shift ctrl + alt + enter life
The cryptic keyboard symbols that named Medill’s 2009 News21 reporting project reflected the 13 Fellows’ intense focus on their audience recent college graduates living in major cities, the American-born sons and daughters of immigrants.
The subtitle, A Diverse Generation Confronts Its Future, supplied literal clarity but shift proved clear enough to thousands of web-site visitors who recognized its double meaning: Shifting from dependent to adult, in urban culture that is itself shifting, diversifying and melding dramatically. And then the other keys seeking to control their futures, alter their worlds and enter on-their-own adult lives.
Medill’s News21 approach was audience-focused, but that description is both simplistic and shallow.
Before the Fellows walked into their newsroom in late June, they had spent three months researching their audience quantitatively and qualitatively; demographically and anecdotally; in academic literature and popular media; on the web and on the phone and face-to-face. They sharply defined their audience, understood its issues and its dreams, knew how and why it consumes media.
Audience, not content, drove the project. That is the critical difference in Medill’s approach.
Only the broadest concept, a changing America, was in place before Fellows had sufficient understanding of their audience to build an editorial product for it. No unifying theme, no reporting assignments, no story ideas, no favored media for presentation, no geographical preferences. Understanding the audience came first.
Then, the Fellows constructed an editorial plan, driven by this understanding, emphasizing broad coverage of the issues that matter most to this audience of young, urban second-gens, and the questions waiting just ahead for life-defining answers.
They conceived and built a sustainable web site, its navigation and style reflecting Fellows’ knowledge of audience preferences and turn-offs.
They developed a marketing plan and individual strategies, with emphasis on social networking, to reach the audience where it is, not where the Fellows may have wanted it to be.
Finally, they began reporting, but engaging the audience every step of the way. Through Facebook, Twitter, special-interest web sites and much personal contact, the Fellows developed story ideas and received valuable, sometimes course-correcting feedback from the focus of their work the audience.
The audience response was quick, significant, gratifying and continuing. shift went live on July 29, during the sixth of 10 weeks (June 22 August 28).
When the newsroom closed at the end of August, shift had had 6879 unique visitors. shift’s we’re-closing-the-doors-now letter to its audience, describes Fellows’ approach to reporting.
A month later, with all marketing and editorial long finished, the number had risen to 11,652. Jump to the end of November: 17,343 unique visitors. January 7, 2010: 20,000. February 28, 2010: 25,000.
With no tending after August 28, through a combination of web search and audience buzz, shift continued to gain roughly 600 brand-new visitors each week.
What follows are descriptions of Medill’s audience-focused approach to News21, both during the preparatory research phase in spring 2009, and during the summer in the newsroom; discussion of the audience itself; and some lessons, observations and speculations.
Medill was one of the four original News21 “incubator” journalism schools that in 2006 set about to create innovative, in-great-depth reporting projects following a common theme. For three consecutive summers, Medill and the other News21 universities produced important and impressive journalism, produced in multiple media. However, as projects conceived and driven by content decisions, they generally did not receive the attention the reporting deserved.
For its 2009 News21 project, Medill decided to exercise its audience-first philosophy with a real-world, open-for-all-to-see demonstration of the power of that approach.
Rather than the usual preparatory subject-matter seminar course, Fellows as a group would take Professor Rachel Davis Mersey’s Audience Insight class, working together to identify, research and refine an audience.
Rather than reporting on a pre-determined topic, Fellows would develop an editorial plan constrained only by the necessity that it fit within the national “changing America” theme of News21 (which had expanded in 2009 to eight “incubators” and four affiliate universities).
After a competitive process journalism work products, faculty recommendations, personal essays and a multimedia-skills inventory were evaluated by a faculty panel 10 of Medill’s strongest journalism graduate students were selected in December 2008 as News21 Fellows. Two additional Fellows, from the University of Texas and the University of Nebraska, were assigned to Medill’s incubator. Each Fellow was to earn $7500 for the 10-week fellowship.
