What I learned in grad school: Three tips for the news industry
A new graduate school program launched in 2015, focused on “social journalism,” and I was lucky enough to be a part of the inaugural class. I was already a news industry junkie before arriving, and this program just gave me more access to the people and places that are paving the way. It was like being a kid in a candy store.
We had tons of smart guest speakers, including S. Mitra Kalita, Brian Stelter, Zach Seward, Robert J. Rosenthal, Tony Haile and many more. Hearing about their experiences and predictions, talking with many social journalists as part of research I’m doing, and through our coursework, I have a good sense of where many newsrooms have room for improvement. So, here are the three mindset shifts/strategies I’ve come away with grad school feeling passionate about:
#1: The burden’s on you to reach the reader.
News organizations need to stop thinking about being the “go-to” source for news. People aren’t going to go to you. You have to go to the reader/viewer. Same goes for “must-read.” The burden’s on you, the journalist, to find your way into the life of the reader. Stop expecting that the reader will spontaneously realize they must go find and read your story because… reasons?
I believe it was Zach Seward who framed it for us as “pull” media (reader makes an effort to consumer the news: newspapers, nightly news, tuning your radio to NPR, etc.) vs. “push media” (news org makes an effort to reach the reader where they are, through mobile notifications, social feeds, etc.). We are in the era of “push,” so adjust your strategies accordingly.
#2: Use what you know about your reader.
Back when I was studying print design as an undergrad (so long ago!), I was fascinated with eye-tracking studies done by Poynter (here’s a link to one from 2006) that could teach you where the reader was looking on a page and how they traveled between different elements.
Nowadays, you don’t need to rely solely on big studies like this — you have that kind of information about every reader, on every story you publish online. You can have data about who each reader is, and where they come from and where they go next. You can even know where they physically are located at the moment they are interacting with your content. It’s amazing to me that reporters and editors aren’t using this information, or in many cases don’t even have access to the same information that counterparts on the “business” side do.
And stepping back from the spreadsheet kind of information, there are so many new ways to learn from and about your readers. More journalists could benefit from experimenting with tools like Hearken, Ground Source, simple A/B testing, or by interacting with readers on social media and in comment sections.
#3: Each story and beat requires its own marketing plan.
When The New York Times published its exposé on nail salons, this magnificent quote appeared in a column by the public editor:
“The rollout was more like a book launch than a newspaper investigation,” Mr. [metro editor Wendell] Jamieson said. “It was planned weeks in advance. It’s a whole different way of thinking.”
In addition to standard marketing techniques (timing, TV interviews, social media push), the Times also translated the nail salon series into Spanish, Korean and Mandarin. The newsroom had clearly considered what readers would be most interested in the story, and did the necessary work to make it accessible to them. Of course, not many newsrooms have the bandwidth to translate or develop intricate marketing plans for each piece, but having a plan for how to reach certain kinds of readers of each beat is doable.
Beat reporters should know where the communities they cover are communicating, whether it’s through a listserv, at a donut shop, in a Facebook group, or at official meetings. That knowledge should be documented and then harnessed to make sure that the story about a community gets shared with someone who will send it out to the listserv, or gets printouts to the donut shop, or tags the right organizations on Facebook. Few stories are universally interesting to every single person, so few stories should be marketed to a generic persona. As Jeff Jarvis writes in his book Geeks Bearing Gifts (that led to the Social Journalism degree being created):
As we in media build new skills around relationships, we must first stop seeing people as a mass. We need to know them, then serve them as individuals and communities.
So, tying back to points #2 and #1, we can know readers so much better now, and newsrooms should use that knowledge, compounded with a beat reporter’s knowledge and relationships, to better deliver the right stories to the readers who care about that topic, in the places the readers already go.