Posts about engagement

Geeks Bearing Gifts: New roles for journalists

A two-fer today: I’m posting the last two chapters of the first section of Geeks Bearing Gifts as they are both about new roles and relationships for journalists: one explores engagement, collaboration, and membership; the other looks at the journalist as organizer, advocate, and educator. Earlier drafts of these chapters have appeared online before. Tomorrow, I’ll start posting chapters about new forms and business models, which haven’t appeared before. Snippets from these two chapters:

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What would it mean for members of the community to be truly engaged in news? At the high end of collaboration, a news organization and its journalists could stand ready to complete the assignments conjured up by a community: “We need to know this,” the community says, “and we want you to use your power as a convener to bring us together to gather this information and then to add journalistic value to that work.” True, the community could organize its own task through, say, Facebook or Twitter. But the news organization can help by convening the work, by instructing people how to meet their goal, by verifying facts, by adding context and explanation, and by offering organization.

What does a member give to become a member? Membership is seen by some as just another word for subscription: Give us your money and we will give you access to see our content. It’s another way to say “customer.” A member might well give money to support a journalistic endeavor but a true member will likely want some voice in return. Of course, a journalist will want to make sure that she is not co-opted by her patron’s funds. Journalists should also see that members can contribute value in ways other than money: giving ideas, tips, content, promotion, effort. Membership requires an exchange of value, with each side of the transaction giving something to get something. 

There is one other way to look at membership, one that does not put the news organization at the egocentric middle of the Venn diagram but at the edge: The community already exists and the news organization is just another member of it, contributing value to receive value. . . . Membership is not just a tollbooth. It is a two-way street.

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“Community organizer” sounds like a punchline to a Fox News joke about Barack Obama. But if news organizations are to serve communities, they often need to act as community organizers to marshal the forces of communities in very practical ways: listening to their needs, drawing their attention to an issue, convening them to gather together and discuss the issue, urging them to action, and helping them reach their goals. That would seem to violate our professional myths of objectivity and distance — that, like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, we operate under a Prime Directive not to interfere with other life forms, only to observe them. But the truth is that news organizations have long convened communities to take action — isn’t that our desired outcome in investigative (that is, crusading) journalism: to get our readers to demand action of government, to have an impact, to bring change? I’ll avoid the tired battle over journalistic objectivity and confess that on this question I have a strongly held belief: We are not objective. 

If traditionalists in my field haven’t already crumpled up this essay — or whatever one does in disgust, post-paper, with a digital screen — at my contentions that we are not in the content business and are not first storytellers, this may cause them to strike a match or pull the plug. Still, I’ll go even farther and argue this: If it isn’t advocacy, it isn’t journalism.

Read the rest of each chapter here and here. If you can’t wait for the rest, then you can buy the book here.

The social journalism degree proposal

Some have asked for more detail about the MA in social journalism we are developing at CUNY. Here are major excerpts from the formal proposal that I wrote (well-edited by our dean, Sarah Bartlett). I’m sparing you sections on the facilities. The syllabi will be works in progress until we bring on the faculty to teach the courses; I’ll share those later. As ever, I am eager to hear your thoughts and questions. Link to the Google doc here; PDF here.

A degree in social journalism

I announced this on Medium; reposting here….

community centerSome big news at CUNY: We are developing a new master’s degree in social journalism. We’ve considered calling it a degree in community information and engagement. I will also argue that it is a degree in outcomes-based journalism. It is all those things. Allow me to explain.

I have been arguing for some time that journalism must shift from seeing itself primarily as a producer of content for masses to become more explicitly a service to individuals and communities. Content fills things; service accomplishes things. To provide a service with relevance and value requires knowing those you serve, and to do that requires building relationships with those people. Thus, we must learn relationship skills.