A few months later, Medill added a graduate student in its Integrated Marketing Communications program to the News21 team, in what would be a very successful effort to bolster expertise in marketing and consumer behavior, and integrate those concepts into newsroom routine.
audience research| top
During the spring academic quarter (March 30 June 12), the journalism-student Fellows were 12 the Texas and Nebraska students attended the first class session, and thereafter participated through a video-conferencing arrangement of about three dozen in the Audience Insight class, taught by Professor Rachel Davis Mersey.
The course, taught in weekly three-hour sessions, introduces students to quantitative and qualitative audience research, blending background material with techniques used in practice.
Mersey structured the class so students were simultaneously learning the techniques of understanding an audience, and applying those techniques to their own research in preparation for News21. While other students in Audience Insight were learning important techniques, it was for them essentially hypothetical or future-use learning. For News21 Fellows, it was practical, soon-to-be-applied research.
Students were organized into four-person teams, with each team selecting an audience to study throughout the term. Their research included accumulating demographic and lifestyle data, studying popular and academic literature, and personal interviews.
The Fellows selected audiences to study, with the idea that eventually one audience would be selected for their News21 reporting, or (as happened) there would be a blending of audiences.
- Recent college graduates who had migrated to major regional hub cities, e.g. Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Los Angeles to begin their careers.
- Second-generation, young adults, regardless of their educational background.
- Romantic expatriates, who had, at least temporarily, chosen to live abroad, searching for career, adventure or other opportunity, or who were expressing certain ideals.
At the end of the term, as most of the research had been completed and reported, the audience ultimately selected was a blend: Recent college graduates living in major U.S. cities, the American-born sons and daughters of immigrants.
Audience Insight students maintained a blog throughout the term, on which they reported to each other interesting or pertinent findings, readings, interviews or other material. The blog became an important avenue of communication within and between research groups.
Audience Insight’s process ended with the presentation of group projects, in which each team, buttressed by its thorough research, described a media product designed for its audience the specific content and how it would reach its target.
By the end of the spring quarter, just 10 days before the News21 newsroom would open and reporting would begin, several insights seemed to be shared by a majority of Fellows and their instructor-editors.
Romantic expatriates, while intriguing, would be disqualifyingly difficult to identify or attract, and would not fit well within in the “changing America” theme.
Young-adult, second-gens were too broad a group, comprising both the highly educated as well non-English-speaking; and with backgrounds, interests and outlooks too varied to sustain a viable product.
Urban-hub, recent college-grads seemed to have the most potential, although that group, too, seemed dauntingly large.
A blending, however, of the urban-living recent college grads with second-gen, seemed very promising, basically for two reasons.
First, the research showed that in most respects cultural heritage being the only asterisk their interests, hopes and media consumption mirrored one another. So, in a sense, each group’s research was further validated, and expanded upon.
Second, throughout the spring, in Audience Insight and also in a number of informal conversations, many Fellows had become intrigued by cultural issues and differences they hadn’t before recognized this was especially striking because two Fellows were Indian-American, one Korean-American, and one the daughter of the marriage of a Korean woman and American man and came to believe that those issues would especially resonate with the blended audience.
Also, many Fellows believed, they were in a strong position to tell those stories.
Without question, the audience blended well within the national “changing America” concept.
the audience: interests and media consumption| top
Evaluating their research, the News21 Fellows summarized what they knew about their audience, the content its members would most value, and how to communicate effectively with them.
Their analysis informed Fellows’ selection of reporting subjects and responsibilities, their approach to stories and media, and the design and functionality of the shift web site although they were fully aware that the audience was not unified, and there would be countless exceptions to every generalized rule.
- They are not very interested in news, per se, but value information that directly affects them their industry, jobs, money and relationships.
- They relate to their specific cultural background (e.g. Indian-American, Korean-American) but they do not think of themselves more broadly as 2nd-generation (or 1st-generation) Americans.
- Most of the concerns and primary interests of recent college grads in big cities cross cultural or ethnic lines. Except for specific cultural information, 2nd gens have same interests as other big-city college grads.
- They participate heavily in social networking.
- Many consider news and information to be a resource for workplace social capital. They may have more interest in seeming informed than in being informed.
- They don’t necessarily want to read about themselves.
