Seven reasonable things news orgs should be doing online

In journalism school, the only professor I ever addressed as “Dr.” was my multimedia management and leadership teacher James K. Gentry. He was the former dean of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, so maybe I sensed some extra gravitas. But I still referred to him as Jimmy Gentry when he wasn’t around. It’s still j-school.

One thing Jimmy Gentry taught me that really stuck was the management concept of low-hanging fruit: When you’re looking to improve your product or your workplace, start with the the changes that are easily within reach. When it comes to online journalism, news organizations are missing out on a lot of low-hanging fruit.

As a copy editor/designer, I don’t get to do as much online work as I’d like, and I’m definitely no expert. But here are seven reasonable things — low-hanging fruit — news organizations should be doing to manage their online presence, according to Sarah Kelly, for whatever that’s worth.

1. Put someone in charge. The No. 1 thing newsrooms are doing wrong: Not hiring someone to oversee their online product. If you’re serious about becoming the go-to news source in your market, you can’t make your website and social media an afterthought. It should be someone’s full-time job. Hire someone to add stories to the website as they come in, update them with new information when you have it, and correct any errors you find.

That same person (or people, in the case of larger newsrooms) should be updating Facebook and Twitter throughout the day. It’s not just for breaking news; you want to post a) any and all stories that are exclusive to your organization, b) the biggest stories of the day, and c) sports news as it develops. And when that person finds something like a viral video or even an article from another news source that’s relevant to your audience, share it. For instance, if College Station’s mayor responds to a nasty comment from Florida’s football coach, you gotta post this video.

Smaller news orgs are reluctant to hire someone specifically for this job, preferring instead to teach all reporters how to tweet and post stories. The majority of the online work goes to the copy editors or producers, who shovel the stories online around midnight, after they’ve met their deadline for the print edition or the nightly news. I get that newsrooms everywhere are trying to do more with less, but if your website and social media profiles are somebody’s side job, they will end up looking that way. Online readership surpassed print readership in 2011. Can you really afford to treat your web presence like a side dish? Hire an online editor/social media coordinator/web producer and you’ll find the rest of my suggestions a whole lot easier to execute.

2. Stop embargoing stories. Is there a compelling reason to keep something off the Internet until after the news airs or the print edition comes out? If not, get it online as soon as it’s edited. News is not a secret.

3. Update throughout the day. If your website switches over at midnight and doesn’t change again until midnight the next night, readers have no reason to visit more than once every 24 hours. You should be adding new content as it comes in. Your site’s feature/carousel photo should also change throughout the day as a visual cue to readers that new content has been added since their last visit. Some days you’ll have carousel-worthy breaking news. Most days, you’ll have sports. The gamer story is pretty much dead in print, but it’s perfect for online — if you post it quickly. As soon as you have a photo and a story about the local team’s latest game, get it up there. If you wait until the next morning, you’re telling most of your readers something they already learned from ESPN, the nightly news, the team’s official website, or their friends.

Getting your gamers online while they’re still useful may require your writers to adjust to earlier deadlines instead of filing after dinner to meet the nightly deadlines. They can handle it. Associated Press writers file immediately and so can your writers.

4. Cultivate an organizational identity on social media sites. Your organization’s identity should (probably) be professional and general: It posts all the news you need to know and not much else. There should be evidence that a person (not a robot) runs the account, but tweets should always say “us” and “we,” not “I” and “me.” The account speaks for The Dallas Morning News or Fox 4 Kansas City or whatever, not for the reporter or web producer or copy editor behind it. And please, don’t just tweet all of your headlines around midnight or 1 a.m. Let me show you some examples — screen shots from my phone, because that’s how I experience Twitter as a user.

Texas Monthly does a great job of sharing its own content, linking to other outlets’ relevant content and — most importantly — cultivating an identity. See the cute comments that accompany the headline and link? A real, likable human wrote that. The tone matches Texas Monthly‘s identity and works to inspire that weird affection people often have for the magazine.

Now take a look at The Houston Chronicle’s Twitter feed. It’s kind of underwhelming for a paper with a daily circulation of 346,118 and 38,000 followers.