I’ve written about these ideas in the first third of a white paper on new relationships, new forms, and new business models for news that I’ve been working on for a while. (I posted that first third, on relationships, at Medium.) On a trip to California to talk with Reid Hoffman, Ev Williams, Dick Costolo, Vic Gundotra, Bradley Horowitz, and other technology leaders about the future of news, I subjected my new dean, Sarah Bartlett, to the unfinished essay so she’d be forewarned of what I’d be preaching. On the flight out, having completed everything else she had to work on and with a three-hour delay ahead and a crying baby behind, she had nothing left to do but read it. When she got off the plane, Sarah said she agreed with much of what I said. But she also asked whether we would need to find new ways to teach the new skills I’d outlined.

So she suggested a new degree to add to our core MA in journalism and entrepreneurial journalism degrees, and she sketched what it might look like. I wrote a proposal, outlining the curriculum and goals. She presented it to the faculty. My colleagues did an incredible job writing syllabi, which our curriculum committee and faculty just approved. There are more steps yet to walk in this process — seeking approval from the university and the state — before we can formally announce and recruit students. But since we are on the path, I thought it was time to put a stake in the ground and welcome a discussion regarding social journalism and what it is.

First, let me say what it is not. In a series of interesting posts, Ed Sussman has been labeling as social journalism what Forbes, Gawker, the Guardian, and others are doing in inviting contributors to write for their sites. I disagree. That idea continues to keep the focus of journalism on us, our products, our content; it’s a more open (to its credit) and less reliable (to its frequent discredit) way to feed the media beast.

No, I say that social journalism must turn the telescope around and start with the public, with the people being served. The first skill we will teach in this new program is listening to a community, hearing and discerning its needs and then thinking about how best to help it meet those needs. The answer sometimes — often — will be reporting and content. But it can also mean connecting the members of the community to each other to share information themselves. It can mean sharing data and tools rather than developing narratives. It can mean helping a community to organize itself to take action (yes, that’s community organizing). It can be education. It must be collaborative.

Social journalists will judge their success not by the old-media metrics of reach and frequency — or, translated to digital argot, of unique users and pageviews — for those measures are still about our stuff and who sees it. Though social journalism may sound like and use many of the tools of what is known as social media, I will also argue that the proper measurements of success are not likes and friends and shares and even how much time and attention we get from the public — the things we have been calling engagement — for those, too, are about engaging with us and our stuff.

Social journalists will judge their success instead by whether the public they serve and its members accomplish their goals, meet their needs, improve their lots and their communities — and whether they connect with each other to better understand each other through discussion and information. Thus I see this as the discipline of outcomes-based journalism: We take responsibility not only for making a product called news, hoping people consume it and then hoping that they and their communities are better for it. That’s all we could do before, in print and broadcast. Now, online, we have new tools and new means to hear the public, to serve the public, and to measure our impact and value. There lies the essence of social journalism.

So, yes, it’s social but it’s not just about social media. Yes, it’s about engagement but not engagement with us but instead about a community’s engagement with its own work. It’s about results, outcomes, impact.

To teach these skills, we are proposing a three-term, year-long program with:
* two journalism courses — one on identifying, meeting, and listening to communities, the next on presenting information to and helping inform a community;
* two listening courses — the first helping students to interact with and learn from diverse communities, the second about the ethics (and legalities) of working with and serving a community;
* two data courses — about using data as a means to listen to and learn about a community, to gather information with and from a community, to present information to a community, and to measure the impact of working with a community;
* two tools courses — understanding how best to use the many platforms communities use and will use to connect and share, and also learning how to work with technologists to adapt tools to help communities;
* intense business training (a subset of beat-business training we are offering this summer at CUNY — more on that shortly); and
* an intense practicum serving a community of the student’s choice, working to meet goals of the community’s definition.

We will bring in teachers with various skills to work with students — journalists, of course, and also data specialists and community organizers and social anthropologists and more.

