Notes from ‘The Big Picture’ session at National College Media Conference

Natalie Weinstein, a reporter at CNet News, and Jon Lebkowsky, a social media strategist, joined me to discuss “The Big Picture” at the National College Media Conference in Austin last week. Our mission was to help those who attended the session “understand the latest developments in the digital transformation of journalism, and how the news media’s relationship with readers is changing.” It was a good discussion, but since you probably weren’t there, I thought I’d share some of the notes that Natalie and Jon shared with me in advance as we prepared for the appearance.

From Natalie …

1. REPUTATION … There are so many more (too many, probably) choices for readers. In journalists’ eyes, “reputation” is the end-all-be-all. Is the same true for readers? When they have stories on the same topic from a couple of hundred different sites, how do/will they decide which to pick?

2. SEO — the blessing and the curse. It sucks the lifeblood out of hedlines but is incredibly important for search engines. How do you strike a balance?

3. HITS – Publications can so closely monitor readership stats. How do we manage/balance that information with the what we know “should” get covered. How do/will we manage scarce resources? Eg. What will happen to coverage of local government boards that we know get almost no readership but which we have traditionally served as a watchdog for?  What happens when bloggers who get paid by the hit choose to focus more and more on “sensationalist” stories?

4. INTREGRITY/CORE VALUES – (Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. Inform, educate, entertain. Assume makes an ass out of you and me. If your mother says she loves you, check it out.) How do we balance those core values with the incredible time pressure of being first or at least second? How do we combat me-too journalism / regurgitation?

5. DIY / DO-IT-ALL reporters. A reporter can be covering a conference in Chicago, but then be expected to cover a press conference in D.C. via Webcast. They shoot, edit, publish, and post photos … create graphs …. do interviews on video … run podcasts. The traditional lines between print/broadcast/radio have been falling rapidly. Are you ready for that?

6. READER INTERACTION — Email, “talkbacks” at the end of stories, Twitter. Good, the bad, the ugly.

7. AGGREGATOR SITES are the place to be. All hail Google News. (Not sure what the question is. It’s just a reality.)

8. REVENUE. This, in some ways, is really the biggest conundrum. The Internet devoured classified ad revenue and personals revenue. Print readership is falling. Making all the news free was either brilliant or suicidal or both. I honestly see the end of print journalism. I have a friend who works at the WSJ. She is flabbergasted by the notion. I don’t see any other way, though I’m not sure that top-quality journalism can be sustained online either.

9. BLOGGING’S INFLUENCE. Stories are becoming more casual, more personal. But is that good for journalism?

10. HOW WE’LL GET OUR NEWS in the FUTURE…..Will it be an all Twitter/Facebook world?  I did searches on CNET News. The first Facebook story that I recall reading was in Fall 2005. Since then, Facebook has been mentioned in 4,375 stories on our site. And Twitter. The first mention that I recall on our site was in Spring 2007 at SXSW. Since then, it’s been mentioned in 4,450 stories on our site. Right now, some kind of email/aggregator/RSS/Twitter/Facebook stream sounds like nirvana. But honest-to-goodness, can we really say what digital media will look like in another five years?

From Jon …

One point I’d like to make is that we really don’t understand how attention works online, it’s a moving target, and we’re probably making wrong assumptions as a result. For instance I think people go overboard with SEO. Natalie’s point about the depunchification of headlines is a case in point – does the lame but crystal clear headline really have an impact on SEO for the site overall? What’s the level of attention of a reader who finds a story via search via some other means? Is he more or less likely to click on an ad? Is he more or less likely to read the whole story? Derek Powazek said recently that the truly relevant best practices for SEO can be summed up in a couple of sentences, but you should really be focused on making your site great, not making optimally friendly to search engines.

We don’t have great data about how people take information online. My sense is that they surf, and that search engines are less relevant to their navigation unless they’re looking for something very specific, like show times or the best local Italian restaurant. I think the average reader finds a particular story because it’s listed on a site they read regularly, or because it’s listed on a site they’ve just found, because they followed a link from some other story elsewhere, because somebody summarized it with a pointer on blog or Digg or boingboing, because somebody posted the link on Facebook or Twitter, etc.  I would put search engines near the bottom of the list of potential referrers, at least for readers that stick but probably for all readers.

Re the future of journalism: we don’t know how to fund it. Attention’s so fragmented, ads are not necessarily sufficient to fund journalist salaries because the ROI’s not there – therefore fewer ad buys, or ad buys at lower cost. A few sites might have enough of an established base to be profitable through ads (NY Times, New Yorker, etc). I think we’re starting to see consideration of other models. Texas Tribune, for example, is setting up as a nonprofit.

I think we’ll have plenty of good to great writers who’ll write for little or no money, but the question is how to fund real reporting – investigative journalism, for instance, takes time and diligence, it’s not like tossing off a blog post.  Internet writing tends to be focused more on quantity than depth – e.g. if you’re a blogger, you get more eyeballs by writing many shorter pieces, and not by writing an occasional very thorough piece (that could take forever to write if you’re waiting tables to pay the bills).

And my own questions to the panelists …

1. Fragmentation of local and topical news: Many more sources mean many more choices for readers, from neighborhood blogs to political or special interest sites. Is this better for readers? if so, why? How do up-and-coming journalists find their way in such a seemingly uncertain career landscape?

2. Real-time web: Twitter and other services have made immediacy even more immediate when it comes to digital information. What do you think the impact will be in the next couple years on news gathering, news reporting and audience awareness (aka the “I get my news from Twitter/Facebook” situation).

3. Mobile readers and reporters: The increasing shift to mobile devices (including netbooks) has already made an impact on news consuming and news reporting (especially citizen journalism). How can journalists take advantage of the mobile transformation and not get passed by?

What did we miss? What are the issues relating to the digital transformation of journalism that keep you up at night or that you think offer the greatest opportunity?

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