Now, I don’t want to rag on The Chronicle too hard. It’s a metro newspaper, not a magazine, so getting the tone right on Twitter is much trickier. And I don’t know anything about The Chronicle’s day-to-day operation, but I have noticed an improvement over the last few weeks. See how all the stories were tweeted around 8 a.m.? When I first moved to Texas, The Chronicle dumped all of its news stories onto Twitter around midnight. Posting things when readers are actually awake and checking social media is a step in the right direction, but the tweets are still just the headline suggested by the Associated Press followed by a link to the story. Not everything needs a comment, but you can still soften headlines to sound more conversational.

Take “Delta jet evacuated in NYC after wires found in bathroom.” That, my friends, is a print-friendly headline. To make it Twitter-friendly, just talk like a real person: “A Delta jet was evacuated in New York today after wires were found in the bathroom.” If you can figure out who found the wires and make the headline active instead of passive, even better.

5. Encourage your employees to cultivate individual identities on social media sites. Even if you’ve hired a web producer/editor, your reporters, photographers, and editors should still be on Facebook and Twitter. Personal accounts allow employees to market themselves as individuals and as part of the team. Sports writers have done the best job of this: People care what your top writers have to say about their beats. They also care about what these personalities have to say about sports and current events outside their professional lives. And in the case of sports writers, people definitely care about their taste in restaurants. Everyone knows sports writers are the best food critics.

Take, for example, Tully Corcoran. I first followed Tully’s Twitter feed when he was covering KU sports for the Topeka Capitol-Journal. Sometime in his tenure there, he began contributing to The Sandwich Blog — it’s about sandwiches and sports, so I don’t know how anyone could not like it. Tully also tells funny jokes. Some of them are about sports, some aren’t. Just being a cool dude raised Tully’s profile as an asset to the Capitol-Journal.

Yet when he moved to Texas to work for Fox Sports Houston, he retained most of his followers. We didn’t just follow him for the latest KU news — that’s what news orgs are for — so we didn’t unfollow him when his beat changed. Get your readers interested in your writers (or producers or editors or managers) and everyone benefits.

6. Track developing stories. In discussions of web strategy, newsrooms put a lot of emphasis on breaking news, and for the most part I think they get it right. But many could stand to rethink how they cover developing news. When when schools were rumored to be leaving the Big 12 in 2011 and 2010, and when Kansas was searching for a new football coach late in 2011, the Lawrence Journal-World really impressed me.
Matt Tait’s running blog was the best format I’ve seen for ongoing coverage of conference realignment and coaching searches. Because it wasn’t unusual to have several new developments in the course of a day, it didn’t make sense to write a new story every time something happened. Yet at a certain point, information was turning up so quickly that the average reader was likely to miss a few things if they went offline for a while to eat, sleep, work, or socialize. Tait, who I assume did none of those things regularly last summer, presented everyone with the latest news at the top, and it was easy to scroll down and read everything you’d missed while you were out having a life.

It’s a format I’d like to see more organizations use. I think it would lend itself well to ongoing criminal investigations and trials, for example, and is a great alternative to live tweeting.

7. Focus on mobile-friendly. Your organization probably doesn’t need an app. I have two news apps on my iPhone and iPad — The Eagle and the New York Times. They’re both pretty good apps, but don’t use either one regularly. Why? Because I’d rather click links on Twitter and Facebook or go directly to a news site. But even if I were a news app person — a lot of people prefer apps — I wouldn’t download an app for every single news source I use. Only the best would make the cut. Developing a good mobile app requires a lot of resources and most outlets come up short.

Unless you’re competing with the New York Times, you’re better off putting those resources toward making your website more mobile-friendly. That’s different from creating a mobile site, which is annoying to those of us who have nice phones and use them extensively. (I rely on the iPhone and iPad to access the web because they’re faster than the Macbook I’ve had since 2006.) Mobile versions are typically uglier, less useful versions of the real site. This article lays it out the typical user experience pretty well.

Instead, make your real site work on my mobile devices. I should be able to use my SmartPhone to navigate to any part of the website and view all of the content, including videos and live streams. That means no Flash player, please. Flash is dead. Get rid of all the widgets and logos and the 800 like/tweet/share/pin buttons that are slowing down load time (for my mobile devices and my ancient laptop) and just let me access your content. If your web developers can’t make your website mobile friendly without forcing readers into mobile versions or making them download an app, find new web developers.

So there’s my manifesto. What did I leave out? What hurdles are keeping news organizations from doing these (seemingly) simple things? I’d love to see other opinions and perspectives in my comments section.

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