7 Steps to Relevance in Digital Journalism

Jan 26, 2012

Nathan Bernier is a radio reporter and lead blogger for KUTNews.org, the station’s news blog, which is operated by the news staff. This interview was conducted and condensed by Ki-Min Sung. 

Credit Filipa Rodrigues, KUT News

1. Use analytics.

Analytics will not ruin your news. You will not write about Justin Beiber or iPad 2 stories because you’re not stupid. I was concerned that introducing analytics would create a race to the bottom, but I think it better informs your editorial decisions. Ultimately, you ignore analytics at your peril.

That said, I don’t think more page views necessarily means a better site. The quality of the interaction matters a lot. Page views are just one measure of success.But you do have a responsibility to your audience to know if they like your stuff.

2. If no one reads it, it doesn’t matter.

One of the biggest differences between radio and the web is that radio is a linear medium. People have to listen to an entire radio story before judging if it’s relevant to their lives. That gives you more time to convince them.

But with the web, if you don’t grab them with the headline, the picture and maybe the first couple sentences, the person is on to the next distraction. Our job to make it interesting at the outset. 

Again, it doesn’t mean that we have to delve into the mud and start writing like tabloid blogs a la Gawker. But there are lessons to be learned from sites that write conversational or at least unconventional headlines that stand out from the pack of AP rewrites. We are radio reporters, not newspaper reporters, so let’s not follow their conventions. 

I also should underline the importance of choosing good photography. A good picture might be the saving grace of your story, the one piece of content that causes a reader to invest in a few paragraphs to realize that this is important to them.

You can tell if you’re doing a good job with that or not with the help of analytics.

3. Write what no one else is writing, or write the stories in a way that no one else is writing.

It’s easy to rewrite AP copy or chase that same story everyone else is going after. If everyone is writing the same story, the audience doesn’t have to get it from you. When we covered the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary debates, I was in the office late, updating the news blog, but no one was looking at our stuff. Why? Because they can get it somewhere else. We were doing what other news organizations were doing but just not as well. So I started linking to that other reporting instead of reporting from scratch.

The cultural issues that matter most to 25– to 45-year-olds tend to do really well on our site. It seems sort of obvious, but things that people are talking about do well on our site, like trying to explain why people are rioting over shoes or rule changes that affect how Texas brewers can advertise. I think it’s mostly because they’re issues that have a direct impact on their lives and are more likely to be shared through their social networks. We use these cultural stories as sugar to make the medicine go down for more serious news stories.

4. Choose quality over quantity.

Generally, you will have more engagement with your site if you write three really good posts instead of ten mediocre posts. Taking three hours to report and write something in an interesting or novel way, or aggregating useful content is probably going to be of more value to a reader than two summary paragraphs and a link to a newspaper.  In other words, treat your readers as smart people who will recognize filler when they see it.

Sometimes you may want to write stories that don’t have a huge reach but are extremely important to a smaller section of your audience. Education reporting sometimes falls into this category. I would try to write a blog piece previewing a meeting and link to primary documents from the agenda.

People who value that kind of information but don’t have time to translate the bureaucratic language in the school district’s agenda packet really appreciate the coverage, much more so than someone who stumbled on your site through a Google search and never plans to return.

5. Treat your audience they way you would want to be treated as a user.

Give them a link to the information you are citing. If it’s a .pdf that was emailed to you, post it to Scribd or DocumentCloud and link to it. Don’t hide your sources or force your audience to Google it.

In fact, it’s one of our biggest advantages over other news sources, especially local newspapers. Many local papers have a policy of only linking to their site. Savvy users will place a higher priority on news sources that give them access to the information they need to make their own decisions. Even though you are sending them away from your site, they will be more likely to come back.

Plus, our mission in civic journalism is to empower people with the first-hand information they need to participate in democracy.  And the internet is all about sharing and transparency.

The same applies when dealing with corrections. Think about your site from a user’s perspective. If you have a typo, just fix it. No one is going to claim you’re trying to cover up your mistakes. 

But if it’s a serious factual error, address it, fix it, and apologize. Don’t try to hide it. I think making those corrections publicly actually helps our credibility. No one thinks all news organizations are perfect all the time. If you’re willing to address it and apologize, people will be willing to forgive you, and they will know that you are striving for honesty.

6. Almost all comments are good, even if they’re hateful.

When people are criticizing you, try to see it as a victory. You have already won because that person has clicked on your story and is engaging with your content.

It can take broadcasters some time getting used to criticism because radio is such a one-way medium. But having people sound off on your post with negative comments can be constructive (as long as they’re not racist, sexist, homophobic, etc). It provides a steam valve for them to vent their frustration, and it helps you develop a thicker skin. Plus, you can hear what people are already complaining about when they yell at their radios.

Comments also give us a chance to correct mistakes, if we have any, and challenge our preconceptions about an issue. Keep in mind that people are often way more critical online than in real life in part because they don’t have to look you in the face but also because they think their voice won’t be heard unless it’s really loud.

But if you kill them with kindness, so to speak, they are more likely to keep coming back to your site because they feel their voice matters.

7. Writing online stories makes you a better writer overall.

The more you write, the easier it becomes. Even though I had more than 10 years of radio experience before starting on our news blog, my daily writing output has never been as high because I didn’t have to focus on audio production.  

Writing a quick blog post also helps organize your thoughts before you get into the radio piece, and your radio piece will be all the better for it and take less time to write. It’s a way to “work smarter, not harder.”

I wish more of our reporters would realize the benefits of blogging. But there has still been a slight cultural shift in our newsroom. It’s now considered more normal for a radio reporter to put something on the blog. If the blogger is out sick, a radio reporter will cover his shift by posting stuff online. And they realize that it’s actually a fun job. But radio still takes a lot more time to create. Balancing the workload is a challenge.

The blog teaches us, more than anything, that we should be relevant first. If no one cares about your story, it doesn’t matter how important it is, because no one will read it. Never be boring.