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ASNE 2012: What Should Your Newsrooms Be Doing Right Now?


Nancy Barnes, editor, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Karen Peterson, executive editor, Tacoma News Tribune
John Geddes, managing editor, The New York Times
Eric Newton, senior adviser, Knight Foundation
Joshua Benton, director, Nieman Journalism Lab

Tools and code from Knight projects

Knight Foundation has funded dozens of journalism innovation projects, many of which have produced working code or online tools that news organizations can use. See them all at or in the spreadsheet below.

TOPIC 1: How best to use local journalism students in campaign coverage (Tacoma)

— Send them to campaign events to shoot video and tweet. (There’s a tool being designed by Reporters’ Lab at Duke that matches up a video with a tweet stream so you can use the tweets to find the cool part of the video for story production purposes.) Archive video from everyone’s stump speech on your site, for people to get a taste of what Candidate X is saying on the trail.

— Have the students help assemble the data for dedicated candidate pages, including links to your coverage, those stump-speech videos, candidate questionaires, endorsement listings, and more. Good for SEO.

— Have them go to local TV stations to get the public files on TV ad spending by candidates and assemble that into a spreadsheet that generates stories, a la what ProPublica is working on.

— Look at the 10 Questions platform, which takes video questions from the public, votes them up or down, and then invites candidates to respond and votes the answers up or down. The platform works best when you have a group of people who will go to local debates with video cameras and make sure the questions are answered.

— Build on the Guardian/NYU “Citizen’s Agenda” project and get the students to spend time surveying people on which issues matter most to them.

— Another idea is Crowdmap. Students could map every campaign event so that people could see at a glance which candidates were doing the most campaigning.

— Other elections ideas: Steal the CBC’s Vote Compass, a quiz that asks questions and then places the reader on the political spectrum by party. You could build one based on individual local candidates’ policy stances. Create something like ProPublica’s old ChangeTracker to track changes to candidate websites and policy pages.

— Other links: Mobile Media Toolkit, TurboVote, Politiwidgets, Congressional Primaries, VoteSmart.

TOPIC 2: How to make a great newspaper tablet app (Minneapolis)

Compelling data from The Telegraph on its iPad app: its users say they value the sense of curation, that the mess of the web is being edited and curated for them — something emphasized by the clean design. You’d likely find similar data from other newspaper and magazine iPad app users — the clean environment is a valued alternative to the blinking busyness of many news sites.

— The Telegraph data also shows a spike in usage at night — something common to most tablet apps. Here’s data from Read It Later (compare web vs. iPhone vs. iPad).

The Telegraph app responded by creating a night-viewing mode in the app. Another way to respond is the way the Orange County Register is, by bringing back the idea of an afternoon newspaper through its iPad-only product The Peel.

— Think niche — or think apps plural intead of app singular. The Times-Picayune has an Ultimate New Orleans Visitors Guide app aimed at out-of-towners.

The New York Observer’s parent is working on a shopping app aimed at rich Chinese visitors who come to NYC to shop at fancy stores.

Depending on the market, there could also be openings for a real estate app, a new-to-town app, a restaurant review app, or others.

— Think human-centered design a la IDEO or Pivotal Labs to anticipate user needs. Engage your own community in the new app design.

— Learn from aggregators like Flipboard, Zite, News360 in user interface and UX design. Watch the apps coming out of PRX for public radio for ideas.

— Think about opportunities for aggregation or manipulable datasets in an app, like OpenBlock or Local Wiki.

TOPIC 3: How to optimize user experience by device (New York)

— Ongoing research: Pew-Knight work shows different content migrating to different devices. Poynter is doing an eye-track study on tablets, in which the Boston Globe is involved. Columbia’s Tow Center is starting to put together a good research agenda and could use your feedback. The good news is that all these new devices appear to be increasing news consumption.

— The key: figuring out how to incorporate customization without creating extra work.

— Mobile devices offer a do-over moment. More than half of all data traffic is expected to be mobile by 2016. Social media operating on mobile devices allows for “cooking in public” with greater tolerance for mistakes so long as they are in the context of transparency. The mistakes of the early newspaper web sites do not have to be repeated, i.e., using it only as a republishing platform.

— Mobile and social are especially good at breaking news — push notifications are a powerful tool to drive attention. But your app has to provide a good experience for when your reader taps on that notification.

— One idea might be to crowdsource some of these questions by using the “rolodex management” software from Public Insight Network (not join the network but use the code) to set up your own database of community advisers. This could be a group of local people volunteering not just to be sources for news stories but to be product design contributors.

— In general, tablets are optimized for videos and photos (worthy of a dedicated UI access point, and play them big), longer reads, and interactives. They’re leanback, which means coming closer to the old single-issue paradigm and that there’s benefit in a clean design environment.

— In general, smartphones are optimized for quick-glance headlines and make a stronger argument for aggregation. (For example, the Times’ dedicated politics iPhone app, which mixes in aggregation from other sources in an effort to be a must-read for politics junkies.)

