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Follow-up: The new journalistic value

I wanted to call your attention to an online conversation I’ve been participating in that I think is especially salient to the work of our Argo-bloggers.

A few years ago, I wrote a post called “The Attention Deficit: The need for timeless journalism.” The central idea/question of that post was this:

Journalism can now exist outside of time. The only reason we’re con­strained to promoting news on a minutely, hourly, daily or weekly basis is because we’ve inherited that notion from media that really do operate in fixed time cycles. But we now have the potential to signal importance on whatever scale you might imagine — the most important stories of the year, of the decade, of the moment.

What are the most important issues facing this community at this time? What would our sites look like if we asked ourselves that question? What would our journalism look like?

This week, Megan Garber of the Nieman Journalism Lab asked, “What if we had a news outlet exclusively focused on follow-up journalism?”

What if we had an outlet dedicated to continuity journalism — a news organization whose sole purpose was to follow up on stories whose sheer magnitude precludes them from ongoing treatment by our existing media outlets? What if we took thePolitiFact model — a niche outfit dedicated not to a particular topic or region, but to a particular practice — and applied it to following up on facts, rather than checking them? What if we had an outlet dedicated to reporting, aggregating, and analyzing stories that deserve our sustained attention — a team of reporters and researchers and analysts and engagement experts whose entire professional existence is focused on keeping those deserving stories alive in the world?

In the comments, I linked to my earlier post, causing Megan to follow up today with this:

In our current approach to news, ideas and connections and continuities — context, more generally — often become subsidiary to “now” itself. Newness trumps all, to occasionally devastating effect. There’s an economic reason for that, sure (the core of it being that audiences like nowness just as much as journalists). But we also now have tools that invite an intriguing possibility: new taxonomies of time. We have Twitter’s real-time news flow. We have Wikipedia’s wide-angle perspective. We have, above all, the web itself, a platform that’s proven extraordinarily good at balancing urgency with memory. We’d do well to make more of it — if for no other reason than the fact that, as Thompson puts it, “a journalism unfettered by time would align much more closely with timeless reality.”

And now I’ll give you one more quote from an article that wasn’t a part of this conversation at all. I think this particular quote is quite salient to this thread (and not just because – as you know – I’m an Ezra Klein fanboy):

Klein is explicit on this point, outlining a role for journalists that sounds as much like teaching as reporting. “I think that we as a profession need to become more comfortable with repetition,” he says. “What is newest is often not what is most helpful for readers.” A case in point: when explaining why legislation is bottled up in Congress, Klein routinely discusses the skyrocketing use of Senate filibusters—a recent and consequential change in the rules of politics that nonetheless doesn’t count as “news” on most days.

For now, I encourage you to read all four of these entries; I’m not going to expand on these posts too much. You’re probably beginning to get my point. But, in keeping with the theme, expect me to follow up on this.

Developing categories

Image courtesy of Flickr user OZinOH.

We put a metric ton of thought into the best ways of organizing content on the Argo sites, considering a vast variety of approaches and taking into account the content plans and user persona information that stations provided us. We knew early on as we started talking through this material that we generally wanted to target several discrete groups of users who’d be interested in different dimensions of the topic.

Many topics, for example, have what I’d call an industry community – people whose livelihoods are directly related to the subject. Many also have an academic community – a crowd of wonks and researchers studying related matters. Then there’s the legislative and political community – the folks making and advocating for policies. And of course, what I’d call the cultural community – those whose interest in the topic takes a more personal or social bent. This isn’t one-size-fits-all – these communities break down in different ways for different topics, and some topics have an altogether different set of interests. But as we realized we had these diverse audience needs, we decided we should keep high-level navigation that addressed them. Hence, categories.

I tell this story because I think these are the first questions our bloggers should answer as they develop their content plans for their site: Who are the four or five main audiences that you’d like to convene on the topic, and what dimensions of the topic are they most interested in?

