Moneyball journalism

Why would anybody major in journalism any more? Is that a job that will exist in the future? I think so. Here’s a presentation I did at AEJMC last year on the unique selling propositions that journalism still has.

The power of curation for building an audience

I read a lot. In fact, most days, the first thing I do in the morning is head to the computer to check out what good ideas other people have come up with that people who follow me on social media or here might be interested in. I pick and share the best, and that, in a nutshell, is curation. Here’s what I told my students about it:

Why you need to engage with the news

One of my favorite times of the week in my media writing classes is the time when we talk about current events. News knowledge is a mainstay of journalism programs, and even though my students are a mix of all communication disciplines (most NOT headed towards journalism), I’m happy to devote the time. The students follow an event per week (their choice) in 4 different media, write a short paper and come to class prepared to talk about what’s going on. We usually have 10-12 unique items per week to discuss. Highlights this semester have included the events in Ukraine, Ebola, the kidnapping of  UVa student, NFL player abusiveness and more.

We do more than talk about what’s going on – I stress to the students the need to find context for the events. This is the why and how of the news, and it helps you to be an informed citizen if you look for that kind of context around public information.

Tuesday is a special day: It’s National News Engagement Day. The brainchild of the president of the AEJMC (the egghead journalism professor international organization), it’s a time to lean in to the news. I think it of as a reminder of why we need to be informed.

If you live in the USA, you need to be informed because your opinions matter. The entire fabric of your system of government is predicated on an informed electorate. That means not only knowing what people with whom you agree think on a variety of issues, but knowing what people with whom you do not agree think. And why they think those things.

I had my students ask more than 300 people why news is important. Here are some responses:

  • “A well informed person has a better perspective on the world”
  • “News is important because the events taking place in the world effect everybody”
  • “News helps condense a large world into a small world”
  • “Understanding the reality of people all over the world is vital to being caring global citizens”
  • “News still matters because society is formed from people’s thoughts and ideas”
  • “It’s vital for everyone to be informed on current events if we desire change & evolution of society”
  • “Without news we would be even more miserably uninformed than we already are”
  • “Why do you think journalists are executed in Syria? Because news matters”

As our sage respondents noted, news matters, and comes at a cost. If you have time to read this today, you have time to follow the news.

How will you engage with the news today?

The best writers get out of the way

This is Parents’ Weekend here at Elon University, which means that this morning I got a chance to meet some of the people who are largely responsible for making this year’s students who they are.

It’s always fascinating, and I have really great students this semester. Meeting the parents is also a good chance for me to think about what is valuable about what I teach.

This semester, I have two sections of Media Writing, and so most of the parents with whom I talked had students in one of those classes.

Here’s what I told them:

1. Although their students came into the university with strong writing skills in terms of both mechanics and argumentation, in a sense, high school taught them only the first way they will communicate.

2. Writing for people who you pay to read your writing (your teacher) is a quite different exercise from writing for people that you want to pay YOU for your skill and for your ideas. 

3. Media-style writing is a VERY challenging task with 3 parts:

  • Writing with only enough frill to engage. If you are writing such that your reader thinks “Wow! That’s great writing.” You have overdone it.
  • Getting information from confusing or poorly organized live sources like speeches and interview
  • Writing on tight deadlines.

4. If you are able to do all three, and do them well, you are well on your way to being very valuable, not just in the marketplace, but as a citizen and a friend. Those who communicate the best are often the most influential in society. 

When I started graduate school, the professor I met first told me that because I had been a media writer (I am a recovering newspaper reporter), graduate school and everything else was going to be easier for me. I have never regretted being able to write well and quickly, and I love passing this skill on to my own students.

Communication facing outwards

The teens at my daughter’s high school know something that many communicators don’t seem to. They are very active content creators in multiple social media, both ephemeral (think SnapChat) and more permanent (think Tumblr). And they are intently focused on audience reaction, which they measure much as community managers do – impressions, engagements and the like. Furthermore, they expect that the creators of the content they consume, their peers, will engage with them about it.

There’s a lot to learn here about the way tomorrow’s audience (and even today’s) wants to be a part of the story.

