By now it’s fairly well known that we care a lot about headlines here at Upworthy. We write at least 25 of them for each post. We test them rigorously. Sometimes, we even make up a word to catch your eye.
Why? Because for us, headlines are an important means to an even more important end: …
Take a second or two to read this post from Upworthy about why their content goes viral. For us journo types, it’s no surpise that the reasoning comes back to those two words that have been hammered into our heads: quality content.
Here’s how Upworthy gauges quality:
Is the content substantive, engaging, and maybe even entertaining?
If 1 million people saw it, would the world be a better place?
Does the content actually deliver on the promise of the headline?
Share now. Read later. And, good morning.
Journalists talk to narrow sets of experts all the time. Spy magazine once ran an issue quoting the same expert in nearly every story, a total of 17 times, as an in-joke about Washington insularity.
The reason why this matters is incredibly important. Stephen Ward, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon put it clearly in this NPR story: "We can think of practical reasons why reporters do these things, but the problem is we don’t get diversity of voices."
I’m in the process of participating in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) program of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. Earlier in the class, we looked at the history of social networks, and the key pillars for why we can’t tune out just yet. I wanted to open this post up for discussion here on this Tumblr as well. It is posted in full below:
Getting to the source, finding trust and sharing a connection
Though SixDegrees.com did not live long enough to rub digital shoulders with the likes of Facebook, the concept behind the first social network’s namesake still applies to news organizations trying to use social networks today.
We all know someone who knows someone who knows someone. The same goes for news organizations and its readers, its audience and the community it serves. In many ways, this has always been true for news organizations. When news happens, a reporter finds someone credible. They search for their source of information, and I use the word “search” quite intentionally now more than ever. But as many journalists know, one of the questions you should always ask during an interview is, “Do you know someone else who else can talk with me about this?” You have made it to the second degree of separation in your source book, the mutual friend in your social network.
By using social networks today, news organizations can continue to accomplish that mission of finding sources of information to confirm, comment and provide context. However, instead of a notebook-holding reporter rubbing shoulders with public officials in a crowded room, that same public official can tweet. Just as it is a journalist’s job to listen to public officials in crowded rooms, it remains a journalist’s job to listen to public officials in a crowded digital space as well. And, when it comes to social media, it can get crowded quickly: videos, tweets, vines, Instagram, Tumblr, reddit, memes, music, graphics, data.
Journalists must sift through these rocks to find gems, but they must take the time to shake it out and get familiar with the tools they have in their hands. Not every gem will be an emerald, but many people still want to know what shiny bits of information journalists find along the way.
While I was writing an in-depth feature last year about Asheville veterans facing their own challenges with mental health (you can read it here), it helped me and my readers to know what challenges I was facing and what some themes were shaking out of my reporting. While I did not want to give my story away, with a topic this sensitive people needed to know that those conversations I was having with people were difficult, but they shed light on an issue not often discussed in a mountain city. I didn’t tweet my narrative, but I did tweet facts and observations during my reporting. I tweeted that our county had the sixth-highest number of veterans in the entire state during a walk back to my car after an interview. I tweeted that one of the veterans I spoke with wrestled with shame upon returning from Vietnam, but only after he got over the numbness that he didn’t realize was dulling his pain until years later.
I understand the argument that news organizations don’t want to give away the treasure of their story, but they can at least begin to lead people to where the X marks the spot. And this takes trust, especially in your social network. I was and am very good friends with reporters in Asheville that wrote for the competing paper (I have since taken up a job in a city 30 minutes south of the city), but I had to trust that they would not steal my story. And then, most importantly, I had to trust myself. I had to trust that there was no way they would be able to write and tell this story like I could. They didn’t, and I recently found out that I won a first-place award for that article.
But when it comes to listening to people and groups in that noisy digital room, news organizations have limitations. We do our best to listen all the time, but sometimes we will miss something. By vetting our sources, in-person or online, they can help us listen. One of the biggest stories I ever broke was thanks to a source I followed on Twitter. Unlike their usual tweets, this one didn’t come with a hashtag. He pondered more than he proclaimed. However, the tweet hinted that he thought a North Carolina Senator said the only abortion clinic in our county could become the only abortion clinic that could remain open in our state if a piece of legislation passed. It was my job as a reporter to follow-up, to investigate, to do the job that inspires us all: seek truth. If I had not seen that tweet, sure, I could have found out. However, that tweet went out before noon during a morning session at the general assembly. Before lunchtime, I was making phone calls and making sure that I would be the first reporter to talk to any official about this matter. It paid off. We broke the story, but we also had help thanks to one person in our community who had his ear to the ground at the right time and who trusted his social network to take that information and use it responsibly.
However, news organizations cannot just listen. As Ryan Thornburg said in his video lecture, social media is “a conversation not a lecture.” As news organizations, we have to be willing to respond to our readers and not just inform them. There is a difference. People want to know who they are talking to, so news organizations should be upfront about who is the person behind their accounts. Oftentimes, I’ve only heard about the person who manages a news organization’s Twitter account after they’ve lost their job after tweeting a snafu. As soon as a news organization can let its audience know who manages the account, the better. Then, invite them to connect with that person directly.
I’m the online news editor for the Hendersonville Times-News, a daily newspaper in Hendersonville, N.C. Today, I decided to introduce myself as the woman behind the digital curtain. I invited people to connect with me through my own Twitter account. People want to connect with people, and it can be less intimidating than connecting with an entire organization. However, it does help to let people know who they are talking to and who is talking back. In local news, I think this is especially true. Newspapers need their readers, and readers need their newspapers, whether those papers are online or in print. Every form of news media serves a purpose and to lose one for any town or city is a tragedy.
Social media gives news organizations the opportunity to not only find a renewed value in its audience, but for its audience to experience an even more meaningful relationship with its news — for a Sunday feature and in real-time, as a reader and a source.