Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Comments from readers

Here's a little Online Journalism Review diatribe against the LA Times for shutting off comments on stories, and recently editorializing that reader comments are as dangerous as Osama bin Laden. Hmmm.

This is a debate in my own newsroom. I weigh in on the side of allowing comments and inviting the community of commentators to police their arena. Flag inappropriate comments, talk directly to those folks about the climate and tone of discourse you want. The journalist is not expected to be the only parent in the room. To cut off the commentary is too much of a missed opportunity.

This is my job, really

That's me, in the blue coat in the background. It's a sunny August day, I'm out of the office, chatting up moms and dads, coaches, quarterbacks, tight ends and cheerleaders. I'm swimming in middle-America, which today includes defensive linemen with amazingly long and vowel-studded Samoan last names.

I'm building hyperlocal, as in a sudden, new wing of our web site devoted strictly to some 30 schools statewide with football and eight with flag football teams. I want those user-generated mom-and-dad-produced photos on every single team page. I want the kids to chat online about their team and the one that whupped them. I want the coaches to argue with our two pick'em sports reporters who select the top 5 games every weekend and predict winners.

Suddenly, I wish that I had made that third effort to have coffee with Dan Gillmor down in Palo Alto. Author of "We the media," journalist Gillmor is a guru of hyperlocal and how delicate this new audience is to cultivate. I've got email lists for booster parents and harried coaches. I write thank you emails to folks who send in images. I argue with our web editor about the prep site: It HAS to be easier to use! Let's celebrate reader participation by displaying their photos BIG, with lotsa credit.

Why am I doing it? Because I believe that community news organizations like the one I work for will soon (now, even) include a blend of us and them. Them is the people who live and work in the communities we report on. Us is, well, the fewer and fewer of us left in American print newsrooms. We need them to build connection in our pages, the glue of community. They need us to hold powerful people's feet to the fire: government officials, school administrators, business people. We work for the readers. So if they can contribute some of the content that binds a community - names, faces, achievements, good work - then the newspaper's reporters can focus on their role, getting at the hard and complicated truth, facts people need to know.

OK, I'm getting off my soapbox now.

I read an interesting post today at Mediashift about all the jobs shifting from print to online. I felt like I was the poster child for the structural adjustment newspapers are making. I went away for a year, read tons on the shifting world of journalism, took a multimedia fellowship at Berkeley to dip my toes in the water, and now I am back in the work world -- making the adjustment. I haven't written or edited a single story since I came back. Instead, I've been building Web pages, learning why they scream
ERROR instead of nicely displaying what I built, and editing little videos for our Web site. Now, I want to consume Final Cut Pro and Soundslides and html and Dreamweaver tutorials in one fell swoop. I want all those skills, yesterday. Then line me up with some database management software. It's a different world, not necessarily a bad one.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A new post! Back on the team.

I am back at work at my old newspaper. I started July 5, and here it is, almost the end of August. My new job is AME for Interactivity. Translation: growing audience use of our Web site.

I came back with so much energy I gave people headaches. I also very much want to keep learning -- web usability, mostly. So I'm jumpy and eager...(feel a headache coming on?) While I learn to dispense my enthusiasm in manageable doses, I also have regrets, like why didn't I make many more videos while I was away so it would be even easier now...

What I most want to know is how to make our site as user-friendly as it can be. I was thrilled to see that the Fresno Bee site won notice in the Bivings Report as one of the 10 best newspaper websites the other day, so I've been studying them. We have a good site, don't get me wrong. I just want to contribute to making it as user-friendly and rewarding a visit as I can.

I started some prep sports efforts, hence the preps image above. As long as I have been at a newspaper, the sports staff has been answering questions about why they can't do more. It seems obvious that an easy way to expand that coverage is to invite the folks participating in it to send in their photos. So, we made little business cards with our Web address for the prep football and flag teams, sent them off to distant schools and walked them around to the nearby schools. Thirty-some schools in all, or at least web pages, if you count girls and boys individual team pages.

The girls have never had much attention for their flag games, so they are thrilled. Kids are sending in photos, not just parents. The big Anchorage football schools, 8 of them, are used to the paper paying close attention to them, so coaches have been nice but not that helpful. Distant schools don't get much attention, so they've been more interested in sending in photos, just to get noticed. A Kodiak booster parent took mugshots of the entire team and sent them in on CD.

A big hit is a pre-weekend video where our sports reporter and another local radio sports reporter go on the record, in a 2-minute video, picking their top 5 games of the weekend and naming the winners. The coaches are paying close attention.

Both reporters say everywhere they go they hear about it. This is a true up-from-the-bootstraps effort. Our prep writer has never done radio or TV, so it was his first time in front of a camera. By week 3, he was noticeably more relaxed. Because production time is an issue at a small paper, we are doing the video right in our photo studio; we'll take it out to the ballfield for the playoffs. We break up the talking heads with some of our great still photos of the players that the two reporters are talking up. I have to give a lot of credit to our sports staff -- they've embraced these new ideas and leapt right in. They have a prep sports blog that 5 of them contribute to. And our photo staff has probably shot more football than ever before, just to make sure we have lots of visual excitement on the prep site.

I have been spending my Friday nights and Saturdays at prep football games, stalking the bleachers for parents with video and still cameras. When I tell them what I want,
they smile and say "Sure." And in three weeks we got about 150 photos, and growing. There's no part of this job that I don't do.
From stalking the games to shooting images to seed the web site, to hanging the banner displayed here at the city's little football stadium. It feels a lot like marketing; there was a point last week where I needed to listen to an early Rob Curley podcast about giving the readers what they want, in spades, that helped with that.

It's great fun being out of the office and hanging with the sports reporters on the sidelines, meeting principals, coaches, parents, kids.

The challenge for me is making this new part of our Web site friendly to readers. It's frustrating to succeed at getting people to send in content, but maddening that it isn't easy for them to find it on our site. That requires that I know more web management than I know, and the people who know it better than me are so busy managing our site that they can't teach me. So, it's a slower process than I'd like, but I have every confidence I'll get there. I want the user experience on the site to be intuitive and rewarding -- after all, these readers are doing work for us, about something they care about.

It's a pretty feel-good situation, although there is the downside of other prep sports not getting this same attention. We hope to grow it -- to basketball (girls and boys) and maybe hockey.

Other new ideas include video letters to the editor, snagged from the KC Star. Our state fair is on right now, and the letters editor, who is very interested in learning new skills, grabbed one of our two little hand-held video cameras and headed to the fair Friday, inviting folks to give us 30-seconds of what's on their mind. We'll find out Monday how it went. Next up in editorial is a letters blog, so writers can comment on today's print letters TODAY on the Web. I have visions of a cyber-editorial board, but about that time I could see I was causing headaches. So I retreated for awhile, to be visited again soon.

Something else our editorial staff did that got a lot of notice was running the full audio of Senator Ted Stevens most recent visit with the editorial board. It was 54 minutes long, I think. The editorial writers excerpted and transcribed some key points on the printed page, but then included the entire audio on our Web site for those interested. And people were interested. TV News picked it up, and made our use of audio the news --- the fact that we'd done this. It was fun because newspapers are frequently discussed as the old media, the old form, the "yesterday" version. But not that night, not at all. We had a many-minute TV segment that talked up how the new tools were changing the way news consumers get information. And it was tied tightly to our newspaper and its website.

Well, it's Sunday night and tomorrow starts another big week. I promise not to write so much next time. And a word to the wise: It's berry-time in Alaska.