Traditional media are scrambling to create online communities. A report on who’s doing it right—and who’s doing it wrong
Hi Gloggers. I’m your scarey moderator Bil asking what frightens you.” It’s a November evening in the newsroom as Global News writer and producer Bill Marshall’s index fingers stammer out his greeting. He knows he’s a crappy typist and freely admits it’s been his biggest challenge since he started moderating the live-blog that runs alongside the 11 p.m. broadcast.
About a dozen of the regulars—Marshall calls them his “midnight crowd”—have been with him since the launch of the blog in March 2009. They started calling themselves gloggers, or Global bloggers, about a month later.
They’re signing on promptly tonight. Victor is there as soon as Marshall starts up CoveritLive, the live-blogging software. “Hello gloggers,” Victor chirps. “Is it safe to come on tonight?” Yesterday the group spent almost an hour debating a challenge to Ontario’s pit bull laws. National Fearless Day headlines tonight’s show—a lighter subject, which leads to a discussion about food, the group’s favourite topic. Sure enough, it takes just 15 minutes before Nina, the group’s self-described blog diva, brings up wine. She tells Jim Todd he missed a wine fest the other night. “That’s right JT, we all had to take a wine break,” she taunts. “It was a raucous old time!”
“Nina,” Victor teases, “are you sure it wasn’t a whine break?”
After joking with meteorologist Anthony Farnell for predicting snow and Marshall for operating an illegal still in the office—a running joke within the group—someone mentions putting honey on ice cream with Nutella and food dominates the rest of the discussion. While the gloggers congratulate themselves for getting their tweets about their fears on-air during anchor Carolyn Mackenzie’s Twitter Topic segment, banana white-chocolate-chip pancakes and peanut butter-covered waffles dominate the conversation. Even Mackenzie gets in on it, dropping in from her laptop on the anchor’s desk.
“Peanut butter and Nutella,” she gushes. “Killing me…softly…”
“It’s killing me, too,” Marshall mutters. “I’m always going home thinking about Dairy Queen and pizza. I wasn’t hungry when I started.”
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Such a conversation would have been impossible back when mainstream media were the only source of news. Journalists controlled the content—and anyone else could mail a letter to the editor. The gatekeeper mentality followed the media onto the first news websites, according to Alfred Hermida, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Graduate School of Journalism and co-founder of bbcnews.com. By refusing to link to other sites or provide a comment system for reader feedback, newspapers had simply recreated the physical product in a digital medium, giving them the same control over both the content and conversations around it that they had traditionally enjoyed. “Journalism is essentially based upon a system of control,” argues Hermida. “The problem with that approach is that these conversations are happening anyway.”
What no one had counted on was how easy it is for people online to undermine the gatekeepers by circumventing that control. Yochai Benkler captured the essence of the problem in his book, The Wealth of Networks. As the creation and distribution of information becomes more and more decentralized, Benkler argues, there is now greater individual autonomy to do more for and by ourselves.
This autonomy includes both crowdsourced dessert recipes and breaking news. Hermida says that over the last five years, reporters, editors and producers have found themselves competing with blogs and citizen journalists for an online audience. When a U.S. Airways jet landed in New York’s Hudson River on January 15, 2009, tweeter Janis Krums snapped the first photo. Two months earlier, mainstream media followed connected citizens in Mumbai as they tweeted about terrorist attacks around the city. “The idea of the journalist as gatekeeper has largely eroded,” says Hermida. “There is no gate any more.”
Vince Carlin, a CBC ombudsman, witnessed first-hand the erosion of the old ways. In March 2008, cbc.ca opened up for comments and through the avalanche of feedback rose a subculture of people who took it very seriously. From April 1, 2008 to March 31, 2009, the ombudsman received 2,666 complaints, which was an increase of 829 from the previous year.
What surprises Carlin more than the extra scrutiny is his colleagues’ acceptance of his role—20 years ago, they would have been indignant with his investigations. “Before, we thought we were the College of Cardinals. We made our decisions and the public could like it or lump it,” he says. But the whole culture changed. “People actually bought into the notion of being transparent and were open to discuss decisions.”
