Web Publishist

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The news and online journalism industry through the eyes of a young Web publishist.

Third Way social media: Let’s outsource it

Newsrooms worldwide are grappling with the implications of having to suddenly become adept at utilizing social media to promote their Web sites. Writers complain that it’s not in their job description; they don’t want to; or they just plain don’t know how.

Because  so many newsrooms remain pretty far in the Dark Ages of new media the task of outfitting an entire newsroom is a daunting task. Some will write up a plan, circulate it around their newsroom and hope it implements itself.

For those in the “hope it fixes itself” camp, you may be interested in who I met yesterday at a media job fair at City University London. During the fair I chatted with two representatives of Agency:2, a London-based social media agency. I was a bit confused about what a ‘social media agency’ does, so I decided to ask.

What they do is assist organizations with their social media needs. Asked if this meant organizations were just outsourcing their social media strategy to them, they nodded in agreement

I asked if their clients set out benchmarks for them and they said not really. The company goes in and establishes their client’s social media footprint, tracks what people are saying about their client, and helps their client remain competitive within the social media sphere. Since social media is still in its experimental stage, everyone — including these social media agencies — is still determining what works and what does not.

An excerpt from their Web site:

We promote brands within influential online communities. We do this by deploying our writers to actively participate within discussions on popular and highly targeted user generated sites such as forums, blogs and social networks. In addition, we monitor relevant conversations within such user generated sites to help brands improve their customer insights and competitive intelligence.

This is an interesting approach. For a news organization that is stretched thin, this could be a viable option. By handing this off to a third party it gives the news organization the ability to both have a social media presence and keep the articles flowing at the same pace.

The are also downsides to this. Namely that it prevents staffers from becoming trained in the ways of social media. This approach also would not work for a title facing severe budget shortfalls and thus cannot afford to employ a third party.

Despite all of that, I do think this could be a real possibility for some titles to establish their social media footprint while they wade through the financial crisis. Once the paper gain its footing, editors can begin to train or hire people to take over the responsibilities of maintaining their social media profile that was built by the third party.

Filed under: design, newspaper websites, social media, ,

Crowdsourcing my dissertation subject decision

This is a bit of a break from what I typically write about, but I thought if anyone could help me reach a decision on this, it’s the industry professionals who read this blog.

Many of you already know that I’m currently pursuing an MA in Electronic Publishing at City University London. I came to do this degree because I wanted to gain an edge in the ways of new media, both through shooting and editing A/V, and Web development.

For my dissertation I have two options: I can write a full academic dissertation; or do a project and write a shorter “dissertation” to accompany it. I’ve been thinking about this dissertation for a while. My first ideas were pretty far-fetched and (most likely) involved more travel than I can afford. But I have a new plan. It’s a project that I’m very interested in doing. But I do have reservations.

The project

In February 2008 I had something of an epiphany about my hometown newspaper, The Oakland Press. I realized how badly they needed to launch a Web-based youth-focused news magazine. I know this because I’ve been a resident of Oakland County nearly my entire life. But before going to the paper with this idea, I decided to do a bit of research to see if my theories about the county’s population were at all as I believed they were: young, educated and affluent. Here’s a excerpt from the proposal I eventually sent to the paper:

Today’s Oakland County resident is dynamic, well-educated, Internet-savvy, and young. According to a recent American Community Survey, the 18 to 24 segment of the population grew almost 8 percent between 2002 and 2005, to 91,228. In that same survey, it found that the 25 to 44 age segment represented over 28 percent of the population, totaling 339,210 in 2005. It also found that children in Oakland County made up almost 25 percent if the total population and numbered 297,331 in 2005.1 These same young people are also affluent. According to a recent study by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Oakland County has the third-highest per capita income in the nation, at $52,274. That is up 7 percent from 2003.2 A population that is affluent, dynamic, Internet-savvy, young, and well-educated is unlikely to get their news from a standard newspaper.

I saw this as a great opportunity that needed exploring. Unfortunately this proposal came in March 2008, when the industry was beginning to enter its current free-fall. It didn’t help that the company The Journal-Register Company, who own The Oakland Press, was essentially bankrupt at the time. So new spending in an atmosphere of consistent staff layoffs made getting this project off the ground increasingly unlikely. The paper expressed interest, but not in the idea of me producing it for them. They asked me, in effect, to freelance for my own idea. Obviously I couldn’t accept that.

In the time since I sent my proposal, local media coverage in Oakland County has essentially evaporated. With The Oakland Press experiencing an identity crisis, The Detroit Free Press canceling their regional publications, and a major monthly glossy magazine going belly-up, there exists a vacuum.

With my dissertation project, I’d like to fill that vacuum. My idea, however, is smaller than the original proposal I sent out, of a county-wide Web-based publication. Instead I’d like to go hyperlocal, focusing only on the goings-on of my home communities of Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham.

This would be a one-man operation: me. I’ll write the code, write the stories and shoot the multimedia. I’d do this from the middle of May to the end of September. At the same time I’ll be writing the accompanying “dissertation” about the project. I feel confident about being able to develop this because of my background in journalism and, by then, my background in launching online-only news magazines. My second one will launch either by the end of this month or the very beginning of next.

My concerns

It’s important to face facts: The journalism industry is currently in a death spiral. Here in the U.K. the impact is being felt, however the situation is not nearly as bad as it is in the U.S. In the limited amount of time that I’ve been living in London, I’ve been able to afford myself a number of quite lucrative opportunities in the industry and have met very intelligent, well-connected people. Because London is increasingly becoming the global capital once again, the potential opportunities here are more plentiful than they are at home.

There’s also the question of what I do after the project is finished in September. In spite of what the president believes will be the eventual turn-around of the U.S. and world economies, I suspect the trickle-down effect on an individual state basis will take a considerable amount of time. Michigan’s economy is worse off than most other states, so the likelihood that my publication would be bought by a preexisting organization is unlikely, at least in the short term. If the publication is sustainable, I could run it myself. The problem with that is, even running it as a one-man operation, it’s unlikely that I’d be able to make enough money to even be able to begin repaying my student loans.

Another possibility is being hired by a preexisting media organization following the completion of the project, to work on their Web side. I see that as being the most likely outcome if I did return home to complete this project. But is that what I want? Put all the time and effort into creating a publication, making connections, establishing a rapport, just to leave it?

There’s something to be said for picking the industry up by its bootstraps and “being the change” that the industry needs. What I don’t know is if it’s the right thing for me to do.

What do you think?

Filed under: community journalism, newspaper websites, student journalism, , ,

You know a newspaper doesn’t have a Web strategy when …

As more newspapers in the U.S. continue to pare down their newsrooms and close entire sections, the idea of making their Web sites more than a digital dumping ground for the print product has gained traction. This is a view that every newspaper needs to adopt. But there are great differences between a Web strategy and a print strategy when it comes to the news.

Here’s are five metrics I came up with for determining if a newspaper lacks a defined Web strategy:

  • AP overload
  • If you pull up a newspaper’s Web site and more than 25% of the content comes from the Associated Press, there’s problem. For local titles the AP should be used sparingly, and only when it’s a story that you don’t have the time or ability to turn around into a localized version. Running AP copy on your Web site is a lazy approach and does not serve your readers well.

  • Web content wakes up when the print product goes to bed
  • In the late 90s this approach would have worked well because the Internet wasn’t that widespread and many more people still read newspapers. However this is not the case today. There’s a push-and-pull happening in newsrooms about whether to put print content on the Web. The argument goes that by putting content that appears in the print edition, you’re discouraging people from picking up the issue, which then discourages advertisers. In a community where most news is still consumed through the print edition, that’s a valid argument. But in less rural communities, it’s a non-starter. People refuse to wait for the news. And if you make them wait, they’ll find someone who won’t make them wait.

  • Living a blogless existence
  • Blogs present a potential gold mine of page views if they’re done correctly. Most newspapers have a handful of beat writers, covering everything from schools to courts and the drain commission. If the beat writer is truly entrenched in their beat like they should be, coming up with off-the-cuff blog posts on the subject should not be a challenge. Some will argue that with all the demands of their beat to fill the print product each deadline day, they simply don’t have the time. To which I say: you’re wrong. Blogging isn’t something you can dismiss and assume the need for it will go away. You’ve got to adjust your news gathering and news writing habits to make the time to write a 300-word blog post every couple of days. Your credibility, increasingly, depends on it.

  • Dismal or nonexistent multimedia
  • As the cost of HD-quality video cameras come down, seemingly every month, papers have less reason to not have a full-fledged multimedia section on their Web sites. What often happens is papers will just take whatever video AP will let them use, and then call it a day. People can be trained to shoot and edit video. It won’t be easy at first, but once a few people get the hang of it, they can be the ones teaching others. There isn’t an excuse to run stories online without some kind of multimedia component, whether its a sound slide, sideshow or video. Readers may at first not know what to make of it, but if the quality is good, they will come to appreciate it.

  • All text, all the time
  • A common but easily fixed problem that many newspaper Web sites suffer from is a lack of photography on their stories. It’s common knowledge (right?) that people are more likely to look at a photo before they read a headline. If they think photo is interesting, they will continue to read on. Most of the stories on your Web site should have an image to go with it. Not only does it give more context to the reader, it also makes your Web site appear more colorful and lively. Columns of text and the odd image here and there have the opposite effect.

Filed under: design, newspaper websites, , , ,

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