The answer to these questions will form the spine of a solid content plan. Every day, we’ll want to be producing and curating content and sparking discussions that target each of these audiences. Each week, we should be planning at least one post intended for some viral pickup among these communities. And these four or five audience needs will drive the high-level navigation for the site, e.g. “Business,” “Politics,” “Research,” “Culture.”

The blogger’s first month

Flickr photo courtesy of user Joe Lanman.

It’s rare that a beat reporter for a daily news operation gets the luxury of having weeks before the first story has to be filed for the public. But that’s the lucky circumstance our Argo-bloggers will find themselves in. It’s our responsibility to help them use that time as productively as they can.

Over the next week, I’ll be writing more about the things I hope to see the blogger tackle in that time, but for now, let me summarize those tasks in four broad and overlapping buckets:

1. Content planning

This is probably the most important thing the blogger will do during the pre-launch period. We’ll need to nail down the key audiences we hope to reach (much of which will have been determined beforehand) and plan content accordingly. An important element of the content plan will be the long-term planning – developing the long-running stories that we’ll be returning to all throughout the first year of the blog. We’ll also want to engineer content at the ground level – reporting and producing some feature-length posts that we expect will be viral hooks for various audiences at launch. For a good chunk of the pre-launch period, the blogger should be producing a flow of regular daily content to populate the site, a sort of dress rehearsal for the live performance. And I hope every blogger takes the time during this stretch to conduct a photowalk of the beat, generating a solid repository of free-and-clear imagery that will be useful over time.

2. Network building

From the get-go, the blogger will want to begin pulling together the social media network that will be essential to story-finding and story promotion. This will mean finding the places and people on the Web to pull into the RSS reader, to promote content to, and to participate in conversations with. This network will be represented on the site in a number of ways, which leads me to the next component …

3. System setup

All the work the blogger does to plan content and build a network will be reflected somehow on the final site. An essential piece of the first 30 days of the blogger’s workflow will be using the platform we’ve built to populate the site. Content planning will play into the creation of topic pages through an admin interface that we’re developing. The network of sites and Twitter users the blogger finds relevant will be crawled for links that will be aggregated on our topic pages and elsewhere on the Argo site. Throughout this process, the blogger will be using the Argo platform, hopefully identifying any rough spots or workflow kinks that we can smooth out before showtime.

4. Orientation

It’s important that the bloggers get to know not only their beats, but also their stations. We want to empower them to take advantage of their station infrastructure, so we’ll have to give them a chance to get familiar with it. They should sit in on pertinent meetings, embed with reporters and producers, and procure access to any relevant internal mailing lists and collaboration sites. Before the bloggers are on board, the Argo editors should spend time thinking about the best ways to ensure that work being done for the site is taking advantage of work being done elsewhere at the station, and vice-versa.

I’ll write in more detail about all of these elements in the days to come. In the meantime, enjoy your Memorial Day weekends!

How to choose your taxonomy terms

I’ve written before about the reasons for being thoughtful about classification on our sites. The Argo editors have taken a couple of stabs at sketching out what their site taxonomies might look like, and now we’re asking for a starter list of real terms – at least 30 – that we’ll use to create the initial set of topic pages for each site. I thought I’d write up some thoughts on how to develop that list.

Each term should reflect an audience interest.

In the Argo universe, every term we apply to content will generate a topic page. So as a baseline filter for what constitutes a good term, ask yourself whether you think your users would value seeing a page of posts about this subject.

I stress this point because we sometimes start out by structuring our sites around the subject rather than the audience. If we approached global health or the cruise industry from a subject-oriented perspective, for example, we might create topic pages for “Diseases and conditions,” or “Types of cruises.” But an audience-oriented approach might cause us to question that decision. Is there a genuine audience interest in reading content about “Diseases and conditions” or “Types of cruises”? We can imagine audiences would want to read about specific diseases or cruise types, so a page with posts about malaria or senior cruises would make a lot of sense. But “Types of cruises” makes more sense as a collection of topic pages rather than as a collection of posts.

That said, it will be useful to capture concepts such as “Types of cruises” that describe a class of topic pages. We might create a page or module like this, for example, to serve as navigation to different topic pages. Or we might use that information to surface related topics: if you’re reading about malaria, perhaps you’d be interested in reading more about TB.