- They don’t care very much about local news, especially politics, government, education the traditional staples of a local news report. Many are new to their city and don’t feel engaged, have no ties, and don’t see news or civic affairs as a way to become engaged.
- They won’t pay for news; they are not likely to register on Web sites.
- They get news online, but won’t invest much time looking for it. They want information fast, if at all. If it’s valuable or interesting, then they’ll consider going more deeply, but they will be put off by material that seems to necessitate time investment. They want content well organized and searchable.
- They want information that is personally engaging.
- They want the ability to directly email content to share with friends.
- They don’t like comments cluttering web pages and distracting them, and will seldom comment themselves unless something is directly personal.
- They like video if it’s organic to the content but don’t like knowing they’ll need to make a time investment to view it. An interviewed audience member said:
“As far as video and audio is concerned, I don’t like that because you’re playing by their (the Web site’s) rules. When you’re looking at a written presentation or an interactive diagram, you can take in what info you want to take in at your own pace. As opposed to, well, hey, I got a video. Well, I got to do you a three-minute favor now by playing your video, letting it load and taking that three and a half minutes for you to get your point across.“
beginning plans| top
As spring quarter and audience-understanding research was ending in mid-June, Medill’s News21 audience recent college graduates living in major U.S. cities, the American-born sons and daughters of immigrants was defined and an editorial direction or unifying theme was coming into focus.
The Fellows would report on the issues encountered by young, educated, urban Americans as they enter on-their-own adulthood in a diversifying country, and the decisions they must make as they define their lives and shape our culture.
(Consensus on an editorial direction must have provided at least slight relief to the endlessly patient and supportive News21 national staff, which could only have been consternated during previous months when its requests for Medill’s story ideas and content budgets were met with no-audience-yet-so-no-story-ideas-yet responses.)
With the broad direction set, then, Fellows consulted with the faculty editorial coordinator, mostly during the one-week break between Medill’s spring and summer academic terms, about the reporting assignments their beats, but most certainly not typical journalism beats they’d undertake.
The intention was that the sum of the beats would well describe the issues confronting the audience, and the questions its members would need to consider and answer as they defined their lives. Relationships, careers, cultural differences, values. The Fellows’ beat selections generally reflected their own evolving interests but also seemed calculated to result in opportunities to tell interesting, meaningful stories in multiple media.
Most important, the beat selections seemed a genuine reaction to what the Fellows had learned of its audience’s interests and information needs.
One of the critical findings in the research was that the audience did not necessarily want to read about (or watch or listen to stories about) itself. Taking that finding seriously meant making an important but continually tricky distinction: audience versus content.
So, with occasional difficulty, Fellows would create journalism for their audience, often about issues that involved their audience, and that sometimes featured members of their audience. However, for the audience, not about the audience was the guiding editorial principle. An intelligent audience or any audience Fellows decided, does not require pandering.
While the target audience was 2nd-generation, Fellows also recognized that, as their research had clearly shown, their content would interest a far broader group, that the issues they would cover would find a secondary audience among the young, big-city-living and college-educated, and actually even far broader than that.
summer in (Medill’s downtown Chicago) newsroom| top
The first, intense week consisted of all-staff, small-group and individual meetings to solidify and coordinate themes, reporting assignments and approaches, and delivery of the content web site and mobile application with students also beginning to report and engage the audience.
In a particularly effective early exercise, each Fellow described her/his reporting plans and wrote on a white board the label for the beat, e.g. relationships, religion, social responsibility, and drew a circle or at least a shape that started out as a circle around it. Each Fellow’s circle was drawn to intersect with others’ circles, if reporting beats overlapped. It was very interesting, graphically and conceptually, to see how so many beats overlapped. The exercise prompted valuable discussion about content and audience engagement, and it contributed to the continuing teamwork and collaboration that marked much of the Fellows’ work.
Although certainly their use of social networking varied, Fellows almost immediately began working Facebook, Twitter and special-interest Web sites related to their beat and to their audience to seek story ideas and make connections with audience members with particular knowledge, interests or perspectives.
From the beginning and throughout the summer, in story meetings and general staff meetings, Fellows were asked, and almost always had good and creative answers, how their stories were developing, and how they were engaging the audience.
