While media changes, the goal remains the same

Despite changing landscape, outlets must still cater to target audiences to remain relevant

Ten years ago, Andrea Courtois was just starting her career as an assignment editor in Providence, Rhode Island. Ten years ago, Rafat Ali was in the throes of his first startup, paidContent. Ten years ago, Justin Ellis was a reporter and columnist for the Portland Press Herald of Maine.

Ten years may not seem like a long time to anyone over the age of 30, but in the world of journalism, ten years has meant significant changes and adaptation. Though the three journalists just mentioned came from different media within the same industry, and had very different ways of conducting their jobs ten years ago, now how they research stories, cultivate sources, and follow leads is nearly identical. Nearly all of it is done online.

Courtois is now an assignment editor in Boston; Ali has sold his first startup to Guardian Media Group and launched a second, Skift; and Ellis is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

All three of them are quite aware of the changing dynamics of digital journalism. “Print and magazines have their place,” said Ali via Skype. “But daily newspapers in the U.S. do not make sense economically.”

Ali created his first startup, paidContent, in 2002 as an online news outlet that focused on aspects of digital media including business dealings, moves, and general news. In 2008, he sold this startup to Guardian Media Group. He took some time off, and in 2012 launched his new startup, Skift. Skift’s business model is providing news, information, data, and services to all sectors of travel.

In order to be sustainable, outlets need to diversify and think about other ways to brand themselves, suggested Ali. In addition to writing articles, sharing data, and engaging with readers via social media channels, Skift also hosts conferences and events. “There is a creative renaissance in conferences and events,” said Ali. “I think TED changed how we look at things, that we can build events around a certain subject manner. The Atlantic, Quartz, (The) New York Times, they’re all building revenues around events.”

PHOTOS: 15 minutes as a television assignment editor

Inviting audiences to events can help readership and loyalty. And so can engaging them online. Courtois tries to do that every day as an assignment editor at WBZ-TV. During a recent interview, Courtois said there’s a wide variance of acceptance of digital journalism throughout television newsrooms. She indicated that the level to which these newer platforms are used to enhance the traditional one depends on direction from news directors, producers, and ownership.

For her own growth and knowledge, Courtois said she takes the lead in many cases. “I try to check out whatever everyone is talking about,” she said. “Whether it’s Instagram or Snapchat or anything else, I usually sign up for an account to at least check it out.”

Whereas ten years ago Courtois would spend her time reading newspapers online or in print, these days she spends most of her time using TweetDeck cultivating stories for her crews.

“I set up (a reporter’s) entire story yesterday using Twitter,” she said, while sitting at her desk. “And people will tweet me tips all the time.”

As she said this, she stopped mid-sentence to turn up the volume on the police scanner to listen to a dispatcher talk about a reported attempted abduction. Courtois still uses more traditional means to get stories – whether it be a police scanner, email, or a simple phone call – but she said social media and digital journalism are what get most of her attention these days.

She even remembers when she signed up for Facebook in April 2007. “It was the day of the Virginia Tech shooting,” she recalled. “I had an intern tell me about Facebook, and I signed up to try to find students from Rhode Island who were there.”

“I also work to get permission from people to use their photos,” Courtois said. “Once I get that, I email it to everyone from reporters to producers to graphic designers, to let them know the information and the appropriate credit.”

The pictures and videos she finds online travel fast, much faster than when there was just one evening newscast and a morning paper.

Justin Ellis spends a lot of his time at Nieman Journalism Lab evaluating from where journalism has come and where it’s headed.

“Newspapers are not dead,” he said decisively during an interview at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. “But they need to figure out different ways to be more effective in how they’re distributed.”

Ellis went on to say that The Washington Post and The Boston Globe have recently been able to lean on wealthy owners to evaluate their next steps, including how to reach and serve audiences, which includes a heavy focus on mobile devices.

“A news website now has more than 50 percent of its traffic from mobile,” he said. “Places need to pay attention to creating custom experiences on mobile.”

Ellis doesn’t necessarily see it as a dire time in the news industry, but every outlet needs to figure out what its audience wants and needs. He said those outlets then need to be able to service that need.

“When you’re not consumed by scale, it lets you hold on and thrive,” he said. He pointed out that niche organizations, like Ali’s Skift, don’t need to be all things to all people, but they do need to do what they’re doing well. “These small- to medium-size websites with a dedicated audience can do really well,” explained Ellis.