Start with the low-hanging fruit.

The easiest thing to wrap our minds around in the taxonomy universe is topic pages. And the easiest topic pages to build are pages for entities – individuals and organizations – specific, proper nouns that an algorithm could search for and bring back relevant results. So I’d start with those. Who will you probably cover most frequently? The Gates Foundation will undoubtedly loom large on a site covering global health in Seattle. A site about the changing face of DC will probably feature many items about the city’s polarizing chancellor of public schools, Michelle Rhee. Generate a list of names like these that are central to the topic at hand.

Think about your various audiences.

With many of our topics, we want our community to include a few distinct types of audiences for the topic. In several cases, there’s:

  • an audience of industry insiders whose livelihoods are directly tied to the topic,
  • a governmental, activist or legal audience around the topic steeped in the relevant legislative issues,
  • a coterie of scientists and researchers who’ve studied various dimensions of the topic,
  • and a broad universe of people potentially affected by the topic, many of whom might not regularly seek out related subject matter, even though it concerns them.

Thinking about the topic this way might help generate ideas for categories – broader types of content bundles that require human judgment to define. For global health, these audiences might suggest categories such as “The business of global health,” “Law and politics,” “Science and research,” and “The impact of global health.” All the Argo editors have developed sets of personas typifying the different users who might arrive at the site. Feel free to revisit these personas as you develop your list of topics.

Consider your content plan.

Another set of terms might relate to how you program the blog. Tara Parker-Pope’s Well blog, for example, has several series of posts on topics like diet and nutrition (“Eat Well”), running (“Run Well”) and pets (“Well Pets”). These posts are collected into topic pages. Make sure to include these types of regular features in your list of terms.

Aim for relevance, not breadth.

We need to start off with these terms before the bloggers are hired, because they’ll help us determine how to build a topic infrastructure that can accommodate different types of terms. But we expect that these lists will change and develop a lot when your blogger comes on board. Your goal right now is not to capture every term that might touch on your topic’s universe, however tangentially. Right now, limit yourself to topics you expect will be most relevant to your coverage from day one. Keep 30 terms in mind as a minimum number of terms, but if you find yourself straining beyond that, don’t fret.

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How we chose the topics: the market assessment

Among the most influential factors in our choice of a topic for each Argo site was the market assessment for the topic. When we asked the Argo stations to submit their initial proposals, we asked a number of questions about the opportunity they saw: Who does the subject affect? What are they reading today for coverage of related issues? How well-positioned is the station to develop the authoritative site on the topic?

The goals laid out for this project include filling gaps in the local journalism infrastructure, building significant online audience reach and engagement, and establishing each station as the authoritative source on an issue of local concern. As we worked with the stations to select and refine the final topic, we pursued a variety of methods to test each subject’s potential to meet these goals. Given the range of topics we considered, no two assessments were exactly the same. But here are five steps that were common to all of them.

1. Capturing the hunches.

In almost every case, each station identified potential topics using the sort of ambient awareness that any local institution develops over time. Some topics surfaced after a related story or series drew a strong response from the site’s community. Some had been popular beats at local news organizations until staff reductions snuffed them out. Others were just omnipresent (or soon-to-be-omnipresent) local stories that weren’t being authoritatively covered by any news source.

2. Quantifying the potential market.

The task of imagining how many people you could potentially reach with a topic is way more art than science. But it was one of the first things we asked several Argo stations to do as we explored ideas for topics.

If the topic concerns an industry, for example, there’s a good chance the site might interest folks who work in that industry. So our contacts at the stations dove into Census data, Federal labor statistics, trade publications and other materials to try to get a sense of how many people that included. Some subjects – such as health care spending – affect everybody. In those cases, we tried to determine who the primary seekers of information on the subject would be, and roughly how many of them there were.

Whenever I heard a numeric estimate of the size of a potential market, I’d pare it back in my head by 90 percent. If our site could attract 10 percent of the folks in that group every month, would that constitute a meaningful addition to the station’s reach? If not, could we adjust the focus of the topic to be relevant to a larger part of the station’s community?

