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Archive for May, 2015

As I was working on Wednesday’s post about the Four Platform Newsroom program of Journal Media Group newsrooms, I emailed some of the editors asking for more details.

Below are the answers from three editors, Mizell Stewart III, Managing Director/Content of Journal Media; Mark Tomasik, editor of TCPalm.com and Treasure Coast Newspapers; and Jack McElroy, editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Here are my questions (in bold) and their answers (with some links added by me):

You seem to have managed the right balance between a corporate imperative to change and local initiative in how to change. Too strong a corporate imperative results in one-size-fits-all solutions that don’t work and too much local initiative allows people to decide they don’t need to change (or that a little tinkering will suffice). What do you think were the most effective things you did to achieve and maintain this balance?

Mizell Stewart III

Mizell Stewart III

Mizell Stewart III: From my own perspective, corporate’s role is in creating a sense of urgency within each newsroom around digital transformation, setting priorities and making targeted investments. In the 4P project, we invested in consumer research and created a structure, with the help of the Knight Digital Media Center, to engage front-line and mid-level journalists in driving the change.

My observation is the typical corporate approach to newsroom change is to hammer on the top editor to make things happen or take away so much control that the editor feels powerless. We tried to strike a balance between those two extremes. By enabling the staff committees and putting the editor in the role of facilitator, we tried to create a process in which everyone is learning and growing at the same time. Investing in tools and training showed folks that we were serious. That opportunity for local initiative created the sense of ownership that helped us make great progress.

Mark Tomasik: The most effective things done to achieve and maintain this balance were:

  1. Corporate promised and then provided the unwavering training, the framework and the support (including financial support for market research and ongoing training). The local property had the freedom to choose the topics and the timing as well as how to utilize staff. The ability to customize to fit our market and our staff was a difference maker.
  2. Local decision-making was done largely by a Four Platform property-level newsroom committee (with support from other functions) that was comprised primarily of non-managers. Senior newsroom leaders, such as myself, attended all the meetings, but the role of senior newsroom leaders was to guide and support. The committee itself was empowered to make key recommendations and/or decisions and choices. So, for our staff, the changes felt like they came from them, from within, and not mandated by corporate.
  3. Because audience engagement and feedback was encouraged and baked into the equation from the start, the overwhelmingly positive responses we got from the audience, especially the personas, excited and inspired all of our staff, serving as a motivation to continue with the changes, and the early successes created an atmosphere of positive, progressive change rather than change for change sake.
Jack McElroy

Jack McElroy

Jack McElroy: Thanks for continuing the conversation on our 4P initiative. Regarding your question, I think the key was that Mizell (corporate) imposed a process but left it to local properties to execute the process and find the solutions that fit locally. The process was very deliberate, and it moved with its own inexorable logic. First came the research, followed by creation of local teams charged with dissecting the data and developing plans focused on the research. Training then followed based on the plan. Then came execution. We are now in a reiteration phase, examining results and making adjustments.

At each step, corporate resources were provided. Magid did the research. Knight Digital facilitated the examination of the data, the development of the plans and the training. Corporate webinars shared successes and best practices. We soon will be launching the use of the American Press Institute’s Metrics for News to study results. But throughout, the ownership of the initiatives was local.

In the past, we’ve sometimes seen solutions imposed from on high, or we’ve seen local properties seek solutions autonomously, without much corporate guidance or resources. This change process provided structure and momentum at the corporate level but gave local newsrooms ownership of what that change ultimately would be.

I’m interested in exploring the development of franchise topics and what they mean. Some of the topics are fairly general areas that a single media outlet can’t “own” (the language the report uses in defining the franchise topics) exclusively, such as local entertainment or Tennessee sports. Even if your local newsroom is the best in the community at that topic, alt weeklies (in the metro areas at least) cover entertainment, too, and everyone in Knoxville covers the Vols. Other topics were important local topics that others probably don’t cover much or well (water in Wichita Falls being the best example). So I want to understand franchise topics a little better: Does this just reflect how different newsrooms interpreted the franchises and the needs of their communities? Or did you start out saying the franchises should be a mix of those must-have topics that everyone covers, but we’re committing to be the best and those undercovered topics that are important to the community? Can a newsroom really “own” a big community topic in a competitive market? Or did each newsroom come up with different definitions of franchises that might not have revolved around ownership?

