Blogs > 37th Frame

Photography, notes, commentary and much more from former Reporter Online Editor Chris Stanley.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Rules of the Game?

A list released yesterday by the American Society of Newspaper Editors has generated much debate in media circles. This list outlines 'best practices' for social media, and includes a compilation of the social media policies at a variety of media outlets, displaying them and summarizing.

This is what the ASNE article described as the 10 key takeaways:

1. Traditional ethics rules still apply online.
2. Assume everything you write online will become public.
3. Use social media to engage with readers, but professionally.
4. Break news on your website, not on Twitter.
5. Beware of perceptions.
6. Independently authenticate anything found on a social networking site.
7. Always identify yourself as a journalist.
8. Social networks are tools not toys.
9. Be transparent and admit when you’re wrong online.
10. Keep internal deliberations confidential.
In a recent blog entry, Journal Register Company CEO John Paton identified three rules for using social media at JRC newsrooms:


No, don't adjust your browser. The entries are blank. While some may have seen this as an invitation to a social media 'wild west', I read it as an invitation to experiment, to write some new rules, then throw them out the window and experiment some more. Social media is an evolution, much the way as radio or television was in their early days.

So does this mean that journalists can just post anything that pops into their heads at any time?

I believe the answer lies in one word: THINK.

If a story is libelous in print it will be just as libelous online, whether on the web or on Facebook. A rumor is still a rumor, and good judgement must be applied as to the source and effect of unsubstantiated material. The ASNE list provides a few good common-sense guidelines, but is not a substitute for the simple act of thinking before posting. Restricting the use of social media won't ensure quality or success; reaching out and engaging readers in thoughtful conversation will.

As for the ASNE guidelines, I take issue with these three in particular:

3. 'Professional' should not lead to 'cold'. A social conversation needs some personality and maybe even some attitude. Journalists are human beings with likes, dislikes and opinions. Sharing them is not a weakness, it is a strength.

4. News CAN be broken on social media. Example: A large column of smoke is seen. An editor might tweet, 'Checking out that huge column of smoke.' If it turns out to be news-worthy, then a story goes on the web site. If not, then just tweet, 'Never mind, it was just somebody burning leaves.'

10. Many 'internal deliberations' can and should be a part of the public conversation. If we don't ask our readers what they think about what we publish (and how), we are denying the very interactive nature of the Internet. Keeping these conversations positive and productive is an important part of this.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Osama death analytics

OK, the title is a little harsh, but so was the story. On Sunday night May 1, sleepy news editors around the country kicked into high gear after the big story broke - USA public enemy #1 was taken out in a daring raid - and Journal-Register news sites were no exception, starting with Twitter, Facebook, SMS, breaking news web updates, and finally huge headlines on Monday's front pages. The story was played big on every medium at our disposal.

Then the details started flowing in...the raid, the shooting, the burial at sea, the Obama speech, the DNA test, reactions from Main Street to Ground Zero to Afghanistan.

Local news organizations face a challenge covering huge international or national stories such as this one - what people come to us for is LOCAL news, about their region, their city, their neighborhood. Sure, we have national and world coverage on our web sites and in print, but we know that is not why (for the most part) readers come to us. So we put our efforts into covering the local news that they won't find anywhere else, and generally leave the rest to the wire services.

But when you get a story like the death of Osama bin Laden, a story that reaches deep into the emotions of most Americans, we must react swiftly right along with CNN, AP, The New York Times and others. There are plenty of local stories connected with the 9/11 attacks right in the coverage areas of our news sites - 9/11 victims and their families, rescusers who responded to Ground Zero, soldiers fighting the war on terror and their families, Muslims in our own communities - to name a few. And on Monday and Tuesday, our writers, photographers and editors set out to find those stories. And we also ran many wire stories on our web sites those days as well.

So what did our readers actually want from us on Monday and Tuesday - were they reading all the Osama stories on our web sites or getting that news from national and international sites? When a huge story like this breaks, what is the place of a local news site? And since this story is basically a dress rehearsal for the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in September, how can we use this information to better serve readers then?

To explore this issue, I took a look around the page view numbers of a few of the Journal Register daily sites for Monday and Tuesday. This was not a scientific survey, but rather a comparitive look at what stories rose to the top of the list in terms of page views both days at sites of varying size. What I found was that while not many of the Osama death stories were top hits on our sites, plenty of readers looked at both the wire and local stories on Osama on both days, filling in the middle spots on our page view lists.

At the New Haven Register, our largest site, the story 'Inside the raid that killed bin Laden' was the #1 story Monday and 'U.S. forces kill Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan' was second. At the Delware County Times, another large site, bin Laden stories only made it to #5 and #6 however, following a number of local crime stories. On Tuesday this trend continued, with more crime stories topping the list and the first Osama follow-up story ranking at #7 for the day. At the NH Register, a story about NFL running back Rashard Mendenhall tweeting questionable Osama comments was the #2 story for the day, topped by a state budget story. The #3 story for Tuesday was about the possibility of the release of death photos of Osama.

At the hard-news Trentonian, a story about a city official arrested on heroin and assault charges topped all the Osama stories both days. But the Osama story was a close second on Monday in the #2 spot, and other Osama-related stories peppered many slots in the top 20 stories of the day. On Tuesday, the heroin story, a drug raid and a home invasion all topped second-day Osama death coverage, but again, several Osama stories including one local story listing the names of greater Trenton-area residents killed on 9/11 and a pair of local reaction stories made it to the top 20. The story 'NJ Gov. Chris Christie: Osama bin Laden attack missed my wife by 2 blocks' made it to #6 on Tuesday.

At the News-Herald in Ohio, a Cleveland Browns draft story and a robbery story beat out the Osama coverage. But local reaction stories and wire stories filled slots 4, 6, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, and more beyond that. These included 'Share your reactions on BIN LADEN DEATH', 'World cheers bin Laden's death as victory,' 'Islamics decry bin Laden's sea burial,' and 'Not everybody believes bin Laden really is dead.'

On Tuesday stories on a break-in, a bank robbery, the Kentucky Derby and a new water fee topped the first Osama follow-up story.

At The Mercury in Pottstown, PA, Osama stories took the #3-#6 slots on Monday, and a reader poll about whether the US government should release the photo of Osama's body was the top story on Tuesday. Two more Osama stories made it to the top ten that day.

And at the Morning Sun in Michigan, a smaller site, the death of Osama took a back seat to Sound Off on Monday, and again fell behind Sound Off, a car accident follow-up and another car accident story on Tuesday at the #4 spot.

So just because the 'big' story didn't make it to #1 every day, does it mean that we should not be putting efforts into this?

I would argue that the numbers show a very positive picture for our 'localized' and wire coverage of this, since so many of these stories rose very high in the rankings even if they didn't get to #1 or #2 every time. News staffs rose to the occasion, and for the small effort of posting a few wire stories and photos reached many thousands of readers hungry for details and reaction. Local reaction did well, especially for such hot-button topics as the death photos, which many readers seemed to have an opinion about. Specific questions seem to do well.

Putting more links to related stories would also help efforts to keep readers on our sites - after reading some of the most popular Osama stories at a couple of sites, I noticed that many exited the site, a few returned to the home page, and not many clicked to other Osama stories. Making it easy for readers to jump from one aspect of such a big story to another would help keep them engaged.

While the eyes of the world will be focused on New York, Washington DC, Shanksville and the Middle East in September, we have plenty of local material and unique stories that should generate interest among our readers. And though some of these stories might not top the hits generated by a barn fire or car accident story, I believe the numbers show that plenty of readers do care, and it is well worth our time to pursue them.