Digital reporting: How local should it be?

In Uncategorized on June 22, 2008 at 4:24 pm

Welcome to another Carnival of Journalism.

This month, the carnival is being hosted by Andy Dickinson.

Sorry I missed out on last month’s carnival. I had a stomach virus or food poisoning, and things got pretty nasty around here.

This month, the carnival’s main topic is whether or not digital reporting best serves a local audience.

My answer is no. However, digital reporting does best serve a niche audience already interested in what you have to say. Digital done right will support the growth of an organization, but done wrong will just waste space on the internet.

Let’s say you start a news site, meant to be your community’s modern answer to the small, hometown paper. You plaster local forums and blogs with comments playing up community involvement in the site, write out press releases and send them to local organizations, and even paste up flyers around town. You equip the site with comment boxes, spaces for real people to upload their own stories, videos and photos, and ask for community journalists to help out the small staff you already have. You even set up an events database and invite local businesses to list what’s happening.

You sit back and wait for the stories to come in. You wait for locals to start hitting your site to get their local news written specifically for them and, in some cases, by them. And, nothing happens.

You send out a digital reporter to cover the high school football game. He takes video, photos, and audio to piece a story together. You invite readers to post their own photos and memory of the game. The only comments on the story are of the “Go Bulls, Patriots suck” kind, written by fans of both teams that played. There were about 500 views and three uploaded photos, but one was of a cheerleader that had to be taken down.

What’s going on?

The problem with digital reporting on the web is newspapers still don’t know what’s going to work. And, when they try to come up with ways to involve readers in the process, they don’t go out of their way to really understand their readers; they look to see what others are doing and then emulate it. Even worse, some newsrooms still think of their readers as “those cute little readers who have to be saved by their base desire to read stories about puppies and celebrities.” Also, there are few national resources available to papers right now that would help the quality of digital content.

If you look at multimedia reporting, complete with slideshows, and video interviews, it works really well with niche subjects. It speaks to people who are hungry for information about a particular subject. So, think about the above football game example. You’ve got, let’s say, a town of 50,000. You’re hoping that somewhere around 10,000 will read the story. (To add a little more weight to the event, let’s say it’s Homecoming.) The 500 views on the story are a crushing disappointment. The problem with the story isn’t the scope, it’s a local story that primarily attracted local readers, once you look over the story’s stats.

The problem with the football story is that no one was hungry for the information the next day. A handful of the story’s views probably came from people looking up the score because they missed the game. Another handful might have come from alumni of the school looking to see what they missed. Most of the views probably came from coaches, players, friends, and family looking for pictures and stories of themselves and loved ones. Everyone who had a stake in your story was at the game. There is no mystery. There is no intrigue.

That’s why entertainment news does so well. That’s why digital entertainment news is one of the best examples of how to do digital right. It’s niche. Stars are constantly trying to control their public faces, and celebrity reporters and regular Pauls and Peggys on the street are constantly trying to throw their secrets out into the open. When fans find a new video of their favorite starlet’s drunken caper or their favorite beefcake’s night at a stripclub, they’re sucking up information they didn’t already have or even know they were hungry for. Even a short controlled interview with a few glib outtakes can do very well for this reason.

One of the downfalls of placing national digital media on your site is that chances are Yahoo, Google, CNN, MSNBC, or another national powerhouse has already grabbed their attention.

What you have to do is grab their attention back. But, you can’t think like a newspaper any more. Newspapers are dying, and this will be the last decade of the “Just the facts, ma’am” form of newspaper coverage. The future looks more like tabloid and magazine news coverage. In other words, the future of news is the old guard newsman’s nightmare.

If you’re going to stick to local stories, make sure they’re local stories people want to read. Keep sports coverage, but the old “get in, get out, get a couple of quotes and pictures” style of reporting isn’t going to cut it any more. This is true with all stories. One of the biggest problems with modern journalism is stories are stripped away until there are no compelling elements.

Find them. Write them. Add your own style and flair, because the old school journalism we’ve been told to stick by is failing. Write to your own personal quirks with glee, imagining all the times your professors marked up your stories, taking all of the vestiges of your personality out and replacing them with bland copy. Because you’re adding interest to the story, make sure to keep media law principles in mind, because a million page views aren’t going to help you if you’re fighting a libel suit.

Give yourself time to edit video and think of your clip as a mini movie. It would be a good idea to think of your photo as a mini movie, too, and get as many as you can. A 15 second photo slideshow with captions and music is much more compelling than five minutes of shaky video footage thrown onto the site with no foresight.

Find links to blogs and other articles and link to them. If you can’t trust most of your readers to come back to you, it’s not the fault of your readers. If they like what they’re reading or viewing, they’ll come back. If not, you have to find out what they like and give it to them.

And, if you do want to go national, don’t take the lead of most newspaper sites who take AP text articles and dump them onto a site. Find multimedia content that will engage people. Because, chances are, most of your audience can find the big stories without you, and they’re not going to be impressed by the AP logo next to a bland, boring 300 word blurb about an important event.

The biggest thing to keep in mind is to stop seeing your brand as something your audience wants to be part of. I think we forget that most of our readers and viewers don’t want to be journalists. If they did, they would have gone to Jschool. So, when we ask them to be community journalists, they usually think we’re asking them to do our jobs for us. (The exception is when breaking news hits and only members of the public on hand with their camera phones and personal video recorders.) And, when we ask them to submit content to our sites after making them read a ten page agreement about how we now own their stuff and can use it for our own gain without paying them, why should they join our community and start posting?

We need to stop seeing Web 2.0 as a way to create a community we control but as a way to join a greater community. Recently, I noticed that Channel 10, a local Tampa station, was trying to promote user blogs through their newscast. My first thought was that their viewers who blog are already blogging and this probably won’t be a popular service. After 10 minutes of stumbling around the site, I couldn’t even find the blogs they were talking about, besides on a link asking me to join to comment, blog, and share photos.

Promoting a banner exchange with local bloggers would be a much simpler way to build a foundation of blogs around a brand.

I think that’s about the end of my ramble for today. Any thoughts or questions, please leave a comment or two.

  1. I think your right Digital media has a long way to go, these are the first baby steps they are taking in this new digital age. Something will work, others won’t. And the first thing you must do, is grab the readers attention, find something there going to love.

    And with the internet becoming a powerful tool, of markting, we’ll be seeing a lot more sites pop around. Some publishing houses, are also taking there first step into making some novels downloadable on there site. Will it work? It depends. I think I’ll stop here, seeing that I’m going into rant.

    Keep up the good
    Your friend

  2. […] Wendy Withers rejoins the carnival (glad you’re better Wendy) with her view that Local isn&#82… and her take on why so much ‘local’ doesn’t work. Given all the opportunities that the web offers Wendy wonders why the newspaper industry doesn’t seem to be able to get a handle on what works. Maybe, she says, “We need to stop seeing Web 2.0 as a way to create a community we control but as a way to join a greater community.” […]

  3. […] contributions to the debate from Pau Bradshaw, Dave Lee, Jack Lail, Wendy Withers, John Hassell, and Charlie […]

  4. These are some great insights, and some that I will be applying to my next online thing. I’ve added you to my blogroll; keep up the good work!

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