Posts Tagged ‘groundswell’

One Good Thing About The Great Recession

November 9, 2009

It may not look like it now, but the past two years have been good for journalism. As ugly as it was, The Great Recession hastened the process of uncovering new models the industry already desperately needed.

Among those supporting that process is the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, whose grants are reinforcing the dwindling ranks of state capital press corps, including in my native Maryland.

Led by a Maryland journalism veteran who was State House bureau chief at the Baltimore Examiner when it closed in February, just-launched nonprofit MarylandReporter.Com plans weekday state government coverage through its Web site and subscriber-based newsletter.

Reports by its now two-man team are already getting picked up by mainstream sources, and should only increase in breadth and depth once the state’s General Assembly convenes in January. Given its narrow focus and experienced staff, MarylandReporter.Com should get its share of scoops.

Also encouraging, and something one might not expect from legacy journalism refugees, is its early embrace of social media. Even before its site went live, and even before, by their own admission, its Tweeters were fully comfortable with the tool, MarylandReporter.Com was on Twitter reporting news, establishing its brand, and engaging in conversation about both.

The rub is that MarylandReporter.Com and other organizations like it will have to find a way to earn money on their own before their seed money runs out. Even those who fail, however, won’t fail in vain. At least they’re experimenting. And, importantly, experimenting in ways that would never be feasible at larger, for-profit outlets. As journalism reinvents itself, pushing the limits and learning what doesn’t work is a necessary step for discovering what does.

Open Your Ears Before You Open Your Mouth

October 22, 2009

listen2Yesterday I posted about how businesses tend to delegate social media tasks to their youngest workers and that how young people use social media in their personal lives may not translate to  — or may even clash with — how to use it successfully in the business world.

I added that solid writing is the foundation of solid social media marketing, again, a skill students may not develop, or not develop appropriately, through day-to-day social media use.

Listening is also important, added a peer of mine who’s researching the future of social media.

“From what I have gathered from my research and informational interviews, the mistake made often by companies attempting to utilize social media for the first time is their lackadaisical approach,” he commented. “Social media management includes listening to the groundswell, responding, and being willing to make changes per the feedback received.”

As part of our Interactive Writing and Design coursework, three of my classmates and I are developing a microsite to promote a local jam band’s forthcoming album. The band has used MySpace and Facebook with some success, but is unfamiliar with Twitter.

Immediately, my teammates and I had some ideas about how the band could use social media to achieve its goal of playing in a popular Mid-Atlantic campout music festival. Why not get its active base — it drew several hundred people to a self-hosted festival on a friend’s farm — to talk up the band in places and in ways other fans and festival bookers would notice?

We’re anxious to get to work — the band’s needs seem to jibe remarkably well with what we’ve been learning in our grad program — but know first, we must listen.

Part of our homework is doing literally that — listening to band’s music. Half our group is checking out the band’s tunes, Web site, social media pages, digital press kit and anywhere else the band’s mentioned online. The other half is visiting festival Web sites and the sites of bands who’ve played in those festivals.

We’ll absorb our respective areas as much as we can, then compare notes, looking for overlap between the band’s existing identity and what’s valued in the external spaces.

Newsflash: Funneh Cat Site Iz Serious Bizness

October 12, 2009

Spend enough time on the Internet, and odds are you played a part in circulating a meme. Yes, you probably did, even if you didn’t know that’s what it’s called.

A meme (rhymes with theme), Merriam-Webster tells us, is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” On the Internet, every time you forward, repost or retweet you could be giving life to a meme.

YouTube is filled with memes, like the one parodied on last week’s episode of “The Office.” You might know them better as “viral videos.”

Media scholar Henry Jenkins calls such communications, which can also take the form of music, still images, catch phrases, even clothing, “spreadable media.” “Meme” and “viral” understate the role of the audience, he says.

Whatever you call them, memes can make you a lot of money. The just-released low-budget horror film Paranormal Activity built a marketing campaign around them.

Ben Huh has built an empire around them.

He’s the guy behind wildly popular user-generated meme sites I Can Has Cheezburger?, FailBlog.org, spinoffs I Has A Hotdog! and My First Fail and several others.

Just over a year ago Huh told a Web 2.0 Expo NY audience (video above, presentation .pdf here) some of the secrets of his success. My classmates and I, it turns out, would have said roughly the same thing. And our speaking fees are much lower.

Asked by our Theory and Audience Analysis professor to list qualities that, as Jenkins would put it, make media spreadable, we honed in on many of the same aspects as Huh.

Memes, we said, tend to be simple, discussable, brief, relatable and easy to share.

Huh, earning his speaking fee, I suppose, captured the first two elements in a single soundbite.

“We perceive Web. 2.0 as this complex environment, where there’s lots of filtering, lots of stuff going on,” he said. “But really what it boils down to is there’s two people sharing a piece of content or an experience.”

Think of it as the “Hey, dude check this out” test.

Brevity, meanwhile, is at the heart of the irreverently captioned cat pictures, known as Lolcats, on I Can Has Cheezburger?, where the goal, Huh said, is “to make people happy for just 5 minutes a day.”

The importance that content be relatable explains Huh’s early discovery that many of the submissions to I Can Has Cheezburger? aren’t explicitly about cats. They’re about eBay, drinking too much, everyday annoyances or whatever else users deem topical.