Stewart: I describe franchise topics as public-facing news brands that ground digital transformation in the pursuit of quality journalism. Sure, everyone can cover entertainment – but only Treasure Coast binds entertainment and things to do to social media and crowdsourcing through their pursuit of the #TCPalmSocial franchise. It does reflect how different newsrooms interpreted the franchises and the needs of their communities, and we fully expect those topics to change over time.

We talked more about franchise topics as not being a rehash or a relabel of existing work. They could incorporate existing beats and topics in a fresh, multiplatform way. There is no question that a lot of news organizations cover local government and politics, but I believe franchise is all about the approach rather than the specific topic. InforMemphis is a unique framework, in my opinion, for coverage of local government. That team didn’t restructure the newsroom to add a reporter about craft beer – but it did hold a forum for mayoral candidates that featured craft beer and barbecue for more than 100 participants from the community. Our news organization can own a specific approach to government and politics or college sports, for example, that sets it apart from other local news sources.

Tomasik: We made the choices based on two factors:

  1. Using market research that showed what topics potential readers would be willing to pay for.
  2. Matching any of those potential topics to staff skills. We focused on the topics in which we were certain we had the staff expertise and skills to produce consistently good content with the potential to grow it.

How did you choose and develop the personas to guide reporting of interest to target demographic groups?

Mark Tomasik

Mark Tomasik

Tomasik: We used a combination of the market research and staff on-the-street interviews with potential customers to develop personas. Using the personas was critical to making content decisions. For example, for our #TCPalmSocial franchise, the persona is a married woman with a child. So, if we had our choice of covering a family-oriented air show or an upscale art show in the same community on the same day, we followed the persona and chose the air show, knowing our use of resources had a greater chance of reaching the target audience.

What was the role of live coverage in your transformation?

Tomasik: Live coverage transformed into, first and foremost, a social media/audience engagement opportunity rather than a traditional text narrative opportunity. So, when President Obama visited the Treasure Coast in March, all our journalists used multiple social media platforms as their most effective storytelling device. The engagement with audience was constant and informative. The community used our social media posts for everything on how to avoid traffic snarls caused by the presidential visit (we had interactive maps of his route on mobile) to sharing celebrity sightings (Jay Leno, Ahmad Rashad) related to the visit. The audience demanded and expected information (including visuals) in that format and on those digital platforms; not waiting for narratives on dot.com or print.

This was a lot to undertake in normal times (if those even exist any more). But the corporate restructuring had to present a huge distraction during this process (and probably some skepticism about whether the initiative would survive the merger). How did you manage that external (to the newsroom) upheaval that you couldn’t control at the same time that you’re trying to cause upheaval to reach important goals?

Stewart: Fortunately, the initiative was well underway before the transition to Journal Media Group began. We worked to manage the upheaval by incorporating the transition into our in-house learning and development programs, such as conducting sessions for top newsroom leaders on what it takes to lead through change. It also validated our focus on baking the initiative into the newsroom.

During the rollout of the initiative, we had top editor changes in several newsrooms. In nearly every case, the newsroom committee continued their work on the rollout of local franchise topics while the search for a new editor was underway. This demonstrated to me that engaging leaders at every level is critical to achieving sustainable change.

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Scott Blanchard

Scott Blanchard

Thanks to Scott Blanchard, Sunday Editor at the York Daily Record and York Sunday News for this guest post. Scott is a former Dart Center Ochberg Fellow, whom I invited to respond to my post on advice for steeling yourself to ask tough questions. I added some links to his email response and edited lightly:

I totally co-sign your post and the tips in it. Here are a few things your post made me think of:

