Digital tools help us return to the roots of community journalism
Digital storytelling is as important in everyday news coverage as it is in major breaking news.
Journalists now have an endless array of tools to tell a story. We should constantly be thinking about the user experience and what information presentation will be best for them. A Google Map could be helpful for users choosing their Fourth of July fireworks destination or who want to check out where West Niles Virus cases are clustered in their area. An Instagram gallery fed by a hashtag can be a great source of community photos from a Homecoming event. I've led both small and large teams in learning to incorporate these tools into all of the journalism they do, day in and day out. I also led national breaking news events, including the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin, and the national budget I built and coordinated across the country became the template for how Patch handled major breaking news from that point on. The back-and-forth communication efforts I led brought unprecedented opportunity for sharing information between Patch, the larger audience at AOL and the reporting occurring via the Huffington Post liveblog. My belief that we should use digital storytelling tools to provide the best possible user experience always shaped our regional and national news coverage.
I also urge journalists to understand their news organization is part of a network. We should always be thinking about how we can benefit that network and how it can benefit us. Is there regional or national content that will appeal to our community members? Or are we creating content that might benefit a larger audience? That network can be within our own organization, like the Thunderdome at Digital First, or it can be the larger web ecosystem. We should always be consciously considering how we can distribute relevant, compelling content in a meaningful way to the right audience.
It's crucial to use digital tools internally.
A digital organization should communicate internally with digital tools. It helps foster best practices and just darn good habits. It allows us to share, communicate with and support each other. I started "secret" Facebook groups for my teams that became a space of collegial encouragement and growth. I encouraged in-house Twitter lists for sharing information. I built several Google sites aimed at putting tools and training materials at everyone's fingertips. This internal use of tools not only inspired collaboration and growth, it reinforced the need for constant learning. Most of these materials are guarded by passwords and firewalls so I cannot link to them, but please check out this slideshow for just some of the resources and interaction taking place on these great tools, which could be incorporated into every newsroom:
SEO is about creating the best user experience.
Journalists spend years learning the art of storytelling and conveying information clearly and consisely. We learn to explain complicated issues in a clear and concise way. We use AP style to be ethical and consistent in our use of language. SEO is an extension of that user-focused mindset. It's thinking about our users and what keywords they would use to understand and find a story or information. It's linking to other sources and background information and establishing the news website as an expert on that information. It's clearly identifying and captioning images. It's tagging and organizing content in a smart, user-friendly way. It's helping people find their way to good information. I've created news organization trainings and a checklist and reporter and editor cheat sheets aimed at helping news websites and all content be as search optimized as possible in an effective and easy-to-understand way.
Audience development is a journalistic cause.
One of the most important goals we have as journalists is to get people more information. Fundamentally we believe an educated society can make better, more informed decisions. When we work to grow and engage our audience, we increase the number of people getting information, understanding their communities and the world they live in. When we use metrics to make smart decisions, we are supporting this belief. We also embrace our users and show we understand they're a critical part of the heart and business of journalism.
I led a region with one of the strongest, most engaged readerships at Patch by teaching editors that search optimization, social media, email newsletters and other means of content distribution were an important component of their journalism. Understanding our audience through tools such as Chartbeat, Omniture and SailThru help us become better. I broke down metrics for the journalists on my team in ways that helped them understand audience devolopment and created trainings to help us make metrics-driven decisions.
Aggregation is a public service.
Our goal, always, should be to get out accurate, relevant information to users as quickly as possible. All of the information — even if we didn't report it, especially on major and breaking news. We should also spend our most valuable resource, our time, on new and unique stories and angles. I shaped fair and ethical aggregation guidelines for my team at Patch, including a byline policy that emphasized proper credit and accountability.
Aggregation should also include creating content from websites throughout the communities we cover as well as content from local people on social media. I led the way on this practice at Patch with an outside-the-box aggregation training and trainings on creating content from social. I helped develop a staff position that focused on SMART tactics — Social Media, Aggregation and Real-Time reporting.
Community members should be participants in the news.
News organization should offer encourage a multi-faceted conversation with their community at every opportunity. Websites should be engaging and foster content by the community and of the community. At both TribLocal and Patch I made community events an important focus. I planned and organized community workshops, TweetUps, a VIP party for community influencers and a 500-person Congressional debate. These events first hosted locally all went on to become national models within the organizations. And more importantly, the intersection of online and offline engagement fostered a dedicated and loyal audience, user participation on our sites and revenue opportunities. An emphasis on community engagement built websites with more PVs per Visit, more user submissions and more comments. Engaging digital storytelling also emphasizes participation. Hand-in-hand the two forces are a strong, successful combination.
It is crucial that newsroom leaders understand that digital engagement is not a task. It should be integrated into everything we do, every day. It should be incorporated in every interaction through content, social media, emails, print and in person. True online engagement begins in person, offline, with who you are and who you hire. The power of real people is simply irreplaceable.
Like so many journalists, I have wanted to be a reporter since I was a little girl because I love telling people's stories. My career started with me doing that in the traditional way, as a reporter covering crime, goverment and education and as an assistant editor. But then I was offered an amazing opportunity to help launch TribLocal, the Chicago Tribune's hyperlocal websites. I was excited, but I was nervous, too. Working in reverse publishing with user-generated content was outside the box, especially in 2006. But as I began talking to community members, I was teaching people how to tell their own stories. I was learning new digital tools that helped make news a shared experience.
The philosophy I began to develop is the belief on which I have built my career: That digital tools allow us to return to the roots of community journalism.
News organizations need strong leadership to help reporters and editors embrace the digital tools that allow for true community participation, storytelling and information sharing. Leaders of today's newsrooms must have a vision for their organizations and develop strategy to execute upon that vision.
We must use analytics and metrics analysis to be tactical in our approach. With tools and the web evolving at a fast pace, we must be willing to jump in and be hands-on to discover how new tools can make us better. We must be constantly learning and adapting — and evolving our policies, training and guidance — in order to help our teams do the same.
Here are some of the beliefs that shape the way I lead a digital news organization: