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.

14 Things for Yearbook Staffs to Think About in 2014

It’s mid-July and yearbook staffs are likely in full planning mode for the 2014 edition — maybe even before the 2013 book has been delivered. There’s not time to rest if you want to get better.

Why try?

Work to improve each year. Last year’s book may have set records or won awards, so build on those successes and what worked.
Sell more. The book might be beautiful, but you still need people to buy it.
Improve and engage. Better content from an engaged audience results in sales.
That’s success all around!

You still have time to make 2014 the best book on record. Try some new endeavors to improve your yearbook operation. Here are 14 things you can try.

1. Be excellent. It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Strive for excellence. Excellence isn’t settling for pretty good. Good enough is not good enough. Demand the best from every photo, caption, story and design. Set goals to improve with each deadline.

2. Be the #1 source. Be serious about being the top information source and archive for all things about your school. If someone wants to know a fact, score, date, record, time or whatever — be the place they turn for that information. Own sports stats, especially JV and lower squads. No other source is recording this information in this way.

3. Get out there. You can’t really get a story unless you get out and talk to people. In person — yes, in person! You can always tell the difference when a writer has observed and interviewed in person.
Email or chat interviews fill a need, but they are not as effective as being there.
4. Find stories. Establish a solid system in place to gather information beyond the big events. You’ll need this information for the narrative copy blocks as well as sidebars and fast-fact charts. Demand enterprise. Dig around to find something newsworthy and interesting from this year. Write it in a compelling, interesting and useful way.
5. Improve photos. Most of the yearbook is photography, which can make or break the book. Invest time in teaching each staff member to take usable photos that are…

  • In focus
  • Well composed
  • Candid

Leave every assignment with images that are wide (scene-setting), mid-range and close-up. That gives designers options.
6. Show us. Probably the most widely read (and most liked) stories are those that tell interesting stories about people. Your school and community are full of these stories. Localize national issues with the stories of people around you. Spend as much time on captions as on copy. The captions must be engaging, too.
7. Get social. Use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to interact with readers by posting links to content and by getting tips from readers. Monitor and listen to the conversation, or ask them to let you know about events occurring outside school (or at school but not known). Or search by #hashtag. Let readers submit photos and ideas to you through these pages.
8. Curate and share. Delicious.com is a free social bookmarking site. Pinterest allows sharing and re-sharing by “pinning” on “boards.” Tumblr allows curating links, images, text and video. Post links/items that will be useful to others. Tag and sort in a number of ways to enhance content beyond the printed page. You can also see what others shared.

9. Beyond the page. Flickr is a free online image-sharing service. Make your images available for people to browse as slideshows. Instagram is a social photo-sharing site. Follow others or promote your staff’s work. Show what happens behind the scenes! Through a Creative Commons license, you can get images to use (free and legal!). WikiCommons is another source for free images.

10. Post video. YouTube, SchoolTube and Vimeo are solutions to upload videos. Some might be blocked on school computers, but they’re not blocked on mobile devices or at home, where most people will access the videos. Use short clips that enhance the printed content. Social sites Instagram, Tumblr and Vine host short video clips.

11. Try QR codes. The “QR” stands for quick read and is a type of two-dimensional bar code. Smart phones can scan the codes and launch PDFs, videos or websites. Create a QR code easily and for free online. Even without a website, this is a way to add content and value or to promote sales.

12. Do fewer…

… superlatives that feature the same students as other sections. Find ways to showcase a variety of students.
… cliché stories on topics not tied to a news event. Make sure you have a news peg to include the story. Then localize.
… boring stories that aren’t about people. Feature your students and staff and what makes them interesting in 2014. Dig!

13. Follow the law. Obey copyright. Only use “fair use” images or get permission. Flickr and WikiCommons each allow searches for Creative Commons or public domain images. Know privacy rules. Know your rights.

14. Remember: Your role on campus is to inform your audience and record the events of the year. 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 and teen-oriented way.

