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Get Smart About Your Readers: Ideas & Insights
Thursday, April 16, 2009

Online offers new opportunities, challenges for investigative reporting

(David Stoeffler)

OK, so stories about the First Family's new dog, Bo, probably drew more Web traffic on Easter weekend than an Associated Press investigation into the detention of U.S. citizens who have been mistaken for being illegal immigrants, or a Los Angeles Times look at how investors are benefiting from a federal program aimed at helping poor families buy homes.

Does that mean the future is dim for online readership of investigative journalism or that in-depth or explanatory reporting is not valued by digital users?

In a recent Presstime article, Charlotte Hall argues that one of the strengths of the print newspaper is its ability to help readers step back and assess bigger-picture issues.

Hall, editor of the Orlando Sentinel and outgoing president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, says the newspaper can offer "the kind of in-depth and analytical work that the 24/7 breaking news world on the Web cannot provide. Print is good at the things the Web is not good at - watchdog, explanatory, enterprise, narrative storytelling. The two media complement one another. One is the flowing river, changing constantly; the other is the rock on the shore, fixed and solid."

I agree that the two media complement each other - and I'd like to see print editions put more emphasis on long-form journalism, good storytelling and strong use of photos and other visuals. Too often these days, the newspaper is simply a summary of what was already reported online, rather than a unique product.

That's one reason I am interested in the experiment under way at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Editor Nancy Barnes explained in this post why the organization is breaking in-depth reports in print first, and then publishing them several days later on the Web.

I'm not sure delaying publication is the right answer, but at least it is an effort to differentiate the print and online products.

What I'd rather see is more effort by newsrooms to create different versions of the story for different audiences. You'd create a long-form version for the print edition, displayed with photos and graphics. And, while you could make the full text available online, you'd develop a shorter text version for prominent display online, supplemented by video and audio, plus maps, satellite images and interactive graphics, as well as tie-ins to searchable databases. Online versions would be full of links - to original source materials and to related stories (including from competitors). And, of course, readers would be encouraged to participate in improving the online content and commenting on it.

In these ways, online can be a powerful ally to in-depth and investigative journalism.

Need proof it can be done by a mid-size news organization? Check out "I Didn't Do That Murder," from the Times Herald-Record, of Middletown, N.Y. This Ottaway paper, which has a strong online track record, was recognized for its work with a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi Award for online investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. The report uses online storytelling techniques, mixing in videos, a crime scene map and an interactive timeline.

Click here to visit this Web pageAnother good example comes from USA TODAY and its special report on toxic air near America's schools. In addition to the text, the online version of the series included several video reports, plus an interactive map and an exhaustive, easy-to-use database. You can search by state and then by city/county or by school name to find out how your school or area rank in terms of air quality. And once you've identified an area, you can look at details on local sources of pollution, and learn more information about potentially dangerous chemicals in the air.

Imagine the amount of newsprint required to provide the same amount of information.

Investigative journalism in the public interest is the mission of ProPublica and the site has a cleverly done Investigations section that helps readers keep track through a simple feature called This Week in Scandals.

Talking Points Memo won a Polk Award for its use of crowd-sourcing that helped lead to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Of course, there are many other good examples of how online journalism is developing. But don't take my word for it.

Jay Rosen, the deep thinker from New York University and ubiquitous PressThink blogger, recently engaged his Twitter followers with the following observation about Charlotte Hall's Presstime comments.

"It's 2009, and the president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors is saying 'the Web is not good at explanatory?'" Rosen wrote. When asked for more details, he responded: "One example is, which does a better job explaining the polls than all newspaper stories about polling combined."

By David Stoeffler (
David Stoeffler runs Touchstone News Consulting and is a former top editor and vice president for news of Lee Enterprises. He is a frequent speaker at industry meetings and a regular faculty member in Media Management Center programs.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

What it takes to tell a great story online

(Rich Gordon)

Though journalists have been creating content for the World Wide Web for almost 15 years now, there's still much we don't know about what makes for effective storytelling on the Web. To be sure, there's no shortage of Web stories. But it's still rare to see Web storytelling that takes full advantage of the unique capabilities of this medium.

Click here to visit this Web siteHere's one storytelling example that hits the mark: Our First Loves, a new Web site launched by an experimental undergraduate class (Advanced Interactive Design) at the Medill School, where I teach. The site features (as I write this) 89 first-person stories about "first loves," broadly defined - love for another person, for books, a dog, a family member, even Chewbacca from the "Star Wars" movies.

