All meat and no potatoes, veggies or dessert

Robert Niles over at the Online Journalism Review is attending the “NewsTools 2008: Journalism that Matters” conference at Yahoo! in Sunnyvale this week and has an interesting blog item entitled “What’s Wrong With Us?”. One portion of his post really caught my attention. It’s something I have written about before (my goodness, was it that long ago?) .

Niles says says:

As I discussed with several other conference participants over dinner, journalists need to treat their websites like a dinner party. You can’t just dish out a plate of veggies. You need to invite your readers in, chat with them, serve ’em a drink and get them comfortable. Then you can start dishing out the food, including a main course, veggies and dessert.

and

It’s a rare publication that rakes in the cash offering readers nothing but investigative pieces and serious, in-depth profiles. Even The New Yorker runs a hell of a lot of cartoons. Individual journalists may aspire to a career of hard-hitting reporting. But their companies also employ people who are shooting wild art at Little League games, publishing pages filled with comics and Sudoku, and running reader sweepstakes and giveaways.

If you’re going to publish a website, you can’t forget the gimmicks.

In looking at California community college online publications I seldom see much effort to go beyond the normal news fare that all ready shows up in print. We just don’t do self-promotion well or play good party hosts. Below are some ideas. My apologies for such heavy use of the Cerritos College Talon Marks as an example. I do so not to brag on my own students’ publication, but because it is the one with which I am most familiar. My (way) earlier post included some examples from other community college publications.

  • MORE PHOTOS — One of my biggest pet peeves is news web sites, especially major ones, is that they don’t show enough photos. You don’t need a photo slide show with every story, but come on, show me the scene. Print stories that have photos with them, or probably should, too often appear online without the photo sauce. Even my own students do a poor job of attaching photos to anything but those stories that need it for the front page featured story.
  • LINKS TO OTHER STORIES — Much has been written about this both here and in other blogs I regularly read, but our students still don’t do it. It takes extra skill and extra work, but it can become habit if you work at it. Give your reader some spice with that meal.
  • EXPLAIN THE NEWS WITH BLOGS — Today we can do more than report the news, we can report about the news. And we can explain the news process to readers. How and why do we make decisions? This is one role of blogs. Your staff members should be learning to news blog on a regular basis. They will actually learn to understand the news better if they have to explain more than the details of a story, but how they got those details and what they mean. It is easy to write, but hard to get into the habit of writing regularly. They should be learning while in your programs. So few of our papers have blogs. And at those that do, so few blogs are updated on a regular basis. Tip: Don’t hide blogs or blog entries. Tease them on the front page. Take a look at Google’s Custom RSS gadget to automatically update headline links. If the same links stay there too long, it becomes conspicuous. See talonmarks.com or the JACC Web site for examples of this handy and free tool in use. What good is a great meal if you aren’t ready to hand out recipies?
  • CARTOONS AND PUZZLES — Ahh, the sugary dessert of the meal. Ideally, you have your own cartoonist, but even if you don’t you can find free or low cost syndicated cartoons and puzzles, some of which will update daily automatically. Give your readers extra reasons to stick around and enjoy your meal. If they just show up for dessert, perhaps they’ll sample the meat and potatoes. Few JACC schools use cartoons and puzzles. And the ones that do make them difficult to access or even read online (make them bigger if necessary). I think this stems from a mistaken notion that everything on your Web site MUST be created by you. If you had a staff of 100, okay. But you don’t. So if your staff cannot produce a balanced meal, have someone else cater part of it. I reluctantly can buy the “only our stuff” argument for the print edition, which has limited space to begin with, but online space is not a problem and you can and should provide a complete meal. For an example of what can be done, check out talonmarks.com’s cartoon page. it and other cartoon and puzzle pages are teased at the bottom of the front page.
  • PROMOTIONS — Suppose you gave a dinner party and no one showed? Is your Web site like that? You are right to focus on quality content, but it doesn’t matter if no one shows up to enjoy it. Promote the hell out of your site. Promote in your print edition AND on your online edition. You want to get readers back. You want to show them that they are appreciated. While few of us are actively recruiting readers/customers, remember that in business it is far easier/cheaper to keep a customer/subscriber than it is to get a new one. Spend a few bucks and give things away once in a while. The Cerritos Talon Marks, for instance, has given away iPods, concert tickets, tickets to wrestling matches and more to attract online readers and thank subscribers. Our most recent promotion was a team effort with Paramount Pictures and the Iron Man movie. While it was not a good experiment for us —see my other blog for details— at least it was an attempt. We need to do more than we do, but I don’t see much evidence of other publications doing anything.
  • DIFFERENT WAYS OF TELLING STORIES — Dinner is more than meat and potatoes cooked one way. Look for other ways of cooking foods/telling stories: Slide shows, videos, audio, pdf attachments, sprouts (not the Brussels kind), mashups and more. In JACC we know a lot more about Soundslides because of the Team feature contest we ran at our last convention, but there are lots of other tools. My most current favorite is Sprout Builder. My students produced their first sprout recently and already we see LOTS of uses for it. Be on the lookout for other exotic tools coming out. Not a gourmet chef? Take a quick look at services like Bravenet, which offers a host of free online tools for polls, forms, chat rooms, surveys and more that you can add to your site even if you don’t have a tech wizard handy. There is no such thing as a completely free lunch and if you use these tools you have to put up with some distracting advertising. But if you like a tool, you can pay for it and lose the advertising. I know, that’s hard to do on a fixed budget, but even meat can get dull after a while.

JACC schools, when you’ve prepared a particularly fine meal or dish, let me know and I’ll unabashedly publicize it here for you. We all like a good meal and can learn from each other.

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