Time for entrepreneurial student journalism

As with their commercial and professional counterparts, student media staffs must look ahead and plan with entrepreneurship in mind. The 20th century model was that staffs were producers of a product — a yearbook, broadcast, magazine or newspaper — funded by advertising or through institutional support. That model is not sustainable. A 21st century model is one where staffs consider themselves as information brokers and use the raw components they have — information in the form of facts, images, video and audio — plus various delivery platforms to sustain the operation.

Be the information experts. The student media operation should be the first source people think of when it comes to facts and data about your school community. For some topics like clubs or non-varsity sports, your media are the only ones documenting and covering the events or history. You have a responsibility — an obligation, even — to do a good job. Having quality information and thorough coverage develops your organization as the top news source. These also build an audience.

Develop multiple platforms. When deciding how to cover a topic or a story, every staff needs to have an array of options for presenting them to the audience or readers and viewers. Aside from the print or broadcast, a Web presence is almost mandatory. Beyond at least a bare-bones website, consider social media as well. How can people engage with the stories? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest — all of these are opportunities to connect, share and develop the story. Today, the conversation occurs in both directions with the audience providing key aspects of the story and discussion.

Monetize in new ways — no more candy sales or after-game dances. Information plus distribution equals opportunity. How can the student media staff wean itself from advertising? If the traditional ad money is dwindling, find a new revenue stream. Sell photos through a site like SmugMug.com, allowing parents, students, alumni and friends to purchase the photo prints or other items. Create new special editions/sections with advertising or sponsorship opportunities. Special editions such as a back-to-school guide, graduation special or music issue can provide themed coverage and ways for new advertisers to connect.

None of these suggestions should happen in isolation. They rely on each other and will combine for success. They keys are training the staff to think in a native 21st century way rather than modifying old thinking while attempting to keep up today. You don’t want to keep up; you want to get ahead. Discover the free or inexpensive tools that will help the students and adviser to do that. Then, go out and use them to do great work.

Blaze a trail and try something new

In January, I came across a remembrance in The New York Times of a pioneering photographer who had died recently. I read with interest about Louise Serpa and how she came to love both photography and rodeo. She was a pioneer in both. I grew up in a rodeo town, and one of my mentors in college was a rodeo photographer, so I have always had an interest in this area. Growing up, I knew a lot of people who were tough and classy like Serpa.

Though I have never been an arena photographer, it is easy to see how it can be both exhilarating and exceptionally dangerous. Other sports photographers may contend with thrown bats or a stumbling running back, but in Serpa’s profession, she had to keep shooting while avoiding bulls, broncs or bucked-off cowboys.

While reading the article, it occurred to me that Serpa was a true traiblazer — the lone woman in a field where men dominated, and she didn’t let that stop her. Serpa become famous — at least in the rodeo world — because she had a passion for arena photography and because she was good at it.

So I wondered whether there are there any trails left to be blazed today. For students working in media today, the answer is apparent. There has never been a more exciting time to be working in media. There have never been more tools for use in creating, more methods to research and gather information, or more platforms on which to tell a story. In short, there’s a wide-open frontier ready to be explored.

The take-aways from the article about Serpa are simple: Motivation, ingenuity, passion and willingness to work hard will get you what you want in life. Be open to exploration. Be curious. Seek solutions. And find a passion.

These aren’t new concepts. They’ve been shared by teachers, graduation speakers and parents for generations. What is new is that there are ways to start doing this in your student media right now. Pursue an ambitious story that needs telling, and show it to your readers. Experiment with new online tools like Tumblr or Storify. Dip your toes in the pond of a new area of digital media, and you’ll discover the water’s not so bad.

Just like Louise Serpa, you might have to dodge some obstacles. You might be the only person like you in a world of people who are different. But, don’t let that stop you. Breathe in the exhilaration. Blend your interests with your assignments. Blaze a new trail.

Find the article at:
http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/12/sweetheart-of-the-rodeo/

Five helpful resources you don’t want to reinvent

Even though a few months of the school year have passed, it’s not too late to get some policies in place to help your organization be more successful. Look at each of these five items and evaluate how they can assist your staff. They’re all available from NSPA at The Wheel — resources you don’t want to reinvent.

