Team Crunchberry has spent a better part of the last 11 weeks thinking about how to engage an online news audience, particularly young adults, and encourage discussion. The culmination of what we learned is the recommendations we would like to pass on to fellow journalists, news organizations and media companies.
Journalists must interact with their audience. Start the conversation by inviting questions and constructive criticism. Monitor commenting on your work and respond, especially to thoughtful comments, criticisms and requests for further information. The involvement of credible sources and thoughtful contributions will elevate the audience’s perception of the comments and increase the value of the format to readers.
Encourage and fund experimentation with online media. The only way someone will find out how to make money on the Internet is to try something new.
Participate in different types of social media. To really understand what works and what doesn’t and to understand the unwritten rules of social media, journalists need to participate themselves. Use social media to build the audience for journalism, identify sources and generate story ideas.
Work to integrate the “journalism” side of your newsroom with the “technical” side. Typically these two entities work distinctly from one another, but the more each side understands what the other is doing the more possible it is to work toward an end goal together. One idea worth considering is hiring developers to work in the newsroom to help build new content, services and ways of interacting with the audience.
Provide your audience with tools to interact with the news organization and with each other. This will enhance the quality of journalism and also build loyalty and time spent on your Web site.
Use social media to reach young adults. Social network sites generate more usage and loyalty than news sites. Use them as a distribution platform and as a way to build a network of followers.
Allocate staff time for social media and user interaction. Give journalists the time and opportunity to engage in online discussion around their articles. Assign staff to build connections through social networks.
Enlist young creative minds in developing your digital products. One way to do this, as the Gazette has done for our project, is to partner with universities and their students. Another approach is to inject people from other fields (e.g., software developers).
When inviting users to react to and talk about your content, don’t just offer an open-ended comment box. More structured forms of interaction have the potential to engage audiences more deeply and improve the quality of conversation.
Make more use of links to related content. Connect stories so people are not required to work to get what they are looking for. People will always use multiple online sources – Web sites that provide relevant outbound links will increase user loyalty.
Highlight user-generated content on your Web site. For the users who see their video or comment featured, it will give them an added bonus for contributing, and a greater appreciation for the online discussion.
Consider integrating your Web site with Facebook Connect and/or comparable services from MySpace, Google and Yahoo! These services allow users to log in without creating a new user ID and password and may encourage deeper engagement and participation by leveraging users’ social networks.
Monitor the evolution and adoption of digital identity services such as Facebook Connect, especially the balance between benefits (for instance, no need to set up a separate user ID) and drawbacks (for instance, users’ concerns about privacy and the use of their Facebook profile information). Do what you can to support the adoption of more open, transparent standards such as OpenID and OpenSocial.
We also have a few recommendations for journalism schools:
Teach people new tricks. Recruit programmers/developers and teach them how to integrate what they do with journalism, or collaborate with engineering schools. Teach journalists how to better their stories through the use of new technology. The more you know about these technologies the more you know how to make them work for you (and your story). If it’s not practical to teach the technology in journalism school, publicize opportunities to learn it elsewhere on campus and guide motivated students to resources they can use to teach themselves.
If you publish content to a publicly available Web site, allow comments and give journalism students a chance to experience real-world audience interaction. This is a fundamental skill for 21st century journalists.
Provide classes in which students write and contribute to blogs, and make use of social media. Because social media is an emerging industry for many newsrooms, skills in these areas are vital to have in this industry.