But if editors and owners want their outlet to reach the largest possible audience without being true to a dedicated audience, it may not do as well. Ellis added that niche doesn’t need to be as specific as a media outlet that solely focuses on small businesses; it can be local television stations or newspapers. “The news in Boston is different than in Lowell than in Springfield than in Portland,” he said. “But readers of The Boston Globe aren’t going to the site just for Patriots news; they want to know about news in their community.”

Ellis said in order for news organizations to continue building community they need to focus on their social media presence and the comment sections of their websites. Ellis said Twitter has become an accepted source and not a fringe tool, and fewer people are skeptical of it. But the audience there is still small, and the reach is far smaller than on Facebook. “The people on Twitter are generally people in media or tech or work in entertainment. Electronic media for them is already the norm,” he said. Instead, organizations need to be active on Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, and pay attention to their comments.

“We’ve reached a point with comments where in order to make them effective, they [news organizations] need to know what their goal is,” Ellis explained. Additionally, outlets need to spend time moderating them, putting effort into watching them, and laying down the law on what is acceptable and what is not early and often.

Recently Kara Swisher’s latest venture, Re/code, decided to go the way of Reuters and eliminate comments on articles. The time spent monitoring comments on their own site wasn’t worth it, Ellis said. Instead, Swisher and the site’s co-founder, Walt Mossberg, wrote to readers that the conversations would continue on social media platforms. “In effect, we believe that social media is the new arena for commenting, replacing the old onsite approach that dates back many years,” they wrote.

“In an ideal world, investors would be discussing things (in the comments section), but they don’t have the time to put into that,” Ellis said. “Frankly, the conversation takes place on Twitter.” But that conversation is segmented, there’s no community, and it’s limited to 140 characters at a time, he added, which doesn’t necessarily help to build brand.

While it’s unclear where journalism is headed, all three seem to agree there is an expected focus on community, digital footprint, and mobile. But how news organizations, big and small, get there isn’t clearly outlined. For now, as Ali explained, organizations will need to focus on making themselves and their product so important to their customers that if that product went away tomorrow it would be missed.


Interviewing the interviewers

Last night I had a healthy debate on Facebook with the former chair of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, as well as a couple of other SPJ members, though they may be former members, now.

It all stemmed from an article in The New York Times about NBC News’ and ESPN’s recent interview with Janay Rice, the wife of NFL player Ray Rice. (In case you missed it, there is video of Ray Rice hitting his then fiance, now wife, Janay Rice, while they were in an elevator in a hotel in Las Vegas. Ray Rice was then let go from the Baltimore Ravens, and Roger Goddell, the NFL’s commissioner, suspended Ray Rice indefinitely from the NFL. An arbitrator ruled last week that Ray Rice be reinstated to the NFL, overturning.)

Kevin Smith, the former ethics chair, posted this on Facebook, with a link to the NYT story:

This is a disturbing trend that is greatly undermining the credibility of broadcast new — buying exclusive interviews and allowing sources to audition the outlets that will interview them.

This isn’t about truth. It’s about spin and managing the message and the TV media is buying into it and putting millions in the pockets of these celebrity sources for the privilege of skewing the story.

The news has always been about competition and getting the exclusive interview, but today, network deep pockets and public relations managers are controlling news content and the public is expected to accept this as honest and fair reporting.

Ethical journalists need to rebel. Refuse to audition for a scripted interview that does nothing more than serve as a PR statement from the source. Stop paying for news. Period. How can the public place any trust in a story when they know a network paid hundred of thousands to the person for the “truth”?

The following is posted with permission from the commenters.

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15 minutes as a television assignment editor

I had the opportunity recently to visit Andrea Courtois at WBZ-TV in Boston. Courtois is an assignment editor for the television side of the operations, though she works closely with the folks at WBZ NewsRadio 1030.

As an assignment editor, Courtois is responsible for gathering elements for the newscasts including interviews, information, and now, in the age of digital journalism, tweets, updates from Facebook, and photos from Instagram.

In the ten years that Courtois has been an assignment editor, she says her job has changed tremendously. She says she tries to stay up-to-date with whatever new social media platform there is, where people are talking, and how to use social media in news gathering.