If approved, this new degree will be taught alongside CUNY’s MA in journalism and MA and certificate in entrepreneurial journalism. Each will attract distinct cohorts of students seeking a variety of jobs (note that the Center for Investigative Reporting depends on six engagement editors and Al Jazeera’s new AJ Plus is hiring 13 people of that description) or starting their own ventures. We have talked with many leaders in the field and they have convinced us there is a need and demand for this program and its graduates. Each of our degree programs will have a positive impact on the others, bringing new skills and perspectives to the school and adding courses and options for all the students. At CUNY, we pride ourselves on being a startup still, on learning as we go and adapting our curriculum to new needs and opportunities. This new program is also part of that process.

We are operating on what passes — in our field — for a fast track. If we pass all our tests, we hope to offer the new degree in 2015 (we haven’t decided yet exactly when). Between now and then — and here is the reason I am writing this — I would like to hear your suggestions and questions about what and how we should teach. We’ve received very helpful reaction from our school’s board of advisers and other friends. On that trip to the Bay Area, Sarah and I discussed our idea with most everyone we met and met in turn with gratifying enthusiasm.

Indeed, I am honored to tell you that Reid Hoffman — who has given me very useful advice about the entrepreneurial journalism program since its inception — is generously seeding the development of the new degree. And we just learned that the Knight Foundation — the preeminent funder for journalism in America — will match Reid’s gift. Thank you, both.

We will be raising additional money to fund scholarships, research on engagement and impact, and events bringing together researchers and practitioners from various fields to discuss social journalism and engagement under the auspices of the Tow-Knight Center.

Just when I thought things were starting to settle down in our eight-year startup of a journalism school…..

Good metrics, bad metrics

Screenshot 2014-03-10 at 10.28.01 AMChartbeat CEO Tony Haile writes an important piece about bad media metrics online. He pokes holes in the value of the click as the be-all-and-end-all of media measurement. He reveals that sharing turns out to be a bad measurement of engagement and value because we often don’t read what we “like” or share (we just bother other people with it). He deflates the value of native advertising, demonstrating with hard data that readers understand the difference between real content and — let’s call it what it is — advertising and they quickly abandon it.

The bottom line of Tony’s data is bad news for cynical publishers who have tried to manipulate readers with link-bait headlines and lists, and who are trying to pull the wool over advertisers’ eyes by selling them link-bait listicles and so-called native advertising. Certain emperors have no clothes. The readers know it. The advertisers will wake up and realize it.

But that’s the bad news.

Where we should turn the discussion next is to what the right metrics for media should be. As they say, you get what you measure. So what should we measure? How do we create positive feedback loops that improve the news, not degrade it as unique users, pageviews, and other relics of mass media have done?

I’ll start with the most important and most difficult thing to measure: outcomes. Were people more informed because of what we gave them? Did they accomplish what they wanted as individuals (Sally got new health insurance and saved money) or as communities (Riverdale cleaned up that messy park)? I just had breakfast with Robert Rosenthal of the Center for Investigative Reporting and he told me they start the process of reporting by considering impact and they end by trying to measure it. Why deal in bad proxies for good journalism, based on popularity, when we could get to the reason journalism should exist: to improve the world?

In his book News: A User’s Manual, Alain de Botton says that news has “the power to assemble the picture that citizens end up having of one another; the power to dictate what our idea of ‘other people’ will be like; the power to invent a nation in our imaginations.” And it has the power to help us get there. (Many more quotes in my post about the book, here.) Mark Zuckerberg says that platforms, including news, should offer communities “elegant organization.” These are higher aspirations than mere exposure.

On a tour of technology companies in Silicon Valley a few weeks ago with my dean, we talked about metrics and found different measurements being used for different platforms with different goals. Ev Williams’ Medium values total time spent reading. That is appropriate for a platform that wants to get people to explore ideas in depth — and I find I’m spending more time there reading more posts; it’s working.

Attention, in the form of time spent, is used by many in media as a measure of engagement. But that’s not always the case. Attention can also be another egocentric media metric: how many people come to look at my stuff; how many pages of my stuff do they look at; how much time do they spend with my stuff? No, sometimes, the less time spent the better. What if news were more efficient? Sometimes, spending less time to get what I want is the right metric. That metric doesn’t serve the old media business model of delivering as many eyeballs to as many ads as possible. That is why Yahoo shifted from — in the words of cofounder Jerry Yang — getting you in and out with the answer you needed as quickly as possible to instead trying to bombard you with content and keep you around as long as possible to show you as many ads as possible. Attention, in the wrong hands, can also be a corrupting metric.