  • Listening means being present to the person you’re talking to. Gavin Rees, director of Dart Centre Europe, says that in every interview, there are two conversations: The one in the foreground that you’re having with the other person, and the one in the background that you’re having, in your head, with yourself. When the background conversation overcomes the foreground one, the interview derails. That background conversation needs some room, but don’t let it dominate or distract you from being present with your interview subject. (Gavin has a great chapter in a book on trauma journalism; it’s embedded here.)
  • In terms of accountability questions, I think journalists need to make sure they know what specific question they asked when the subject gave a particular answer. It might make a difference in whether/how you are able to publish/frame the response — especially if the answer includes a pronoun. E.g. if you come back with a quote from an official who said, “No, I didn’t know about that,” you have to be able to say that response was to this specific question, so you understand exactly what “that” refers to.
  • I think it’s a good idea to make best practices for trauma coverage be part of news orgs’ orientation for new staffers (there’s a bunch of great material in your post for such an effort); and it’s a good idea for news orgs to make a point of bringing staffers together to have peer-to-peer discussions about what worked, what didn’t and what can be learned from their work in both trauma journalism and accountability journalism. We’ve been doing both since beginning a relationship with the Dart Center, and we believe those efforts have been productive. More on those efforts here.

As far as the question in the hed of your blog post (how to “steel” yourself to ask tough questions): Because I’m an editor, most tough conversations come to me now — if someone who is upset with us calls — as opposed to me going out on a story. But whether I have to call someone to ask tough questions or just field questions after I pick up the line:

  • I think about a survivor who might want to tell his or her story (as you noted).
  • I draw strength from my colleagues — for example, reporters and photographers in our newsroom — who face these situations far more than I do.
  • I draw strength from my Ochberg Fellowship friends. I know what they’re out there doing. Their support makes a difference.
  • I draw on Dart Center knowledge and our newsroom’s commitment to ethical journalism and to treating people like human beings. I feel as confident as I can that, although someone might rebuke me or us for our coverage, we are acting from a solid foundation and making the most well-grounded decisions that we can.

I welcome other guest posts on this topic: What are tips from your experience asking tough questions?

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Digital LeadsI am cheering on the Four Platform Newsroom transformation efforts of the Journal Media Group newsrooms. And I encourage you to read a new report, published today, about the project in newsrooms of the former E.W. Scripps Co.: Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation.

I have some experience with newsroom transformation efforts. As editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette in 2008-9, I led a local effort to change how a newsroom worked. As digital transformation editor at Digital First Media, I led a companywide transformation effort, first an informal effort involving visits to 84 newsrooms, then helping hire and mentor new editors and finally Project Unbolt, focused on four pilot newsrooms shortly before I left the company last year.

I wouldn’t describe any of those efforts as a complete success, and I know none of them was a complete failure. However much we succeeded, I learned a lot and blogged a lot about what we did.

Michele McLellan, one of the Scripps consultants on the project, knew of my transformation efforts and gave me an advance copy of the report, so I’m going to share some observations here.

During the Scripps project, a corporate restructuring resulted in a merger of the Scripps newspapers with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to create Journal Media Group. Since the Journal Sentinel wasn’t involved in the Four Platform Newsroom project, I will refer to the group here as Scripps. The company consulted with the Knight Digital Media Center at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Today’s Digital Leads report was produced and released by KDMC.

I have visited only one of the eight Scripps newsrooms where the transformation is considered to be working, and that was just briefly years ago. So my knowledge of the changes at Scripps is based solely on reading the report. As a result, I’m not going to praise or criticize specifics of what Scripps newsrooms have achieved or attempted. Instead, I’m going to summarize the 10 keys of the report, with some highlights from the report and advice for other newsrooms undertaking their own transformations: (more…)

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Page one, Omaha World-Herald, June 15, 1997I wrote this story in June 1997 for the Omaha World-Herald. At the time, President Bill Clinton was trying to focus the nation’s attention on addressing its racial divide, through a program called “One America in the 21st Century: The President’s Initiative on Race.”

We can argue here how much Clinton’s own sexual scandal and impeachment sidetracked any progress he might have made, and how much the election of Barack Obama 11 years later (and re-election four more years after that) advanced race relations and heightened the racial divide. But, as racially tinged police relations explode in city after city, and commentary about race is as polarized as ever, the racial divide is again our nation’s most pressing issue.

I present this story as a model for any journalist examining today’s racial divide. I think it was an excellent story at the time, though it had little impact. I hope you might have more impact with an updated approach, and perhaps a broader digital reach or a bigger microphone today.

This was a long story (actually, a package of multiple stories), made longer by my updating notes. If you’re considering a deeper examination of the racial divide, I hope it will be worth your time to work your way through it.

