s updates.

That’s definitely a major pitfall to Facebook versus Twitter for news and journalists – visibility. Because Facebook defaults users to the “Top Rated” updates on their homepage, updates from pages (like those that media companies would send updates from) may not appear. The algorithm is based on several things but includes how much you have interacted with that particular page/profile.

Many people, even if they are interested in the news or information an organization posts, don’t take the time to “like” the post or comment (although they may share it with friends). The algorithm is also affected by how many other interactions it’s gotten meaning that by the time it’s popular enough to be widely popular, it may also be widely out of date.

On the other hand, anyone who happens to be looking at Twitter five minutes after a news organization Tweets are likely to see the update. That’s more useful for news organizations who have a high pressure to be first.

Surprisingly, I haven’t exhausted this topic. Look later in the week for yet ANOTHER post on why I prefer Twitter over Facebook for breaking news, community engagement and professional networking.

Facebook for Journalists – A New Frontier to Distribute News?

April 11, 2011 1 comment

I saw this point from Inside Facebook about Facebook for Journalists: More Work Than Twitter but with a Bigger Payout today and commented on the blog post itself, but thought it was worth a mention on my own blog.

Inside Facebook’s lede mentioned the new Facebook page Journalists on Facebook. According to the post, Facebook created the community

In an effort to encourage the news community to use the site’s Page feature as a distribution and research tool.

Which is great. Journalists need a reason to use Facebook. More of our prospective users are on Facebook than on Twitter and, yet, most news organizations I’ve been in contact with seem to do much better on Twitter in terms of interaction, page views and clicked links. But the Journalists on Facebook page is currently not very helpful in spreading Facebook’s message. Currently, wall posts consist of mostly first-time journalists sharing self-promotional information (such as pages or blogs) and very little exchange of information or ideas on HOW to use Facebook in a reporting mechanism.

The most interesting thing on the page is a poll that Facebook itself put up asking “What do you hope to gain from the ‘Journalists on Facebook’ page?

Seven of the eight most-chosen responses on the poll indicate that journalists gladly say that they don’t have a clue and are hoping that Facebook, though its Journalists on Facebook page, will help to bridge the gap between the news content they have and the more personal content that people on Facebook seem to consume. Most people don’t use their Facebook as a way to get mainstream news – they use it as a way of getting a highly curated stream of entertainment from people that they a) usually know in real life and b) share certain personal characteristics with (such as location, education or workplace/industry).

So what are the secrets to cracking Facebook? Curated news feeds that are targeted to specific regions, industries and highly specialized interests. The Ledger does decently on Facebook, but Voices of the Gulf (a NYTRMG joint project that was started to share coverage about the Deep Horizon oil spill) does even better because it targets a specific population that either lives and works nearby the oil spill or  has passionate interests in the environmental aspects thereof.

I was planning on getting into the differences between Twitter and Facebook in terms of news distribution and dissemination but this post has already become longer than I planned. I’ll save it for later in the week but I’ll give you a preview: Twitter is better for news than Facebook, it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future and I will tell you why.

Best. Day. Ever.

April 4, 2011 1 comment
Tornado by Andy Kuppers

Sports editor Andy Kuppers was the first to contribute images of the tornadoes.

Thursday, The Ledger recorded its best day ever in terms of page views (our actual number was about 100,000 more page views than our last record-breaking day). I would argue that it was also our best day ever in terms of audience engagement, reader interaction and keeping the site fresh with breaking news content.

The morning was one of horrible weather – tornadoes were reported throughout the Central Florida area, along with high-speed winds, hail and lots of rain. We started putting together a report on the weather conditions early. As soon as it was safe to be on the roads, several reporters and photographers left the warm (relative) safety of the office and hit the streets.

What we did right:

  • Set up a gallery so we could crowdsource local photos from readers. This gave readers an easy way to tell their own stories and was also a boon for page views – almost 100,000 of our page views came from this photo gallery. It was also much faster to gather local readers’ photos of the storm than it took for our own photographers to transmit their pictures from the field and we didn’t have to waste time uploading photos ourselves directly after the storm.
  • Crowdsourced local reactions to the storm – our managing editor/digital put together a Storify using local Tweets about the severe weather. This got several thousand page views, showing it had an audience outside the local Twitter population.
  • Two reporters stayed at their desks, taking down information about damage, power outages and other consumer information. This gave us a direct link to readers and gave them a way to voice concerns.
  • We put together an interactive map of the county, showing where the tornadoes had been reported and with reactions of local residents to the storm and the subsequent damage.
  • We quickly changed the homepage when we got enough related pieces of media. This gave readers a way to see all the connected elements and showed that we were paying attention to the story as it changed throughout the day.

