Returning to my March discussion of unbolting enterprise stories from the Sunday story, I’m going to discuss how the New Haven Register staff handled two enterprise stories earlier this year.
I encourage you to look at both story packages:
- Mark Zaretsky’s story on the Five Satins, the group that recorded the classic song, “In the Still of the Night” in a New Haven church basement 58 years ago (and, amazingly, all the singers are still alive). The story included a video and photo gallery by Peter Hvizdak.
- Digital First’s Connecticut newsrooms collaborated on a Sunshine Week project checking the compliance of state police departments with the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
I’ll deal with the Five Satins here and with the Sunshine Week project in a subsequent post. First, an admission: I should have published both of these posts much earlier, when the stories were still fresh. Life intervened and pushed them back on my to-do list for too long, but I want to publish them as I’m wrapping up my contribution to Project Unbolt.
I also should note at the outset that my observations about the Five Satins story are a rewrite/update of an email I sent Mark and the editors after the story initially published online. The story was well under way by the time I arrived in New Haven, pushing for the staff to rethink how we handle enterprise stories.
The Five Satins reflected some of the unbolted enterprise approach I’m advocating (published online Monday, six days before appearing in print on a Sunday; strong multimedia elements). But I thought deeper planning for the digital audience could have resulted in improved engagement and stronger digital content, so I provided suggestions for doing better in future stories.
I think this is a process newsrooms should use as you develop digital-first skills: After you publish a significant story, discuss what you did well and how you might apply similar techniques on future stories. Also discuss how you could have done better. You may never have time to try all the digital engagement techniques you could use in a story, but you can steadily improve your performance by considering how you could have done better.
So here’s my email to Mark, Peter and the editors (with a few updates and with their permission):
First, I absolutely affirm the digital publication of this story well ahead of the Sunday print publication date. This story might have been lost online if we’d published Friday night or Saturday. But publishing Monday, it’s the fourth most popular story for the week, with 1,900 Facebook likes. So excellent call on publishing it digitally on Monday. I might have planned a few ways to give it more continuing lift through the week, but more on that shortly.
Second, I absolutely want to praise letting the text story run at considerable length online. Sure, it’s a long story that a lot of people aren’t going to finish. But it also hooks you and keeps you reading. Digital stories aren’t limited by print space, only by reader interest. This should be and is a long text story. BTW, I’m not saying not to edit digital stories tightly. A long story should have a quick pace, but people will read long stories online (as the high number of shares indicates). Can we check metrics for this story and get a number for time spent with the story? That might be a good measure of the engagement potential of enterprise reporting. (The answer: People were spending 3-4 times as long on this story as they were with any other story on the day we checked.)
Third, I absolutely affirm the decision to use a longer video with this story. Fred Parris was a delightful video presence with an engaging voice (and willingness to share it), even at this age. When you use longer videos like this, I’d experiment with the length as you do longer videos. Seven minutes is pretty long for a video. If more people watch (or share) at five minutes than seven, that might be a target for some (but not all) longer videos. I did a six-minute video that got nearly 3,000 views, so I know people will watch longer videos. Continue taking the time to produce good longer videos and learn from the data you get on them (can you tell how many people watch it all and, if not, where they stop viewing?).
Fourth, I affirm the heavy use of links in stories. We need to do this more. There were so many relevant videos and other related links, and putting them in the story increases the browsability of the story (not to mention the googlejuice). That was definitely worth the time of adding the links.
Fifth, good call that it’s not either/or on the video or Media Center. While the video was more enchanting with Parris actually speaking, the use of the same photos from his archives in the video and photo gallery was a good choice, giving readers multiple ways to explore the story visually.
Sixth, good call on weaving the Touts from other interviews and the audio clip into the story. One suggestion on the audio clip: Encourage people right in the text to play it as a soundtrack while they read the story (the song is playing in their heads anyway; Mark practically sings it for them). I actually thought that was a video (and my first time through, the actual video stopped for me on the slow wifi in the building, so I didn’t even click on the audio clip). Nudging the reader to play the music while reading the story would make a great multimedia experience.
A few other suggestions for digital storytelling and engagement around this:
Draw a story like this out over multiple days. You possibly could have done this by breaking the actual text story into multiple days, but I liked the way this one flowed and read, so I wouldn’t favor it for this one. But on an enterprise story covering complex issues, that might be the perfect approach. But the next ideas I’m going to be sharing will be some ways you could have made (or perhaps still can) this a multi-day story (and no doubt drive still more traffic to the original story).
A fairly easy second day of this story could be a curation of the various covers of “In the Still of the Night” through the years. You’ll find a bunch of them on YouTube and could embed them into an article fairly easily. There are even a couple of videos of other songs by the same title that you could use, noting the duplication of titles. The story links to the various covers, but a curation of them in video or audio as a second-day part of a series would add to the fun without a ton of work. And, of course, you give Pete’s video with Parris another ride as part of this package. And link back to the original story and Media Center, giving them more of a ride.
The Detroit Free Press did a great thing for the 40th anniversary of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (alas, it’s no longer available online). In addition to stories about Aretha and the song and so on, they did videos of people trying to sing it. Some of them were outstanding (but not as good as Aretha) and some of them were embarrassing. But they were all great video and engagement. This could be another day of this series: Mark and/or Pete find a few people in the community — musicians, community leaders, people on the street — and talk them into doing impromptu renditions of “In the Still of the Night.” Hell, Mark should lead the way. And then you invite people to join the fun. They can do videos themselves and upload to Tout or YouTube and send you the link. Or you invite them to a time and place and shoot them. Maybe you have a vote on who’s the best. Update: The Register partially followed my suggestion, inviting people to submit their renditions of “In the Still of the Night.” It fell flat and didn’t get any submissions. If that means my idea was bad, that wouldn’t be the first time. But I tend to think this idea needed a few videos of staff or community figures, at the Register’s initiative, to work. This suggestion shows the importance of planning for the digital package: If you plan the community videos as part of the initial package, it has a much better chance of success than adding it after initial publication.
This story is ripe for crowdsourcing. You could have done some in advance during the reporting (on social media or a story or both). But the story would be the best vehicle. A couple avenues I can think of:
- Do you know what became of Curley Glover? Try to track him down if he’s still alive or his obit if he died. If he’s gone, maybe you can use the crowd to track down some family who could talk about how big the song was (or wasn’t) to him. Explanation: Mark’s story said simply: ‘Glover could not be located.’
- What are your memories of ‘In the Still of the Night’? (Prom theme, kids conceived to it, old girlfriend or boyfriend for whom that was ‘your song,’ etc.) Explanation: If you read the story, you’ll see how the band members talk about hearing such memories from people, including a lady who said all four of her children were conceived to the song.
OK, I’m going to take a wild guess that the New Haven Register isn’t going to pop for the money to sponsor a reunion performance bringing these guys together one more time before they die. But maybe you can drive it. Maybe you start a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the show. You ask the guys if they’ll do it. You line up a venue (hopefully donated, but if not, in the Kickstarter budget) and bring them all back home for one final show.
And the early publication shouldn’t be its only big ride on the home page. If it’s going to get a big ride in the Sunday paper (it did), plug the longer online story and video and give it a prominent ride on the home page Sunday. And play that front-page up big in social media, with links to the story(ies).
Anyway, you get the idea. I loved what you did with it. I wanted to share my ideas for doing more with it (either now for this story or in planning for future enterprise stories).
Update: A question on Twitter and my answer:
@carriemelago No negative reaction at all. Why go print first? Digital elements (longer story + videos + audio) made that version stronger.
— Steve Buttry (@stevebuttry) June 12, 2014
Tell about your unbolted enterprise stories
I welcome other journalists (from Digital First newsrooms or elsewhere) to share stories about how you planned digital enterprise packages independently from print. Whether you work at a digital-only operation or a digital-print newsroom that recognizes you can’t let the Sunday newspaper drive your digital journalism, I’d welcome a guest post explaining how you planned your coverage, what you did, how well it worked and what you might do differently next time.
Tomorrow’s post will explain the Connecticut newsrooms’ Sunshine Week project.