Cir.ca has a fascinating metric: follows. When a reader follows a story, she is telling Cir.ca, “Please bother me and let me know when something new happens here.” That is a measure of true interest.

Similarly, Flipboard keeps track of how many people subscribe to a publication — and even to an advertiser’s publication. It also watches what people “flip” or save to read later, which strikes me as a much better indication of interest than sharing.

Google has long valued links as a digital version of citation. That has served search well. Google News also uses citations to try to infer which news organization created or is staying on top of a story — if everyone writing about Walter Reed Army Medical Center quotes the Washington Post then there’s a good chance it’s the Post’s story.

Repost.US and YouTube and now Getty Images track embeds — how many people truly want to share a video or an article because they repost it in their own space on the web. The problem with just “liking” or “sharing” on Twitter and Facebook is that there turns out to be no cost for those transactions; it’s too easy to just keep passing things on. Embedding uses my space and affected my reputation with you. I would like to see more such higher friction means of sharing that really do impute engagement.

What is engagement? It’s likely not one measure of one method of interacting with content. It could be that I spend time with something, that I interact with it or the people gathered around it (though don’t we know that comments are no indication of quality), that I save it, that I take action based on it.

We want to find good proxies for engagement in the hopes that they will lead us to indications of quality, which in turn should tell us something about the authority of the creator and the trust the public has in her. None of these is easy to measure, like “likes.”

Another word for engagement is relationship. I have been arguing that we in news should stop seeing ourselves as content factories and start seeing ourselves as members of our communities who are in the relationship business, who use what we know about people to better serve them. Thus, I ask media companies how many relationships they have with the people they serve and what they know about them — what signals they have, enabling them to improve relevance and thus value and often impact. Those are metrics that start with the public rather than with media. Those are metrics that matter.

Why not a reverse meter?

As I ponder the future of The New York Times, it occurred to me that its pay meter could be exactly reversed. I’ll also tell you why this wouldn’t work in a minute. But in any case, this is a way to illustate how how media are valuing our readers/users/customers opposite how we should, rewarding the freeriders and taxing — and perhaps turning away — the valuable users.

So try this on for size: Imagine that you pay to get access to The Times. Everyone does. You pay for one article. Or you pay $20 as a deposit so you’re not bothered every time you come. But whenever you add value to The Times, you earn a credit that delays the next bill.
* You see ads, you get credit.
* You click: more credit.
* You come back often and read many pages: credit.
* You promote The Times on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or your blog: credit. The more folks share what you’ve shared, the more credit you get.
* You buy merchandise via Times e-commerce: credit.
* You buy tickets to a Times event: credit.
* You hand over data that makes you more valuable to The Times and its advertisers (e.g., revealing where you’re going on your next trip): credit.
* You add pithy comment to articles that other readers appreciate: credit.
* You take on tasks in crowdsourced journalistic endeavors: credit.
* You answer a reporter’s question on Twitter and the reporter uses your information: credit.
* You correct an error in a story: credit.
* You give a news tip or an idea for an article The Times publishes: credit.
Maybe you never pay for The Times again because The Times has gained more value out of its relationship with you. If, on the other hand, you hardly do any of those things, then you have to pay for using The Times.

I’ve been thinking about this, too, in light of a few other trends I’ve seen with newspapers online. First, some that are trying meters are finding that very, very few readers ever hit the wall (which papers are setting at anywhere from 1 to 20 pages). That so few hit the wall is frightening. It means that most readers don’t use these sites much. That’s nothing to brag about. Engagement is criminally low. Second, I’ve seen many sites that get a surprising proportion of their traffic from out of their markets — traffic that is valueless (or even costly, in terms of bandwidth) to sites that sell only local ads. This comes from following a goal of pageviews, pageviews, pageviews — brought in with search-engine optimization — rather than valued relationships.