— But people will still want content in unusual places — video on their phone while they’re standing in line somewhere, or quick headlines on a tablet. It’s more a matter of what gets highlighted.

— Remember, apps are still slow. Launching the NYT’s iPhone app and waiting for it to load stories takes precious seconds. The mobile web is still the most important source of on-the-go readers, and it has the benefit of being cross-platform.

TOPIC 4: How to build the brand of a restaurant critic (Tacoma)

— All locally branded features are not created equal. Promote the ones that really have a chance.

— Play around with ebooks. The National Post has been experimenting a lot with repackaging columns and other repeated content as ebooks. An ebook restaurant guide could be a paid-content revenue source, as a restaurant app could be a good advertising source. Other potential revenue streams: events, print books, TV partnership.

— Use social media more. The Tacoma critic’s Twitter feed is just a feed of stories; let her mix it up a little with the audience and add her personality. Use the Facebook page to ask questions and drive responses (What’s the best Italian in town?, etc.). Ask questions of the audience in general, on whatever platform; people love to share their own food experiences, either from restaurants or their own kitchen.

— Delineate between the content with staying power (e.g., restaurant reviews) and without (e.g. latest restaurant news, openings, closings, etc.). The reviews are a reference that can have a longer life and which are more likely to be the target of search, but the news dominates the page.

— A popular restaurant critic in a food-oriented community is golden. Build a community around her, as this KOMU anchor did in Google+ (800,000 followers).

— Consider a partnership with the local NPR station where the food critic does a spot on All Things Considered once a week to talk about a restaurant or food subject and cross-promote the blog.

— It might be better to partner with mobile restaurant reservation business than to start one yourself, but that’s possible. Real-time tweet reviews, if she doesn’t already. Or curating crowd reviews.

TOPIC 5: How to increase video inventory and plays (Minneapolis)

— There’s a trend toward more live video programming, particularly live appointment shows that feature a mini-newscast. WSJ’s WSJ Live app, for example. Or Reuters TV journalist-hosted, web-length videos:

— The Star-Ledger innovated here with Ledger Live, but moved away from live shows in 2009. I think they were just a little too early. There’s room to disrupt the noon local TV newscast.

— Build up the personas of your journalist-hosts. Bonus points for interview shows that can have staying power and still be relevant and viewable in weeks or months.

— Columnists, sports beat reporters — plenty of opportunity there. Also look at something like Politico’s election-night broadcasts as a model for special events or breaking news.

— They take a little more work, but video explainers serve a strong journalistic purpose (explaining a difficult concept; providing context that can be linked from subsequent stories) and have a much longer potential shelf life than most news web video. Examples: the sort that ProPublica has done on issues like fracking or redistricting.

— Potential tools: Zeega, an in-progress tool to easily create collaborative documentaries in HTML5. Stroome lets you edit the same video from multiple locations. Link TV has developed a semantic player that coordinates what’s in the video with the links around it. The University of Maryland, for News 21, developed a player to show the issues being discussed in “people on the street” videos.

— One way to increase video inventory is to tap Snag Films, which has a customized player to can sell to, and you get to count the traffic as staying on your site. (Disclosure: Knight is an investor in this company.) You can “embed” independent documentaries in your site wherever they fit with your content.

— For many papers, raw beats polished when it comes to creating your own video. Raw interviews can be put on line before stories are written, for example.

— For papers with more resources, the NYT’s Op-Docs model is interesting, working with documentary filmmakers to create five-minute videos. There are probably documentary filmmakers (or students) in your community who would love the platform of your website.

TOPIC 6: How to evaluate ROI on social media (New York)

— The payoff for social is, when done right, audience loyalty. In an online environment where the competition and every possible distraction is a click away, brand loyalty needs to be nurtured. One way to do that: build trust and expert status in individual reporters. As Times staffers like Brian Stelter, David Carr, and Nick Kristof have done well. A Twitter relationship with them leads to stronger brand loyalty to the Times. At the reporter level, it’s also a great way to show openness and decrease the appearance of standoffishness or distance.

— Plus, there’s big audience to be had. The new numbers from the Guardian — that Facebook had passed Google as a referrer — shows the power of a well managed Facebook app (even as FB apps still raise plenty of questions of control).

— Transparency is a core value. That conflicts with the historic mass media practice of keeping stories behind the wall. In social media, there’s a greater tolerance for developing stories being imperfect. And many stories now develop in social media. That argues for incorporating it as a reporting tool.

— One size doesn’t seem to fit all. Promotional tweets linking to traditional media content don’t grow followers as well as a mix: You tweet questions about things you are working on, praise folks in the community saying something good, beat the drum for things coming up. It’s using social media as both a distribution channel and a process channel.

— Developing a common set of expectations is key. Culture eats strategy for lunch. News, Improved talks about the role of training. The culture of continuous change will be quite difficult for many because of the defensive nature of news organizations.

— Just figuring out how to handle the amount of training is a big job. Here are the new things that emerged from just one computer assisted reporting conference.