In many cases, the number of people a topic touched wasn’t too narrow, but suspiciously broad. I was wary of topics that could “potentially appeal to everyone.” Our goal isn’t just to draw a crowd, but to establish the station’s mastery of a subject. Which led to the next part of the assessment…

3. Surveying the landscape.

Once we’d established a topic’s importance to a community, we needed to figure out how well it was covered. We scoured the output of local and national news orgs, industry groups and trade publications, and impassioned individuals online. We ran relevant keywords about the topic through Google – including its News Search and Blog Search engines – to find regular sources of information off the beaten path. We sifted through blogs on Technorati and groups on Facebook, and combed Twitter to find related hashtags, and individuals and organizations tweeting about related subjects.

Whenever we found a source, we looked for references to other sources. Blogrolls on blogs were invaluable pointers to good sites, for example, although the best sources are often linked to frequently in the blog itself. Twitter lists created by subject experts helped flesh out a network of important individuals to follow.

Several key questions animated our pursuit:

  • How much is this topic getting covered today? We didn’t have any sort of threshold for what volume of coverage constituted saturation on a topic. But if every big development on a topic was independently covered by multiple sources, that gave us an indication that the landscape was pretty crowded.
  • Where does coverage and conversation on this topic coalesce today? We were on the lookout for robust hubs that could be considered authoritative on the subject. When we found a site working to pull together information around a topic, we’d look for signs of life – timely content, comments and other community activity, enough traffic to appear on Quantcast’s radar. (See also: 10 free sites to estimate a blog’s popularity.) Sometimes we hit pay dirt, which prompted more questions about our focus. Would our site be different from existing ones in focus or ambition? Do we have the resources to do a better job?
  • Does this niche have online niches of its own? Most of our topics encompassed a few different storylines – industries evolving, scientists exploring, politicians jousting, and in all cases, families and individuals adjusting. We scoured the Web for evidence that people in all these domains were leading intimate online conversations that we could tap into.

4. Examining the station’s reach.

Once we were satisfied that we’d hit on a worthy topic, we tried to figure out how well the station was situated to reach those the topic affects. Was it an extension of an existing beat or desk in the station’s newsroom, or would it represent a foray into brand new territory? Demographically, how much did the target community for the site overlap with the existing audience for the station?

What we found helped us sharpen our strategy further. If we were treading into uncharted territory for the station, our challenge was approaching the topic in a way that built on the station’s existing strengths. If, on the other hand, the station had already established some relevant authority, we needed to figure out how to expand the community the station had built.

5. Evaluating the network opportunity.

A final consideration for us was the topic’s place in the Argo universe. We wanted to cover a healthy range of issues, while maximizing the potential network effects wherever the topics overlapped. This meant we shied away from subjects that might be too parochial. Each of the sites would be pushing and pulling information to and from the NPR API, so we knew we’d be able to share information among the sites, NPR.org, and several of the station sites, at a minimum. So we were looking for topics with a strong local focus, but a rich national resonance. It was a good sign if we could imagine the blog sending the occasional story to NPR.org.

‘Context’ is king?

The ARGO team has been talking a great deal about the importance of context in telling stories. How do we avoid the trap of only telling readers/listeners the very latest story without providing the context to truly understand that story? And how do we make it easy to catch up, to understand complex issues in a relatively short period of time, while still drawing out the depth for which that public radio is known?

As has been noted in many places, that was one of the great triumphs of Planet Money’s The Giant Pool of Money. But we’re also thinking about it in associating related content to the most recent posts in a new and better way. Topics pages can certainly play a role, but we need far more than a link to another destination page that is simply a reverse chron list of stories mentioning that topic.

ARGO’s Matt Thompson has been doing a lot of thinking in this area. He was a featured speaker at South by Southwest, along with NYU’s Jay Rosen, on that subject. Terry Heaton’s PoMo blog quotes Matt and Jay from that panel in his post, “Context” is the new flavor for journalism.