NOLA Notes: Winning the local digital audience when news isn’t breaking

Another in a series of posts drawn from my notes at the National College Media Convention in New Orleans.

We’ve established that breaking local news is critical to your success as a digital news outlet on campus. But news isn’t “breaking” all the time (unless you’re an annoying click-baiter). So you need to do a lot more to be part of the daily digital diet of your prospective audience. This post is full of suggestions from several leaders in digital-first campus media.

First, two quotes to encourage any journalist worried about whether “social” is taking over “news.”

“Quality matters.” — Erica Perel, newsroom adviser, Daily Tar Heel (serving the University of North Carolina).

“So do what the college press always has done. We were hyperlocal before the term was invented.” — Omar Sofradzija, editorial adviser, The State News (serving Michigan State University).

Bullet points:

Ryan Frank, president/adviser, Emerald Media Group (serving the University of Oregon)

  • Build user-generated content. Frank admits he has changed his mind about this. (Why do we say “admits” a change of mind? It’s something to brag about when you can adapt to new information.) Frank now thinks college media outlets need to explore creating a platform for students (not those on your news staff) and even faculty to post content — “not on a news page but in a different way.” This may turn up news content, and it certainly builds critical engagement and helps create an engaged community — because, as Frank notes, anyone who posts on your engagement site will post the link to Facebook, Twitter, etc., bringing their friends and followers to your online community.
  • Keep an eye open for the right viral content. Back when the Oregon football team was undefeated, Frank walked out of his office one day and saw students at a table selling “We Want Bama” shirts — a cocky assertion that the Ducks were ready to take on defending national champs Alabama. He knew this had viral potential, so he texted the newsroom. Sure enough, USA Today and Alabama media outlets jumped on the story, and the Emerald got great exposure. (Sadly for both us, Frank’s Ducks and my Crimson Tide are no longer among the ranks of the undefeated.)

Omar Sofradzija, editorial adviser, The State News:

  • “You have 10 seconds to get the audience’s attention online.” Wow. This comment is based on Sofradzija’s close attention to analytics. If this doesn’t make you focus on headlines (dumping print heads online won’t do), leads and attractive, fast-loading story pages, prepare to be left behind. That’s right, story pages, because …
  • I mentioned this in an earlier post on using analytics to build your “true” local audience, but it bears repeating: Most statenews.com traffic is NOT on the home page. About a third of the site’s readers arrive at the home page. About a third arrive at a story page via a search engine link. And 36 percent come from referrals to story pages from Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • Search engine optimization is not dead yet. At The State News, editors pay attention to using terms most seen in searches: “State News, “MSU,” names of local newsmakers, locations and popular groups. (I work at CNN Digital these days and can talk you SEO is a big deal in headline writing there. So rather than a headline of “Death toll rises to 5 in Colorado floods,” I would write “Colorado floods: Death toll rises to 5.” Steve Buttry has some great SEO tips in this post, including a top headline writer’s advice to write “business up front; party in the back.”)
  • Social media is the digital equivalent of the newspaper rack. (I’m seeing slow progress in college media tweet writing, but many easily avoided Twitter pitfalls still are all too common.)
  • As also mentioned in the previous analytics post, your Facebook page is important. The State News has four times as many followers on Twitter, but gets more than twice as many referrals from Facebook. So your Facebook page has to be as up-to-date as your home page.
  • An idea I’d love to steal from statenews.com: Every mid-day, they post a fun story and label it as the “lunch break.”
  • “Mobile and tablets are the (very near) future.” So don’t just look at the attractiveness and loading speed of your website pages. Look how they work on all platforms. For most of us, that means responsive design — a CMS (like WordPress) that automatically adapts content to the platform.
  • Give your audience what they won’t get anywhere else. Dominate news that focuses on your community and your demographic: college students. The State News found that local band reviews were well read. But not a movie review or a review of a national band. So they cut back on national reviews. The State News dumped The Associated Press a few years ago. Alumni were aghast, but it fit the digital mantra of “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” (Disclosure: I worked for AP for 17 years and sold its service to college papers. It made sense, especially for dailies whose readers got almost all their news from their campus paper. But today college media leaders have to ask themselves, “Does our audience really come to us for generic national/world news?”)

Erica Perel, newsroom adviser, Daily Tar Heel:

  • Perel talked to Dan Kois, senior editor of Slate for arts and culture (and a Daily Tar Heel alum!). Kois said Slate readers reward quality: “Longer does better than shorter, in-depth does better than shallow; ambitious does better than lazy.”
  • David van Dokkum of Chartbeat told her the No. 1 thing readers reward is exclusive news. So good old-fashioned enterprise reporting works. When an enterprising DTH reporter got an interview with an embattled basketball player, the story got 22,000 pageviews.
  • Use Storify: People want to see if their tweet made the Storify.
  • Get to the point. Readers don’t stay for long leads. Even more true for mobile. Bounce rates will show you that.
  • If you’re getting lots of Twitter traffic, what are the headlines people are tweeting? Maybe revise your headline when you see a user’s headline is more enticing.
  • When stories spike, play those stories more prominently on home page.
  • Pay attention to the times of day when the most people are on the site. That’s when you should promote content.
  • The DTH social manager checks for reader replies at certain times of day. Otherwise people could feel their questions or comments are being ignored. (An element worth considering in your plan to create a digital-first structure and culture.)

Judy Gibbs Robinson, editorial adviser, The Oklahoma Daily:

  • Converse with your audience on social media.
  • Find sources, check facts.
  • Post your budget rundown and ask readers what they want to know about those topics and what other topics they would like to read about.
  • High-profile interview coming up? Ask readers, “What do you want me to ask?”
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About adviserdavid

Student media director, Georgia Southern University

Posted on December 1, 2013, in Digital/social, Financial sustainability, NOLA Notes, Reporting, Writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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