After hearing a few such stories, I suggested that a site with a meter might want to reward local readers by giving them more free content and charge out-of-market readers by charging them sooner.

You see, that values the local reader over the remote reader. My idea for the reverse meter values the engaged reader over the occasional reader — and even rewards greater engagement. And therein lies, I think, the key strategic skill for news businesses online: understanding that all readers are not equal; knowing who your more valuable readers are; getting more of them; and making them more valuable.

Now I’ll tell you why my reverse meter won’t work: When I spoke with all our journalism students at CUNY about their business ideas on Friday, I asked how many had hit the Times pay wall — many — and how many had paid — few. Abundance remains the enemy of payment. There’s always someplace else to get the news. The Times can make its present meter work because (a) it’s that good [the Steve Jobs exception that proves the rule], (b) it’s still sponsoring — that is, giving a free ride — to its most valuable readers, though that is supposed to end soon, and (c) its engagement is still too low and thus many readers don’t even confront the wall (that needs to change).

So never mind the idea of the reverse meter, but retain the lesson of it: Value should be encouraged, not taxed. Readers bring value to sites if the sites are smart enough to have the mechanisms to recognize, exploit, and reward that value, which comes in many forms: responding to (highly targeted and relevant) ads; buying merchandise; contributing information, content, and ideas; promoting the site…..

The key strategic opportunity for news sites is relationships — deeper, more valuable relationships with more (but not too many) people. Engagement.

The money graph

A new Pew study on the economics of news does not give comfort to news sites planning pay schemes. It also does not give me comfort that we’re wasting precious time futzing over walls when we should be paying attention to the big problems we have — one of which this Pew study points out: dreadful engagement and loyalty — and should be looking at other ways to give and gain value in our relationships with the public. The Pew data:

Over all, the evidence suggests the outlook is difficult both for paywalls and for online display advertising. While most people have not been asked to pay for content, even among the most avid news consumers online, only about one in five at this point say they would be willing to pay, and this does not include less voracious news consumers. At the same time, the vast majority of those online, 8 out of 10, say they basically ignore online ads.

In short, a good deal must change, the data suggests, before the digital age will begin to sustain itself.

About 71% of internet users, or 53% of all American adults, get news online today, a number that has held relatively steady in recent years.

Most of these online news consumers graze across multiple sites without having a primary one that they rely on. Only 35% of online news consumers have a favorite site.

To put it another way, 65% of online news consumers do not have a site that is so important to them that it stands out in their minds above all other sites they visit.

The users who do have a favorite site are pretty faithful. Some 65% of them check in with that favorite site at least once a day.

Yet even among these most loyal news consumers, only a minority (19%) said they would be willing to pay for news online, including those who already do so and those who would be willing to if asked.

Instead, a large majority – 82% – of those with a favorite site said they would find somewhere else to get the news.

Because so few online news consumers even have a favorite site this translates to only 7% of all people who get news online having a favorite online news source that they say they would pay for.

This is a sign of just how much initial difficulty the movement toward pay walls could have.

In sum, there appears to be only a very small cohort of voracious news consumers who have to have their news from a particular site, even if they have to pay for it. The vast majority of online news consumers, though, seem willing to browse for news from many sites, do not have a favorite online news source, and even if they do, are not willing to pay for that site’s content.

This is not to say that resistance might breakdown over time. . . .

All these findings speak to the natural disadvantage of news content: Most news is covered by more than one organization and people do not place enough value on the difference between the various reports. In other words, if a user had to pay for a New York Times article on Haiti, evidence suggests that he or she would just look for another source that could provide the basic information. The nuances of depth or breadth in the pay story may not be valued enough to induce payment over a free alternative.

Thus, if the news industry is going to make headway with pay-walls, they are going to have to break through what for now appears to be continuing reluctance, even among its most avid consumers.