I will present the story as we published it in 1997, interspersed with recommendations today for data reporting, engagement, interactivity and updating to address how the issues have changed (if they have). The paragraphs from the Omaha World-Herald will be presented in plain text. My notes will be introduced in bold as a “Buttry note” of some kind, with the note following in light italics, either a few words or a few paragraphs.

I have posted the 1997 graphics with the relevant parts of the story. Doing it today, interactive data visualization would be an essential part of the story. At the end of this post, you can see how it was displayed 18 years ago. Sources were cited in a large block of type included with the graphic package.

From Birth to Death, Racial Gap Persists

Originally published June 15, 1997, Sunday, Pg. 1A, Omaha World-Herald

By STEPHEN BUTTRY

WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER

Starting before birth, a black child faces longer odds against survival and success than a white child. (more…)

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A reporter’s email asked for advice on “steeling oneself to ask the tough questions? I ask as someone who tends toward introversion when the going gets tougher.”

Effective tough questions (and good answers to them) result from a combination of:

  • Outlook.
  • Preparation.
  • Control.
  • Setting.
  • Recording and photography.
  • Setup.
  • Delivery.
  • Listening.
  • Follow-up.
  • Advance review.

That combination doesn’t necessarily make tough questions easy. They’re tough and introverts need to learn how to ask them if they want to succeed as reporters. But I’ll provide some tips in each area.

Another aspect of tough questions deals with confidentiality. I address that topic extensively in a separate post: Anonymous sources: Factors to consider in using them (and don’t call them anonymous).

Tough questions seem to fall into two categories (unless I’m overlooking one):

  1. Accountability questions. These are the potentially confrontational or contentious questions about possible failure or wrongdoing by the person you’re interviewing, often a public official, but maybe a criminal suspect, business executive or other target of investigative journalism.
  2. Emotional questions. These are questions about emotional personal issues, where you fear that the person might break into tears when answering or become angry and refuse to answer. Often the interview subject here is not used to dealing with the media — perhaps a disaster, crime or accident victim (or a family member of the victim). Or you may be talking about an experience such as war or fleeing a dangerous situation.

For those emotional interviews, I recommend that you browse the resources of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and attend a Dart Center seminar (or invite them to train in your newsroom) if you can. My tips here will repeat some that I offered in connection with a Dart Center program that Digital First Media offered last year. (more…)

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This week I saw a post from a Digital First Media newsroom in my Facebook news feed, and was surprised to see it there. I “liked” dozens of DFM newsrooms during my time there, but don’t particularly care to follow their news that much now.

So I decided to unlike the page. And, while I was at it, I went into the list of pages I liked and decided to unlike a bunch more — at least two dozen, maybe three (it was probably an oversight that I didn’t like all 75 DFM dailies and some weeklies). And most of them, I had no idea I was even following because, well, they never showed up in my news feed. In fact, I’m not sure how that one showed up the other day because I hadn’t seen it in ages. I only recognized two or three of the ones I dropped as occasionally showing up in my feed.*

That illustrates a problem for news brands. I know every one of those newsrooms I unfollowed has staff members faithfully posting all of their stories, or several stories they think have the most appeal, to their Facebook pages daily. And most of their “fans” never see most of their posts.

The most recent estimate I’ve seen of the percentage of fans seeing a typical post was 16 percent, and that was in 2012, and the figure has certainly dropped as Facebook has made several algorithm tweaks, all designed to make it harder for non-paying brands to get their posts seen.

Maybe the number is something like 10 percent these days, but it will frequently be many of the same people, and probably 70 to 80 percent of your fans almost never see a post. They’re surprised when you show up in their news feed, as I was when my former colleagues’ post showed up this week.

But Facebook traffic is growing in importance for news sites. Parse.ly reported last August that Facebook drives 70 million page views a month to news publishers, second only to Google and more than twice as much as Twitter.

In addition, Parse.ly reported this month that stories with a higher Facebook referral rate have a longer shelf life, attracting traffic over more days than stories that don’t get strong engagement. Higher Twitter referral rates also help shelf life, but not as long as on Facebook.

So Facebook is an important source of news-site traffic, but engagement on Facebook is more complicated than simply posting links there (since most people don’t see them). (more…)

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