Audience-focused journalism does not necessarily, and perhaps not often, come naturally. Fellow Jane Park said later, “Starting with the audience took me a little while to get used to. Coming here expecting to report and write, I had the mind set, you know, I’m going to be writing about things that I think are important, that I think should be told.” News21 Fellows share their story.
“Starting with the audience really challenges a reporter like myself to think about things from the other angle. What does the audience want to read about. What does an audience member find relevant to his or her life?”
Medill’s News21 Web site, shift ctrl + alt + enter life (see below), launched in the sixth week of the summer beyond-their-control difficulties created some delay and the Fellows immediately began stocking it with stories from their area of responsibility, but with immediate news hooks (see below).
The idea it worked was to be visible, to generate reaction and comment, and to start with the audience an online conversation that would help shape further reporting.
Interaction two-way reporting and learning was key to the Medill Fellows’ approach and success.
While Medill’s previous News21 projects, and most if not all of the other incubators’, essentially were presented with a raising of the curtain to unveil excellent journalism that was there to be consumed, Medill’s 2009 Fellows created an ongoing stream of content presented in a sustainable, dynamic web site.
Reporting and engagement continued through the summer. Many stories there were about 130 in all had been planned early, but others were in response to developing issues and, importantly, to conversations with the audience.
Several aspects of Medill’s approach might warrant further discussion.
shift ctrl + alt + enter life: developing the web site| top
A three-Fellow committee, taking into account strong if sometimes divergent staff opinion, worked with web designer Brad Flora (a 2007 Medill News21 fellow) to build the structure and design of the WordPress-based web site, a site that allowed relatively easy uploading of stories in multiple formats, and a streamlined editing and approval process.
shift, its meaning and connotations described above, was designed to be clean and clear, with simple navigation; with little home-page distinction between longer or more sophisticated story presentations, and shorter blog-like entries; with related content linked; with aggressive use of content tags to enhance search; with comments enabled and solicited but only published (per strong audience preference) if they added to intelligent conversation.
Each story also included links access to social networking sites, so they could be easily shared by audience members, who would bring their friends or colleagues to shift. These included Facebook, Yahoo Buzz, Google Bookmarks, Twitter, SociBook, Digg, StumbleUpon and del.icio.us. There also were prominent links to “Sites We Read,” most of which were known to have audiences overlapping with shift.
During the month following the launch of shift, stories were displayed as they were published; that is, in reverse chronological order. In anticipation of the newsroom’s close at the end of August, however, Fellows Leslie Patton and Bill Healy created the “permanent” presentation, an intricate Flash-based graphic with 21 major cities measured on eight factors important to the audience, plus an alternative navigation using silhouettes of audience members representing Fellows’ reporting topics.
early stories, early engagement| top
The Fellows recognized it would be difficult to engage an audience without content, without establishing some sort of presence. So, to start the two-way conversation, several Fellows posted off-the-news stories, either localizations or reactions to breaking news on their beats. They found some readers, and some reporter-audience relationships started.
Examples include stories on Justice Sotomayor’s being confirmed (women’s/gender issues beat); a celebration of gay military veterans at Chicago’s Daley Plaza, and a court-case win for a gay high school activist (gay/lesbian self-identity beat); Catholics marching to protest the treatment of incarcerated immigrants (social responsibility beat); U.S. Naval Academy admitting its most diverse class (civic engagement beat).
integrating the marketing communications| top
In addition to its 12 Carnegie-Knight fellows, Medill included on its News21 team an advanced graduate student in its Integrated Marketing Communications program to take the lead in implementing coordinated strategies for communicating with the audience, complementing individual Fellows’ social networking.
The student, Megha Shah, was from Mumbai, India she returned to start her career there after her December 2009 graduation and had a particular interest in Medill’s audience and editorial theme.
Understanding consumers and connecting them with brands, using the channels that are most relevant to them, are the fundamental skills of integrated marketing communications. Megha used her training she drew upon her IMC courses in consumer insight, communication and persuasive messaging, digital marketing, and database marketing models to help connect shift and its audience of 2nd-gens, primarily through social-networking techniques.
