14 in ’14 — Online Edition

Fourteen things today’s online news staff should think about and do for 2014.

Want to have success online? Here are some basic tips to think about:

Work constantly to improve. What you do, and how you do it, should be in flux.

Experiment. There are not a lot of well-tested best practices online. Figure out the best for your community.

Improve and engage. Better content yields an engaged audience. You want both.

Start with these in mind as you consider the following 14 things and determine how you can use them to improve your online news operation in 2014 — and beyond. You don’t have to try them all at once, but you can get started right away.

1. Stop thinking in issues. Think online first. The website is live. Update it frequently. Don’t just dump your print content online. Post when stories are ready.

2. Don’t assume people are coming to you. Attract them through social media promotions and referrals, commenting and contextual linking. Share more. Make it easy. Referrals matter.

3. Cover the things your audience likes. Include coverage of recreational and leisure pursuits: horseback riding, boating, hiking, etc.  Video games are hugely popular but get little coverage. Don’t be locked into a template of sections just because other news sites do. Suggestions: Health, finance, consumer news. When you commit to a category, you’ll create content for it.

4. Do more lists.
Listicle: A simple, arbitrary grouping
Example: “28 duck-face selfies”
Definitive list: All-encompassing inventory
Example: “The 63 best moments from Homecoming 2013”
Framework list: Only exists to structure a narrative; number is arbitrary — whatever it takes to organize/tell the story
Example: “36 reasons you should volunteer for the Red Cross”
More info here, here and here.

5. Let print and Web work together. Don’t assume the audience is reading both.  If coverage spans both platforms, make sure a reader can catch up through a printed summary or a digital sidebar. Use website for updates between printed editions. It’s not just about a story page. Social media posts contribute to communicating to the audience. Consider using Storify.

6. Provide context. Tag or categorize related stories. Use contextual linking, which aids the reader who might be coming late to a story. Use short links, which are based on the database, not the initial URL. (Nerd alert: Kill the “http://yourdomain.com” for internal links.) Use mug shots and pull quotes. A sidebar can also add a list of facts or summarize past coverage.

7. Develop and publish a comments policy. You need one.  Facebook or Disqus plugins are an option, but you can’t truly moderate as a result. Instead, require a verifiable email address and spot-check occasionally. Three insightful comments with names are better than 300 worthless rants from anonymous trolls.

8. Show your background. Put your policies, awards, practices and interesting trivia in the “About” section where people can find them. On the header, provide the name of school and physical address. Make it easy for visitors to contact you. Even a generic “contact” email is helpful. If you use a form, make sure it sends a confirmation after the form is submitted.

9. Engage readers. Allow and encourage comments.  Develop a conversation with your audience via comments as well as social media. Interact. Ask followers for story ideas, tips, sources, submissions and feedback on how you are doing. It’s a two-way conversation. [Nerd alert: Use Akismet (free for nonprofits; flags spam). You’ll be glad you did.]

10. Explore a new social platform. Instagram, Tumblr, Reddit. Each has a distinct audience. Discover the journalistic use for things your peers are already using. Anticipate what’s next: Kik? Snapchat? Something else?

11. Use your analytics. See what people are searching for, how they got to the site, what they are spending time with. Use them as a classroom motivator. Can you get more visitors? Can you increase referrals from certain platforms?

12. Think about your audience. Is the site responsive for mobile and tablet readers? Focus on the content, and make it great. Have a well-designed UI. It’s about the UX, stupid.

Watch this and think.

13. Use the home page as a dashboard and menu. Kill the Twitter feed from your home page. The reader is already at the website. Keep Twitter feeds that aren’t referrals (sports scores, other interesting links). Nobody cares about your PDFs. Showcase the most important stories in the carousel, not just the most recent. Help the reader see what matters. Reconfigure based on the news of the day.

14. The story page is your landing page. Less hub-and-spoke navigation to/from home page.
More inter-category clicking. Make it easy for the reader to find information and understand the story with context and navigation.

Remember: Your role on campus is to inform your audience, not just to write stories or take photos.
You have a responsibility — an obligation, even — to take that seriously and to do it well. Your audience needs you to tell the story in a truthful, authentic way. Doing a good job means thinking about what the reader needs and using tools to meet those needs, not just providing digital versions of printed newspapers.

Balancing the public’s right to know with its safety

A post to the JEA email discussion list this month asked for response to the actions of a community paper, which published the names and addresses of gun permit holders. This was in the wake of a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., which claimed two dozen lives.

The paper’s story. The Poynter Institute’s report about the publication. But should student news media cover this story, and if so how?

The two issues here would definitely make for some interesting class discussion as well as a news story or point-counterpoint opinion article. I hope some news staffs are inspired to cover the debate around public records.

The two issues are, of course, whether the data should be available to the public and then whether the newspaper was right to publish the database with a map.

For the debate on why records are public, I think Washington state has a wonderful explanation from its “sunshine law”: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.” That is the spirit behind most sunshine laws — the public can hold its servants and agencies accountable only by knowing what those people and offices are doing.

Minnesota law states that all government-collected data is public unless specifically excluded. Here’s a new wrinkle in the private-or-not debate: The Star Tribune reported in August that cameras mounted in Minneapolis police vehicles routinely photograph license plates and add the plate and location to a database — almost 5 million vehicles in the first eight months of 2012. Turns out that data is public, and people have varying feelings on whether it should be. The report used as example the various locations of the mayor’s city-owned vehicle.

Today, Minnesota Public Radio reported that among the 100 requests for the city’s database were several from academic researchers and business opportunists. The story made me realize there are many other uses to public data besides just curiosity and accountability. The data can lead to academic discoveries and new business. One example was the route of the police vehicle itself (a one-day example video is online) and another explored whether a vehicle reposession agent could improve his job with access to the data. Most people probably don’t want their car’s location tracked, let alone published, but this story helped me see different perspectives.

Imagine the benefit of having a discussion with students about the value of public records and how they serve the public’s interest in many ways. Journalists serve the public interest, too — they are the watchdogs of government on behalf of the public. Then, move the discussion to how journalists can best serve the public and whether publishing a complete database is helpful or causes more problems.

I’d love to see some thoughtful examples of this work by students.