Model Code of Ethics for High School Journalists
The NSPA Code of Ethics establishes seven ethical principles for high school journalists. No more modifying other codes of ethics. This one is specific to the situations facing high school students and advisers. And, it’s been created with all media in mind.

Why and how to use: Student journalists need to have a foundation in ethics, but they also need to have examples that recognize the unique aspects of scholastic journalism. Copy the Code and provide it to every staff member. Spend class time anticipating some of the ethical situations posed in the Code, and how students will deal with them.

Legal Issues for Publishing Online
Understanding the basics of media law is essential for any high school journalist. But that understanding may be even more important for the multimedia journalist because of issues unique to the online world.

Why and how to use: Many people have misconceptions about what is legal or ethical online. If you have a student media website, knowing the law is important. Compare the differences between print and online.

Sample Student Media Staff Member Contract/License
This sample contract and license between a student media staff member and a student media organization was drafted by the Student Press Law Center and is an attempt to fairly balance the intellectual property rights of the student creators of a work against the business and practical requirements of student media organizations that publish such work.

Why and how to use: If a student takes a photo, he or she owns the copyright. It doesn’t matter whose camera was used or whether it was for a class assignment. Being proactive to allow a limited use by the student media organization can avoid any gray areas — and tense situations — while protecting the student’s rights.

Equipment Checkout Forms
Ensuring the proper maintenance of photographic equipment starts with an organized system to know where the equipment is, who is using it and who had it last. A checkout procedure helps students take responsibility for keeping track of equipment and to understand the cost to replace equipment.

Why and how to use: These models are examples from educators who found systems that worked for them. Take what makes sense and make it work for you.

Obituary Samples and Policies
Being proactive with an obituary policy can make for easy decisions if, and when, student journalists need to cover the death of someone in the school community.

Why and how to use: During a stressful, emotional or confusing situation, it can be helpful to turn to a policy for guidance. Consider these models and what makes sense for your student media and situation.

Once you and your staff have all of these components in place, you’ll be in great shape.

Headline: 8 Things to Think About in 2010-11

You still have time to make 2010-11 the best year on record and to try some new endeavors to improve your media operation. Here are 8 things you can try. That’s one a month for the rest of the school year.

1. Be excellent. Excellence isn’t settling for pretty good. Good enough is not good enough. Set goals to improve with each edition or deadline.
2. Put yourself in a position to be tell stories in the most-appropriate format. There’s really no excuse today for not having at least a basic website where you can post a PDF version of the printed paper. Ideally you update news throughout the school day. An online presence opens up a new universe of multimedia opportunities.
3. Get into social networking. Facebook andMySpace accounts are free. Connect with readers (and alumni, parents and community members) by asking for tips, photos, and letters. Expand your printed coverage with social bookmarking by posting links at a site like Delicious.com. Share photos via a site like Flikr.com.
4. Add multimedia. Sometimes, the most appropriate format to tell a story is with videos, slide shows, still images audio or text. Add these tools to your toolbox, so when you have a good story, you have multiple ways to cover it.
5. Start Tweeting. The microblogging site Twitter.com allows 140-character messages to be posted. These are great for simple updates and links to stories online. You can also follow people to get trend or news ideas and dearth by using a hashtag (a # and a word/phrase).
6. Follow the law. Obey copyright for images and audio. Search the Creative Commons-licensed photos on Flickr to see what is available for no charge, just the photo credit. Know privacy laws. Know your rights, especially if you live in a state that grants rights to student journalists.
7. Be the #1 source. Be serious about being the top information source for all things about your school. If someone wants to know a fact, score, date, time — whatever — be the place they turn to for that information. You can own sports stats, especially for non-varsity teams. Find out how good it feels to scoop the local paper.
8. Remember your role on campus. Regardless of the type of media you work with, your role on campus is to inform and enlighten your audience. You have a responsibility — an obligation, even — to take that seriously and to do it well. Your audience needs you to tell them the things no one else will tell them.