The site represents the work of 11 students who tackled every aspect of Web site development - from content to technology to design to usability - under the direction of my faculty colleagues Susan Mango Curtis and Jeremy Gilbert. It inspired me to come up with a list of attributes of great Web storytelling.

Here goes. Great Web storytelling is:
  • Visual. Like TV, magazines and great newspaper photojournalism, great Web stories should look stunning. The Medill students achieved this goal with a clean design featuring lots of white space and a home page that features a dozen stories, represented as Polaroid snapshots.

  • Interactive - as in, the user is in control of the storytelling experience. A user has many different choices in how to move through the site - clicking on the Polaroids, selecting based on various criteria, visiting the students' favorite stories, and more.

  • Interactive - as in, users can interact with the content. They can rate each story by answering the question "This story made me..." and then choosing from 15 options, from "smile" to "want to slam my keyboard."

  • Structured. This is not necessarily immediately apparent upon looking at the site. But every story is categorized based on a variety of attributes: the age and gender of the contributor, his or her age at first love, where the first love took place, the format of the story (audio, video, text, slideshow), the most common story ratings. To plan the site, the students built an elaborate spreadsheet that captured each attribute of every "first love" story. These multidimensional categories allow easy searching and browsing of related stories.

  • Multimedia. Stories are presented in images, audio, video, slideshows and text.

  • Technology-driven. It would have been very difficult to build this site as a series of HTML pages. Instead, it was built on top of WordPress, which is generally thought of only as a blogging platform but is also a very powerful database-driven Web content management system. Each story is actually a record in an SQL database, and the WordPress engine provides much of the magic that makes the site such an interesting user experience.

  • Navigable. "Our First Loves" has a clear, consistent interface that always offers multiple options to the user. The site's navigability is a direct result of its data-driven and highly structured content approach.

  • User-generated. The site encourages people to submit their own stories, which are reviewed by the students before posting. The students considered allowing user submissions to go live without moderation but decided that the risks of inappropriate content were too great.

  • Personal. While the Web is a technology-driven medium, "Our First Loves" is intensely personal - a characteristic of many of the most compelling Web stories.

  • Usable. Like all Web sites, "Our First Loves" can't engage an audience unless it makes sense to users. The students did extensive usability testing before settling on their final design and navigation approaches.

  • A team game. While it's true that the Web opens up publishing to individuals like no other medium, great Web storytelling like "Our First Loves" requires collaboration among people with a variety of skills - in this case, visual design, technology, video production and more. The students organized themselves into roles: project management, content, technical development, and design/architecture.
The students presented the site last week to an audience of faculty, students and Medill staff. Some of the things they said they learned:
  • How to work on a team;

  • How to transfer print design skills to the Web;

  • The value of usability testing;

  • How to use new tools, such as WordPress;

  • The basics of HTML and CSS.
It also helped, said student Jessica Huang, that "we're all really good about meeting our deadlines."

After the presentation, I conducted an email interview with Gilbert, a Medill alumnus who returned to his alma mater in September to teach digital journalism. Here's our interview.

This class brought together students with a variety of strengths and pre-existing skills. What did the class have to be taught that few if any of them already knew, in order to accomplish the end result?
There were two categories of skills the students either needed to learn or benefited from more practice: how to organize a project and Web development skills. The students had all been in team-based work environments before, but they needed to learn how to structure a fast- paced, Web development project. Co-instructor Susan Mango Curtis and I stressed both leadership and project management skills. The student leaders structured the project and helped determine what each other student's specific area of responsibility would be. Also, many of the students needed basic HTML and CSS to be able to use WordPress, the platform we had chosen to create the Website.

How important was it for students to have print design experience? Could the project have been as successful with fewer people having print design skills? What would be the minimum number of skilled print designers needed to pull off this project?
As a prerequisite, the students either had to take a print design class or a basic online storytelling class. Having knowledge about journalism, and especially visual journalism, was very important. The students' print design experience did not make building a Web site possible, but principles behind print design introduced the students to hierarchy, typography, color and grids - all of which are essential. To pull off this kind of project we needed at least 2-4 skilled designers and I would not have expected such a compelling, immersive Website from journalists without a visual background.

What skill set(s) that only one or two people had were indispensable to the project?
The decision to use a highly-customized WordPress site required some experience working with PHP (scripting language) and a fair amount of HTML/CSS experience. Likewise having a student interested in advanced videography and video editing skills allowed the class to create different kinds of stories. The class very much benefitted from the skills of Tom Giratikanon (the WordPress/PHP expert) and Tommy Giglio (the photography and video manager). Without them, the class would have to have been taught differently. For example, instead of starting from scratch with the WordPress theme we could have built on something existing or used a different content management system. The Web site building is not the most complicated piece of the project; the sophisticated, visual storytelling and the clarity of the user experience is.