Finally, what really helped I Can Has Cheezburger? take off, Huh said, was the lightweight tool that enables virtually anyone with an Internet connection and basic computer proficiency to upload their own captioned photo. It took a part-timer less than a weekend’s work to put the widget together, but it’s a big reason Huh’s site went mainstream when others like it did not.

“We try to lower the bar for content creation,” Huh said, “because the more you allow users to remove the technology… the better content you get.”

Some tips from Huh that apply to any Web company are to consistently update your site — I Can Has Cheezburger? features six new posts every day, the first coming as East Coasters are arriving to work, he said — and, this will sound familiar, “Groundswell” readers, to listen to your audience. I Can Has Cheezburger?’s handful of full-time employees spend much of their time interacting with users, Huh said.

What’s that? Time for one more Lolcat? I thought so.

Scalpel, Stat! Hold On a Second.

September 16, 2009

Last year around this time, the presidential candidates were talking a lot about tools. No, this is not a Joe The Plumber reference.

Don’t remember? The candidates were speaking figuratively about reigning in spending.

Obama said his opponent’s approach amounted to “using a hatchet when you need a scalpel.” McCain countered that both tools were needed: he’d go in with a hatchet first, then pull out a scalpel.

Regardless of whether you agreed with Obama, his metaphor painted a picture. To use a hatchet for a job clearly meant for a scalpel, say brain surgery, would be silly, not to mention gruesome. To use a communications tool unfit for the task is also reckless.

Not three weeks into my fall semester studies, the mantra, “Let the story dictate the tool,” has been popping up a lot. It’s been nearly as ubiquitous as commentary on Kanye West’s VMA outburst. (Heck, even my favorite football team is weighing in on that.) OK, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but, in the iMedia world, this is a kind of a big deal. It’s being reinforced at every turn:

  • By my class readings: Forrester Research’s social media primer “Groundswell” preaches “Concentrate on the relationships, not the technologies.”
  • By my research: Spanish media company Novotécnica, a May 2008 article in the journal Convergence said, instructs its journalists to be platform agnostic: “Reporters are constantly generating news content and the central desk decides each time how to distribute it,” a senior editor told researchers.
  • And by guest speakers: Former BBC journalist Jonathan Halls implored me and my classmates to focus on the story. Individual tools will go out of style, he said. Sound storytelling won’t.

Unfortunately, pressure to churn out fresh content and establish a presence in new mediums often leads news organizations to violate the story-first credo.

Last year, the now defunct Rocky Mountain News live tweeted a 3-year-old’s funeral. It had his family’s permission, but, a tool favored for posting (often mundane) status updates, sharing shortened urls and firing off witty one liners hardly seems capable of capturing the depth of emotion associated with a young child’s death. “Rabbi recites 23rd psalm,” “family member remembers marten,” “earth being placed on coffin” were a few of the posts.

More routinely, news sites will do a video story simply because they haven’t done a video story in a while or merely tweak traditional content to fit a new tool instead of developing material from scratch that leverages its functionality.

My former paper, which has recently begun to explore Facebook as a news delivery and marketing tool, this summer had an ah-ha moment with Twitter. After weeks of using the microblogging service as an RSS feed in different clothes, it saw an opportunity to do something more: give users intimate access to a major sporting event happening in its backyard. All four days of Tiger Woods’ AT&T National golf tournament, a reporter was assigned to file frequent dispatches. It took a while for reporters to get comfortable with the format, but once they did, they really ran with it. Here are some choice tweets:

  • Spotting some of these guys is a Where’s Waldo experience. Steuart Appleby breaks the mold wearing an apple green shirt.
  • ‘Sure you can interview me, but don’t use my name. I’m playing hooky from work.’ Dave, from Burke, Virginia
  • Basically the only clouds over the course are from the cigar smoke

What’s more, they found that tweeting, by forcing them to look for rich detail and pithy quotes, enhanced their reporting.

So, how can journalists be confident they’re using the right tool? Considering the following factors should get them on their way:

  • Look, listen, and think: Use photos and videos when there are compelling, action-oriented visuals. Use audio when there is rich natural sound. Use infographics or interactive presentations to simplify the voluminous or complex.
  • Audience: Is the format appropriate for the probable audience? A podcast, for example, probably isn’t the best format for a story about the new senior center. It would be an ideal format, however, for a story about a transit line targeting young commuters.
  • Turnaround time: Some mediums have longer production processes than others. Before committing to a format, make sure the deadline allows enough time to create a quality product.
  • What’s gained? What’s lost?: Tools giveth, tools taketh away. Yes, a picture is worth 1,000 words, but what about the “words” that are out of frame? Weigh what’s gained against what’s lost. If a video’s going to end up being all talking heads, you might be better off sticking with text.
  • Does it get along with other content?: If producing sidebar content, does it complement the mainbar? Or does it repeat it or distract from it?
  • Staff expertise: Does your staff have enough technological and strategic familiarity with a tool to use it effectively? If not, wait until they do before playing with it.
  • Is it searchable?: If a lot of people are likely to be searching for the content, know the limitations of video and Flash and how to work around them.
  • Is it shareable?: If a lot of people are likely to want to share the content with others, does the format make it easy for them to do so?