What we did wrong:

  • It took too long for our photographers to upload photos into our own staff galleries. Obviously, this had to do with the severe weather conditions and the fact that electricity was down in a significant portion of the county, but page views could have been significantly higher (I’d estimate another 50,000, easily) if we had gotten more than the dozen photos we had uploaded before the end of the work day, Thursday.
  • People were Tweeting about the storm while it was still going on but we didn’t put together the Storify until after the tornadoes had cleared. This means we had a two-hour window where we could have possibly been getting page views when we weren’t.
  • While we posted a few messages on our social networking sites – mainly Twitter and Facebook – we could and should have engaged our audience better on these sites. Linking more elements throughout the afternoon (instead of adding information to our original post on Facebook) could have gotten us more attention and page views. We didn’t flood our fans, but we could have given more updates throughout the afternoon and into the evening with relevant information.

All in all, it was a great team effort on the part of the multimedia team and the entire newsroom. We gave our readers a wide breadth of information about the severe weather and made sure to give them a chance to shape our coverage. We also learned better what to do next time when significant breaking news happens: Have a plan and execute it early.

Why Ads on Twitter Don’t Compare to Ads on TV

March 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve seen them before – “celebrities” who Tweet an ad for a couple bucks. I usually don’t think much about those ads, but they annoy me greatly. Today, writer Joel Stein sent a Tweet:

I didn’t say anything or respond but I was kinda miffed. I thought about unfollowing but I hadn’t quite formulated why, exactly, seeing an ad in my Twitter (in the feed of a person I chose to follow) was so disconcerting until Joel followed up with this Tweet:

“Some people pissed I accept twitter ads. Curious why it’s worse than ads in Time mag, Vh1, time.com, sitcoms, gmail. Is it more invasive?”

Yes, Joel. It is invasive. Not because I’m pissed that I’m seeing ads in my Twitter stream. If ads were part of the Twitter experience – the way that Twitter was able to make money of this great micro-blogging tool that I’ve become so attached to – I wouldn’t mind very much. I already see ads in many of the free Twitter iPhone apps that I use to check my feed or send a quick Tweet by when I’m not at my computer. However, when I see an ad in my feed, it’s a feeling that someone has invaded my world. Twitter isn’t a passive medium like television or a magazine. Twitter is a carefully cultivated list of people whom I want to hear from. These are people in my community, in my industry and, yes, a celebrity or two who occasionally have relevant or interesting things to say.

I follow a couple hundred people on Twitter. I don’t read every message that comes though, even though I’d like to. When I’m trying to catch up on what I’ve missed since the last time I’ve checked Twitter, I often skim the page for pictures of people I know I’d like to see, no matter what and make sure I read them. Joel will no longer be one of those people. That’s not because I’m mad at him or what he says isn’t relevant to me anymore. It’s because the knowledge that he sends out Tweets that are advertising messages means that he’s no longer a top priority for when I need to get through a few hundred Tweets quickly. I’ll still follow him – he’s only sent out a handful of ads since I first started and they’re easy enough to skim over – but if the ads increase, he’ll be gone. There’s plenty of other comedians and writers on Twitter who don’t feel the need to make a quick buck by inserting an ad into their feed.

Why the Future of Journalism Requires More than Personnel Restructuring

March 8, 2011 Leave a comment

My newsroom is being restructured. We’ve been told that we’re going to be focused on the digital product above all else and the reorganization includes three new positions that will be devoted to a digital product.

Matt Waite, one of the core developers of PolitiFact, wrote a blog post today at Neiman Journalim Lab called, “To build a digital future for news, developers must be able to hack at the core of old systems.” This isn’t directly related to my point here – that change has to come in the process, not just the people, involved in a transition to digital. But it is tangentially related: Waite’s main complaint is that the talk about transforming journalism to a web-based product is just talk until our content management systems have the ability to handle the rich media we want to create in them – until the developers can tear apart our standard CMS and rebuild it into something better, stronger and more agile.

Knowing that, it’s entirely understandable why many of the people who manage newspapers — who have gone their whole professional lives with this rhythmic production model consciously and subconsciously in their minds — would view the world through that prism.

Our newsroom has started to experiment with specialized news apps – we’ve ramped up the number and breadth of databases we provide, we’ve created an online community for local moms, we’ve constructed an online product exclusive for local prep sports coverage and we’re in the process of developing both an entertainment portal and a hyper-local news site.  However, like Waite mentions, we’ve had to build these almost entirely out of our main content management system because the CMS is built with traditional news reporting in mind and doesn’t have the ability for any of the interactive or rich media content we dream about.

We could make the argument that we’ve got the people, the knowledge and the passion to create a better multimedia experience for our web users. But until we have the buy-in from corporate that involves a CMS that allows for that kind of interactivity (or the permission to use our own choice in CMS, like our private server for Ledger Data or our niche sites on Ning and WordPress), we’re going to be stagnant and working against our own vendors.

Journalism Valentines

February 14, 2011 Leave a comment

My Valentine isn’t a journalist, but he is a linguist and we’ve been dating long enough for him to get most journalism jokes. Take, for instance, the name of my blog about the future of the journalism industry. He and a journalism professor are just about the only people who have gotten the joke without it having to be explained (and everyone know that if you explain a joke, it’s no longer clever).

So when I started to find custom-themed Valentines this year (my favorite will always be a Starbucks one that says “I love you venti”), I gave him a couple journalism valentines. Here’s some of my favorites. All Valentines courtesy of 10,000 Words.