This new openness, combined with the overwhelming popularity of social media, has meant an increasing focus on collaborative journalism. In July 2009, Global News started letting people share its stories through Facebook, Twitter and rss feeds. But while Marshall certainly acknowledges a connection to viewers that wasn’t there before, he wonders if live-blogging might be just another fad—a sentiment common to every new communication tool since CB radio. If it isn’t, though, news outlets that can’t harness social media to improve newsgathering and relations with readers and viewers may struggle to retain an audience over the next few years. In fact, the real fad might just be journalism’s gatekeeper model.
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In April 2008, Global News hired Andrew Lundy to bring its website out of the Dark Ages. His job was to direct the redesign of an underfunded site that had been an afterthought to the broadcast product. Lundy had been editor-in-chief at msn.ca and had spent nearly a decade working with various online sections at CBC. David Skok, senior producer of online content, once jokingly called him “The Messiah,” but even with all of his experience, the redesign was a substantial undertaking. “The site had been neglected for years,” Lundy says. “There wasn’t a digital culture at all. So there was a lot of work to do.”
The last redesign was in 2005. The amount of new content and technology Global News was pumping into the site cluttered that version. So Lundy and his team went to several other sites, including cnn.com and nytimes.com, to research examples of how to better display and organize content. Then lead designer Andrew Davies sketched out where each element would appear on a page and sent the plan to the stakeholders for their approval. About 40 people were involved with the redesign, all with their own ideas. None of those stakeholders, however, were members of Global News’ audience.
The revamped website was ready to launch in a year. Lundy streamlined the layout so that video, the network’s biggest strength, is now more prominent. Top headlines are easier to look through, and the home page features a widget that shows local news. A strip of links leads to social media extensions—Facebook and Twitter pages, rss feeds and e-mail alerts, podcasts and mobile applications. Lundy’s hope is that these features will help convince the broadcast audience to become loyal and devoted visitors to the website. The problem, especially before the redesign, was a huge disparity between the TV and website viewer numbers.
The plan seems to be working. Page views across the country rose from 1.5 million in January 2009 to 4.1 million in January 2010—a 166 percent increase. Lundy says his team is maintaining that growth.
But, of course, it’s still too soon to tell whether there’s money to be made from social media. And while news is more participatory and two-way, it might not be enough yet to staunch decreasing viewership numbers. A study released in 2008 by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (crtc) found that, though local television news ratings have not dropped significantly from 2004 to 2007, viewership numbers have begun to fall in the most desirable demographics—ages 18 to 54. Eighty-one percent of Canadians between 18 and 34 who use the internet at least once a month access news information online. But these people, who spend an average of 41 hours online each month, devote just one hour to the news—a fact that has taken its toll on media websites, including ctv.ca.
In 2000, Mark Sikstrom, executive producer of CTV News syndication and ctv.ca, had a staff of 12 and 300,000 unique visitors a month. A decade later, full-time staff has grown to 18 and the site receives around three million unique visitors monthly. But when it soft-launched a redesign in September 2009, page views increased only five percent per month. “We need our audience to survive,” explains Richard McIlveen, a late-night news producer at ctv. “Our audience is declining fairly dramatically and it’s certainly worrying for us. And they’re not going to the competition. They’re not going to Citytv; they’re not going to Global.”
McIlveen removes his glasses. “They’re just going,” he says. “It scares the shit out of me.”
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Will social media save Global News? Perhaps, but Lundy and his team may have to start socializing more effectively. When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti at 4:53 p.m. EST on January 12, a live-blog went up the next morning at 10:41 a.m., almost two hours after the one on theglobeandmail.com. For the next seven hours, Skok moderated the blog while posting updates on the event every few minutes. Some updates linked to stories elsewhere on the Global News website, while fewer linked to outside publications—there were only four mentions of eyewitness accounts from users on Twitter, for example.
Newspaper websites such astheglobeandmail.comaregenerally employing social media more effectively than broadcast websites. The Globe’sHaiti live-blog, for instance, offered outside input almost as often as its own updates. While Skok linked to a Hollywood Reporter story about Haitian-born rapper Wyclef Jean calling for aid, the Globe featured Jean’s original message from Twitter telling followers how to donate. It also included user comments, many of which suggested charities to donate to, while others warned against giving money to unknown organizations. And when users asked questions, a moderator often answered.
While Global News set up a separate microsite linking to the live-blog, Twitter updates and ways to donate and send condolences, the blog was closed to comments; viewers had to go somewhere else if they wanted to contribute. Skok says he wanted the blog to focus on covering the event, since there was a lot of repetition on Twitter and he didn’t want to clutter the story. Global News offered other venues for users to interact, and that seemed enough.