Recently, I presented some research completed with my Elon colleague Max Negin and undergraduate Maggie Sloane about what readers want from journalists on social media. Almost 18 percent of readers stated they wanted interaction with the journalist. Thus far, the number of journalists who are on social media is growing, but still limited. The number who actually interact is smaller still. The great majority of journalists I follow use social media as a platform for communicating AT the audience, rather than WITH the audience. 

This is a wasted opportunity As Neal Schaffer notes in his book “Maximize Your Social,” engagement and listening are essential elements of a social media presence. This helps to build your online reputation, but even more, it tells you what is important to your audience. As a writer, you are nothing without your audience. 

If you make your listening public by highlighting and responding to what your audience is creating related to you, you can generate community among your readers/viewers. Ultimately, this helps you to do your job better, as you harness your followers to identify topics, leads, sources and angles for you. And it may help you to be relevant to your audience tomorrow.

Jargony jargon, transparent business and your audience

I’ve been enjoying following the growth of Buffer, a service that lets you schedule and track social media posts. The thing that interests me is the way that they are choosing to build their business, which appears to mostly be through an application of content marketing that is so strong that I think I’ll use it as a case in my grad strategy class in the spring. 

In addition to doing a great job of building community with users who choose to interact with them online, the founders maintain social media posts, the company populates several blogs and will even send you a newsletter about business decisions and how they are working out. It’s very interesting to watch – pretty much a 360 from the business model of secrecy that a lot of organizations use. The strategy can serve to both convey trust to prospective users and to feed current and interest prospective investors.

The most recent blog post on their “Open” blog interested me mostly because it is very jargon-heavy for someone who doesn’t have business training. There are quite a few acronyms, used before they are defined, and terms like “de-risking the founders” that you’d have to have specialist knowledge to understand.

The Open blog, dedicated to transparency, has a mix of pieces, mostly designed to do the job of content marketing – to build trust by giving value to the reader. But in a stream of accessible articles on creativity, persistence and life hacking, the articles on developer projects and business growth seem to be created for a much more targeted audience (although they vary in tone from month to month).

It brings up an important concept in strategic communication – consistency. It’s something legacy media generally did pretty well. Teams of editors or producers would work to have a common level of vocabulary, complexity and tone across pieces, while allowing for the voice of the writer to be evident. In more flexibly managed or rapidly evolving organizations, it can be a challenge. 

One thing I suggest to my writing students is that they use some focus questions about the audience to plan the style of writing needed, both for single pieces and across everything:

  • What do they already know?
  • What do they want to know?
  • How do they prefer to learn things?

For the strategic communicator, it’s easy to think about what I want the audience to know. And that’s important to me. But if I don’t focus on the audience, I can lose some opportunities. 


The good news about news

I teach the introductory writing course in our majors, and the assignment I give on the first day is to go out and interview someone in a particular demographic about their news use habits. It’s not a scientific survey, to be sure, but it usually gives some interesting results.

First, the good news – all 36 people my students interviewed said they did follow the news in some way, regardless of age or gender. That’s important for a communication major looking to justify his or her career choice amidst a barrage of messages that news is dead. It’s not.

Second, although the great majority consume news online, the ways of finding it vary.

Some highlights – 

Social referral was tops for those under 30. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were quite important to that age group – so much so that I asked my students to estimate what percentage of Americans use Twitter, and they guessed 80. (hint – that’s very wrong. It’s more like 20) Think of social referral like amateur curation.

Lifehacking the news was important for folks 30-50. People in that age ranges were like to use aggregation sites like Yahoo News or the Drudge Report or RSS readers to find their news and would regularly check those sites during the day. They also used some legacy media like drive time radio and legacy media web sites. We talked about how aggregation is a tricky one, since in some cases it’s an algorithm that is determining what’s important for people to look at. 

Habit won the day for those 51 and up. They used TV news and newspapers at planned times during the day. My students said they thought these older Americans aren’t on line or don’t use social media. That’s also wrong. It just seems that they don’t see social media as a means for finding out what’s important. Out of the whole survey, these folks were most likely to trust professional curation.

If you are in an emergency, you need to use multiple channels. The youngest respondents were the most likely to say they would use a search engine to find out what is going on right now (which is frightening…). In the middle would check news websites. The older respondents all said they would turn on the TV. 

Ultimately, the message for communicators is the same: know your audience and find them where they are.