Her job is incredibly busy. In the 15 minutes I took these photos, Courtois had numerous phone conversations, often on two phones at the same time; she was writing emails while talking on the phone; she monitored Twitter; she booked satellite time for her crews in the field; and she was listening to the police scanner, at one point stopping mid-sentence, turning up the scanner, and listening to a description of a reported attempted abduction.

A data visualization of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Infogr.am 1
Infogr.am 2
Infogr.am 3

Editor’s note: this was an assignment for my master’s class. The entire visualization can be seen here.

He’s ba-a-a-a-ck!

Keith Law, the baseball writer from ESPN, who had been suspended from Twitter by his employer, is back. And his first tweet is a doozy.

Quoting Galileo in his first tweet back, Law puts back on the table what ESPN apparently tried to take off – a conversation about science.

Translated, the quote says, “And yet it moves.” The story is that Galileo supported Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory that the Earth orbits the sun. Galileo was brought before a Roman Court and found guilty of heresy. After receiving his sentence of house arrest, Galileo looked to the sky and muttered those three words.

In writing them in his first tweet back, Law not only shows he’s a well-read man, but that he’s not going to back down from his stand against fellow ESPN baseball contributor Curt Schilling. Interestingly, Schilling was never suspended for his tweets.

After I posted the original story about Law’s suspension, I heard from my professor, a Red Sox loving, hard-nosed journalist. He wrote, “You ask if an employer can stop an employee from tweeting. I actually think what happened was more pernicious than that. Journalists are required to tweet, and are then hung out to dry the minute they exercise poor judgment. It’s really unfair.”

It will be interesting to see if ESPN ever makes a statement on the whole situation, or if supervisors there hope it can just go away.

Can your employer keep you from tweeting?

twitterApparently in Bristol, CT, yes, an employer can keep you from tweeting. According to Deadspin, Keith Law, a baseball writer at ESPN, has been suspended from Twitter by his employer. It’s unclear why, but there was speculation it had to do with his defense of evolution.

It wasn’t just any defense, though, it was a defense he mounted against Curt Schilling of bloody sock in the World Series fame. Shilling, who unsuccessfully started a video game company in Rhode Island and was recently treated for cancer, is now back at ESPN as a baseball analyst.

Deadspin updated its article with a statement from ESPN stating, “Keith’s Twitter suspension had absolutely nothing to do with his opinions on the subject.” However, it does not give any further information.

Here’s my question, if it wasn’t for his online conversation with a pitching great about science, what was the suspension for? There’s no disputing that Law was suspended, which, in itself is questionable, but no reason given. Ok, it’s a personnel issue, and those are generally kept locked behind a closed door. But how can ESPN say, “You cannot tweet until Monday”? I ask that in all sincerity.

It’s not as though ESPN owns Twitter. And if there were other questionable tweets, why not cite those in a response? I have so many questions after seeing this article, and I wish I could find some answers. But I won’t be going to Twitter to get them. At least not from Law. Until Monday.

NPR and the Kardashians

NPR and the Kardashians are not two names that you might expect to see together. But Melody Kramer of NPR wrote a compelling article today about how the Kardashians are winning the internet – or at least social media.

Looking at it from a business aspect, Kramer broke down how the famous – infamous? – family uses every branch of its family tree to promote its brand, which happens to be its name. It’s a tangled web they weave, but they are doing it so well that they’re making money hand over fist.

Kramer makes great points that can be translated to how media companies should look at their content. There’s the idea that if you’re doing something big, have everyone on your team promote it. Now, I have seen a few instances of this where it becomes obnoxious, but mostly because everyone is doing the same thing. They all have the same message, on the same platform, at generally the same time.

What Kramer points out that the Kardashians do well is split up the work, make all the posts different, and post at different times. Not everyone is looking at your feed at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, and they may miss the post if that’s the only time it’s there. It’s a fairly obvious point, but an easy one to overlook.

Another point that Kramer makes is “go into your archives.” The ever-so-popular “TBT” (Throwback Thursdays) can be a great time to pull out content previously posted. It doesn’t have to be from “back in the day,” simply not today. Heck, it could be yesterday if it’s something to which you want to drive traffic.

Kramer has a few other points, and you should really take a moment to read it yourself. It’s not everyday you’re going to see NPR and Kardashians on the same page.