The most effective of her several specific initiatives was a marketing checklist that she developed for the Fellows. In it, she recommended that Fellows:
- Link within stories to articles, organizations and people that are mentioned. Then email them, telling them this has been done, and ask them to link back.
- Email related organizations, people, bloggers, etc., telling them a story might interest them and suggesting that if it is, they might link to it on their blogs or Web sites.
- Participate actively in social-networking sites, including those set up for Medill News21 and shift (Facebook, Twitter).
- Comment actively discussion boards, forums, etc., and when appropriate, include links back to your stories.
Megha’s marketing checklist also included detailed suggestions for writing promotional emails, including a thorough set of links; similarly detailed suggestions for social-networking sites; and a draft email introduction, adapted from the original shift press release.
As important, however, as any of Megha’s marketing or communications accomplishments, was her presence, her inclusion on a team clearly oriented toward and charged with creating high-level journalistic content.
Very often, actually more often than not, she was drafted by the editorial coordinator to participate in story conferences and planning sessions, so the concept of journalism-for-an-engaged-audience was constantly reinforced. Her ideas helped shape some reporting and presentation, and her early awareness and participation in editorial plans made her marketing that much more effective.
Megha’s being a central figure in the process had incalculable effect, both symbolic and tangible.
audience panel discussion| top
Roughly midway through the summer, three Fellows (Jane Park, Kiran Sood, Leslie Patton) organized an in-the-newsroom panel discussion, with seven 2nd-gens talking about their use of technology, intergenerational relationships (especially, as it resulted, concerning siblings), and the trickiness that can be involved in intercultural relationships.
The panelists, all from the Chicago area and found through networking, included three Indian-Americans, two Chinese-Americans, a Nigerian-American and a Korean-Japanese-American.
Jane Park said later, “The panel, we thought, was a good way to engage with the audience we had been writing about for a few weeks. What we wanted to do was gather them in the same place and have a conversation about the issues we were reporting about.”
The two-hour, smoothly moderated conversation provided material for Fellows’ stories, as well as video-segment sidebars.
More important, if it wasn’t already, it became evident to Fellows and panelists alike that the issues being reported for shift were dynamic and very much on target, demonstrating common interests and observations, hopes and dilemmas.
Jane Park: “We asked them a lot of open-ended questions and in a sense it validated a lot of what we had been reporting and writing about...it was important to bring these people in, because not only was it giving a face to the type of person we were reporting for, but we were also building this relationship with them, and asking them very personal, pointed questions.
“It’s rare that as reporters we get to engage with the people we report for and write about, so that was a treat for me.”
A post-panel lunch in retrospect, it should have been captured on video, also yielded provocative conversation that seemed almost liberating to both panelists and reporters discussing issues and feelings that they seldom had articulated.
Video examples of the panel discussion are included in this story, by Leslie Patton, about tensions in Indian-American families, about dating. (Jasbina is a professional matchmaker who specializes in Indian-American couples.)
Other video examples are included in this story, by Jane Park, on sibling relationships among 2nd-gens.
News21 provides a generous travel budget, and while most of the Medill Fellows’ work was reported from the Chicago newsroom, when their reporting research or audience interaction suggested a story with particular importance or appeal, the Fellows were able to report it from New York, Los Angeles, Washington and from Marfa, Texas.
The significance of the travel was that the story concepts arose from engagement with the audience, its members metaphorically making the assignments, and when traveling for stories, the Fellows were broadening their audience contacts, and consequently the breadth of their journalism.
Hamsa Ramesha attended the South Asian Journalists Association convention in New York, returning with contacts and concepts about the importance of ethnic media that informed much of her subsequent reporting.
Melina Kolb visited Marfa, an arts-centered west Texas town that is home, for varying lengths of time, to hundreds of young adults, seeking community and hoping to find clues to their lives’ directions.
Kristen Minogue spent time at the Los Angeles Ecovillage, part of her story on urban cooperatives, or “intentional communities” where residents’ shared interest in a social cause is why they come to live together.
Kiran Sood attended the twiistup 6 convention of young digital entrepreneurs in Los Angeles. She returned not only with an important story about the role and meaning of advanced technology to the generation but also with a first-person video from a 2nd-gen digital innovator, describing his sense of what’s required on an entrepreneur.