In these situations, the squeak of the gate is still clearly audible. According to Steve Anderson, the national coordinator of openmedia.ca, many major news organizations continue to produce news only as a product to be consumed. And it’s this mentality, he believes, that’s “exacerbating the crisis in journalism.”
Anderson has written for The Tyee, the Toronto Star and other publications arguing for more open and transparent media. He believes journalism’s mindset is still one-to-many, as opposed to the web’s many-to-many. “The change-up to a more social news environment hasn’t taken a hold of the newsroom culture,” he says. “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So the internet looks like another broadcast outlet to them.”
Online publication is now the start, not the end of the information journey, says Hermida, and stories are no longer finished products until the feedback stops. A comment forum enriched Monte Paulsen’s 2009 Tyeeinvestigative series on affordable housing, “A Home For All.” For nearly all of the eight articles in the package, Paulsen began the discussion with a question that he hoped would focus the commenters away from “rehashing the political rhetoric.” In the first story, for example, he challenged them to talk about where they lived, and more than 160 had replied by the end of January, almost a year after it was posted.
Paulsen believes that some commenters improved the series by adding details, facts or context. Others made clarifications—one of Paulsen’s sources added something that hadn’t made it in an article. All of this meant greater depth and ultimately more value for both the journalist and his readers. He now says, “I would do it for every story.”
Still, some news organizations may be stuck trying to hammer a screw by holding fast to old gatekeeping values. Though thestar.com’s redesign allows readers to use their Facebook profiles to register, making it easier to comment, feedback on many stories is closed or open only for a limited time. And writers often do not respond to comments. “This disdain for the audience strikes at the core of why news organizations aren’t making it,” says public policy expert and blogger David Eaves. “Why would you want to engage an audience you think is so stupid?”
By ignoring their readers and viewers, reporters are losing a valuable source of information. Journalists have always relied heavily on their connections, and with the web, Anderson points out, the number of and accessibility to these sources only increases: “The intelligence of your network becomes your intelligence.”
But developing a supportive network of potential sources isn’t easy, says Mathew Ingram, a senior writer for gigaom.com. Previously, Ingram spent about 13 months as communities editor at the Globe to build a collective of users there. He says trust is an important ingredient. “I think you have to show that you trust the members of your community, or why would they bother to form a community around your content?” Ingram says. “They would just see you as grudgingly putting up with their noise.”
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Social media communities are changing journalism, but not all the efforts to adapt take full advantage of the technology’s potential. Global News set up three Twitter accounts for Remembrance Day as part of an online package that simulated coverage of the events leading up to the Armistice, as if websites existed back then. For nine days, Lundy’s team managed an interactive map, photo galleries and daily news stories. The Twitter accounts represented a soldier, an aide to Prime Minister Robert Borden and another soldier’s mother. The accounts never gained more than six followers, and two of those followers were the other characters. Because Global’s online team treated Twitter as if it were television, an otherwise active community ignored the broadcaster’s efforts on the micro-blogging site.
Lundy does recognize his obligation to allow input through forums, polls and comment sections. People are going to access social media, he says, adding that “those are forces that are far beyond our control.” The changes will take some getting used to, but there’s no alternative. And Lundy knows that if this change is going to happen, it will need to happen fast. “If you don’t know about Facebook and the rise of social media, you’re going to be left behind. And that pace just wasn’t there when I started in journalism.” Skok often references author and technologist David Weinberger: “There’s an inverse relationship between control and trust.” And Skok believes “the more we give up control and allow users to participate in the democracy of our work, the more they’ll trust us and provide that brand loyalty.”
For now, at least, Global News is choosing control over trust when its social media experiments coincide too closely with its news products. (Don’t expect live-blog diva Nina to be filling in for anchor Carolyn Mackenzie anytime soon.) Lundy and Skok know engaging with the audience is now an important part of the job. But even Lundy admits that too often they’re just following eyeballs, hoping that advertising will do the same. So, yes, there’s still work to do.
Not that a dozen gloggers are going to save the broadcast industry. But if Global News can see social media as the main meal rather than simply dessert, the network may increase the size of its most dedicated following—and offer better journalism.
Rodney Barnes was the Blog Editor for the Spring 2010 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.