What does this project suggest about what journalists need to know today (and what students should learn in journalism schools)?
All journalism students should all have some basic experience with HTML, CSS, Web 2.0 storytelling tools, multimedia reporting skills (photography/videography/audio recording) and a basic understanding of how to use employ/use a content management system. Far too many professional reporters with extensive, polished resumes are finding themselves forced to self-publish online. Had they had this basic training, that might not be a frightening prospect.

By Rich Gordon (
Rich Gordon is Associate Professor and Director of Digital Technology in Education at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

No secret to readership: Give them something to talk about

(David Stoeffler)

What do octuplets' mother Nadya Suleman, the "25 Random Things" lists on Facebook and the weather have in common?

They are all something to talk about.

In my consulting work and speaking engagements, I'm frequently asked to reveal the secrets to building readership in print and online. If only it was a secret, my consulting business would be much more lucrative.

As detailed in the Readership Institute's 2003 Experience Study, "something to talk about" is a powerful motivator that can drive readership. Across all demographics, researchers found similar responses - people want a source of information that gives them something to talk about with other people.

Certainly big news events - just like the weather -- are easy fodder for conversation with family, friends or co-workers, or for or those uncomfortable moments in the elevator. And nothing beats a great story to prompt conversation, even between strangers on a train, whether it is passage of a federal stimulus bill or something offbeat like the recent tragedy in which a pet chimp had to be killed after mauling a woman in Stamford, Conn.

But I'm a believer in planning ways to beat the odds rather than relying on random news events, so I am always on the look-out for regular features offered in print or online that get to the heart of giving people something to talk about.

Here are some examples of what I mean, including many items I highlighted in a recent presentation for the Minnesota Newspaper Association convention in Bloomington.

Good editorial pages often provoke thought and conversation, but I like a quirky feature from the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. Each Sunday, Sticker Shock features a photo submitted by a reader of a bumper sticker that struck the reader as clever, funny or making an important point.

The Sioux City (Iowa) Journal goes one better with its daily front-page letter to the editor called The Mini. Readers compete for this coveted bottom-of-the page space to say in one or two sentences what takes the normal letter writer 250-300 words to say.

The Journal, which deserves a look if you are trying to find a small daily worth imitating, also has recently started an online feature called Afternoon Delight. Editors describe it as "a midday feature on something non-news related that helps take your mind off of everyday worries."

Humor is a difficult thing for many newsrooms, but one that has been doing it regularly for more than 10 years is The Oregonian in Portland with its feature called The Edge. It's a collection of news of the weird and the kinds of jokes often traded through e-mail. It appears on the TV page. Says Executive Editor Peter Bhatia: The Edge is "very popular with younger readers, but also with older sick readers like me."

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you'll usually find just the facts in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls (Iowa) Courier's long-running feature called Call the Courier. The paper answers reader questions ranging from the serious to the trivial, including questions about the paper's operations.

A safe bet for something to talk about is in writing about people.

Click here to visit onBeingOne of the best online examples out there is The Washington Post's onBeing interactive video feature on "musings, passions, histories and quirks of all sorts of people."

Some of my favorite people items include simple items, like this regular feature in the suburban weekly Wellesley (Mass.) Townsman, highlighting high school Artists to Watch.

Prep sports are also a great source for those talker stories. A good example of a small newspaper doing well in this regard is the Faribault (Minn.) Daily News, which is chock-full of fun, easy-to-do features, including Senior Spotlight, Coaches Corner, Athletes of the Week, a question of the week, photo galleries and a fun blog called "Sports Talk with Mark (Remme) & Marc (Zarefsky)," in which two sports staffers duel over a sports question.

Of course, no good journalism discussion these days can ignore Twitter with its ubiquitous plea for you to answer the most basic something-to-talk-about question: "What are you doing?" Los Angeles Times' columnist James Rainey does a great job explaining the value and appeal of Twitter for those of you not yet on board. I highly recommend following that old gentleman, Colonel Tribune, to see an example of how this tool can be used by a news organization wanting to engage its readers.

By David Stoeffler (
David Stoeffler runs Touchstone News Consulting and is a former top editor and vice president for news of Lee Enterprises. He is a frequent speaker at industry meetings and a regular faculty member in Media Management Center programs.

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