Kate Shellnutt, in Washington, captured the capital’s spiritual side in a slideshow and made networking contacts, especially members of the Islamic audience, who gave her a continually valuable source of people and ideas.
Lizz Kannenberg went to Brooklyn to find out how the recession was affecting the young and hip, who had gentrified Williamsburg, most with their parents’ dollars.
“Enter” the music video| top
Fellow Lizz Kannenberg was bass player in an indie-pop band, Grammar, which recorded and performed at clubs in Chicago. Mid-way through the summer, a newsroom conversation with the editorial coordinator starting blending music and work, with the result being an “assignment” for Lizz and her band to write a song expressing the themes of shift unfamiliar places and new situations, choices ahead, entering adult life.
“Enter,” produced in two weeks, hit its mark Billboard magazine might say the song hit shift’s charts with a bullet with good web-site traffic and anecdotal buzz.
“Enter” the music video was next, produced by Fellow Melina Kolb and featuring dance and other somewhat-rhythmic moves by nine fellows, plus some friends and 2nd-gens entertaining, amusing and bewildering Chicago’s Loop on a Friday lunch hour.
The shift audience liked it, too.
The other seven 2009 News21 incubators produced journalism that was substantial and exciting, presenting engagingly and beautifully. Their intended audiences, however, were not necessarily clear.
A UNC Fellow, blogging at the end of the summer, raised that issue in a way that was interesting and somewhat validating to Medill’s team, and also quite encouraging to those who believe in the strength of audience-first journalism. The UNC Fellow wrote:
“I am proud of our first effort. We have done an excellent job fostering relationships with organizations and opinion leaders who share our views and can distribute our content through their networks and activities. But there are things we could have done differently. For example, a key component of marketing is to define a target audience, learn it inside out, and then develop a product that meets its specific wants and needs and adds value.
“During the initial planning stages, I am concerned we did not clearly define or understand our audience. We had a demographic profile and a media consumption profile in mind, and we considered existing research into this group’s media consumption habits. But we did not conduct original formative research to understand exactly what a very targeted segment wants and needs when it comes to energy information and news.
“An area for future improvement is to ask readers in what format they would like to receive this information and from which channels would they like to be told about it.”
The Fellow noted that UNC had plans to conduct audience research and develop marketing plans to guide their 2010 work.
some lessons, observations and speculations| top
- Audience insight, obtained and applied rigorously, can yield journalism that is serious, relevant, meaningful and consumed.
- Audience insight is powerful, but just a beginning. Genuine and constant audience engagement is essential to effective and meaningful communication of journalism.
- An engaged audience will support good journalism, and help direct it with feedback. An engaged audience will sustain a journalistic effort.
- Being up that means public and visible creates interest, credibility and buzz, and it builds audience. It starts the two-way communication that results in meaningful, consumed journalism. Without a public presence, it’s difficult to engage an audience.
- There’s no necessity to pander to the audience and, actually, there need not even be temptation.
- In order to make a friend, be a friend Michelle Shellnutt’s maxim.
- A journalist need not be part of an audience to understand it.
- If the journalists are part of the audience, they should recognize that their own perspectives are relevant but are not the only perspectives.
- Audience and content aren’t the same thing. Audience doesn’t have to be explicit in the content, but must be implicit in all thoughts, planning and work.
- After earning credibility through genuine engagement and respect for audience, then perhaps the audience will grant license for weighty journalism, executed in its best interest.
- Journalists who are engaged with their audience are best positioned, when there are important issues or news events to be covered, to understand the elements that are most pertinent and to report them in ways that are most valuable to the audience.
- Without audience recognition and engagement, all the huge stories in the world, no matter how important, won’t matter to journalism.
- Recognize that this approach will turn off some journalists, so they just may have to be turned off or turned away.
- The satisfactions in audience-focused journalism may be different from content-focused journalism, but they can be just as sharp, or just as round. But perhaps different.
- Withstand journalism pressure to be editor- or reporter-centric. Measure the success of work by the audience, not other journalists.