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Engagement, shovelware, magic bullets, and expanding the idea of journalism: Six themes from ISOJ

Posted by: Mark In: aggregation| conferences| engagement| social media

As expected, this year’s International Symposium on Online Journalism (my first) was an illuminating collision between the academic and practical sides of journalism — I’m sure most everyone left with a full set of ideas for newsroom initiatives, research projects, and the like. But if any of them are like me, they probably also find it difficult to properly process and mentally organize 40 presentations over the span of two days.

So here’s my attempt at tying together a few of the ISOJ themes I saw, in the form of seven quotations that stood out.

1. “Twitter needs to be engaged as an online social network, not just another publication platform.” – Marcus Messner, Virginia Commonwealth University

If there were two buzzwords that filled the conference’s two days, they were “platform” and “engagement.” I think both are ugly words that smack of marketing-speak (really, is there any buzzword that doesn’t become ugly sooner or later?), but the latter in particular represents a crucial concept for news organizations operating online. Just about all news orgs recognize now that they simply have to engage with their users — or, more popularly, “the community” — in order to survive online, right?

Well, if they do recognize that, they certainly have an odd way of showing it. Both Messner and Texas State’s Dale Blasingame did research analyzing news orgs’ Twitter practices, finding that they use it predominantly to broadcast their stories, rather than (gasp!) conversing with people on a medium designed for conversing with people. The need to use interactive online tools to, well, interact seems like common knowledge by now, but among news orgs, it’s apparently not.

2. “They need to be engaged in journalism, not uploading pet photos.” – Jim Brady, Journal Register Co.

Ah, but there’s the rub. All reader engagement, magical as it seems, is not equally useful. This idea runs counter to newsroom conventional wisdom, which seems to have adopted the “We’ll take whatever we can get” philosophy, a mentality spoofed brilliantly in a BBC video showed by University of British Columbia professor Alfred Hermida.

So how do you create that more valuable engagement and connection with users? Brady’s panel came up with some great insights, including the “call and response” model of success espoused by the Washington Post’s Amanda Zamora and the idea from the New York Times’ Jennifer Preston of organizing news websites around communities rather than print newspaper section. It’s not enough to get someone’s blurry pet photo or half-baked “reckon” (you really need to go back and click on that BBC video); we need interaction that means something.

3. “With millennials, they can sniff out shovelware pretty quick. They’re pretty savvy.” – Jake Batsell, Southern Methodist University

“Shovelware” was another commonly heard term throughout the conference, and it was sad to hear it used so often: It was used to define any content used on one medium that was originally designed to fit another. In the case of Batsell’s study, that meant iPad apps that were a mere replication of the print or web experience (and with most publications, there wasn’t that much difference between print and web in the first place). But it was also used to refer to uses of Twitter as a publication platform, or much of the government-directed online news coming out of Egypt in the research of Ahmed El Gody of Sweden’s Orebro University.

4. “It has nothing to do with 30% [revenue cut]. It has nothing to do with 10%. It has to do with who owns the relationship with the consumer at the end of the day, and that’s why we built ours internally.” – Mark Medici, Dallas Morning News, on paywall systems

It’s been opined before that the key factor in all this paid-content/subscription wrangling between Google, Apple, and publishers is not money, but customer data. And here it was, straight from the source: For the Morning News, the decision to build an internal paywall was not about retaining all the revenue; it was about collecting (almost frighteningly specific) individual-level data, which is far more valuable to advertisers than aggregate-level data.

Regardless of the soundness of the Morning News’ paywall plan overall (I was skeptical, as were others), this is a welcome corrective for publishers. The next step, of course, is for them to actually care as much about their audience from a public-service perspective as they do from a moneymaking perspective. Because, as the BBC’s Paul Brannan noted, news orgs are “still very much in the back woods” when it comes to understanding their users.

5. “This is hard, and it’s not obvious to me that this model is replicable and sustainable all over the place … but it’s certainly worth trying.” – John Thornton, Texas Tribune

Perhaps the best panel of the conference was the one on nonprofit journalism, featuring Thornton, the Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, and Gustavo Gorriti of Peru’s IDL-Reporteros. For all the hype and “WILL THIS SAVE JOURNALISM?!?!?!?!?” hand-wringing nonprofit journalism has gotten, this panel — particularly Thornton and Gorriti — was pleasantly surprising in its realism.

That reality is, as the Thornton quote indicates, a nonprofit journalism that is best applied only in certain locations and contexts and is far from a magic bullet. But it doesn’t have to be a magic bullet to be successful, and both the Tribune and Bay Citizen, so far, could be considered successes — at or above their major goals for both influence and fundraising. Despite the realism, there was a lot of reason for optimism regarding nonprofit journalism coming out of this panel.

6. “What we do as aggregators isn’t about journalism. It’s about making sense of the Internet.” – an anonymous aggregator quoted by C.W. Anderson, CUNY-Staten Island

Aside from all the practically oriented material, there were plenty of intellectually stimulating ideas at ISOJ, led by the conference’s top paper, a study of aggregation by Anderson. It spelled out a theme that several other panels hit on indirectly: All of these new online practices that news organizations are interacting with — whether it’s aggregation or participatory news or open APIs — are forcing journalists to confront their own definition of journalism and realize that it’s constricted, irrational, and inadequate.

Anderson’s presentation provided the clearest picture of those shortcomings, noting that journalists’ claim to democratic indispensability often falls back on an undefined concept of “original reporting” that doesn’t even consider the modern technological environment. Aggregators, on the other hand, are rooted in the online world, swimming in a tidal wave of digital content and trying to make sense of it for their users. Now, which of those sounds more journalistic?

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