Saturday, 31 December 2011

5 trends for 2012

The ability to communicate complex ideas clearly, honestly and effectively will become even more valued and persuasive as the noise of social media, advertising and opinion journalism becomes louder and more pervasive.

Compelling video, visual elements and fluency in visual language will be increasingly important to attract and engage audiences, regardless of platform, medium or demographic group.

Effectively reaching audiences online will increasingly be shaped by how people use their mobile devices. A study released this year predicts by 2015 more smart phones and tablets will be sold worldwide than PCs.

Social media will be essential to reach younger audiences, and is gradually replacing email as a means of communication within “communities of interest”, especially inside organizations.

Management consultant Alan Weiss: “Volatility is ‘the new normal.’ People who can help their organizations successfully in times of uncertainty, ambiguity and constant change will be in demand, both inside and outside their companies.”

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Why broadcasters matter in the internet age

The biggest problem broadcasters face today is not (contrary to the opinion of many in the broadcasting business) the rise of the internet, dwindling audience share, the constant threat to revenues or the decline of the print sector and “quality journalism.”

Declining audience share has as much to do with what broadcasters are not doing as it does with changing technologies and audience tastes and habits.

Technology has made a big difference in how news organizations collect and report the news, but not that much of a difference in how people consume those television (and radio) newscasts.

It’s worth remembering that online and broadcast are significantly, substantially different mediums. Audiences use them differently, and have very different expecations of what constitutes “quality” content online and on the air.

One measure of this is to compare the relative audience share of both mediums. Since broadcasters finally began investing in an online news presence and seeing audience share grow online, that growth has not come at the expense of the broadcast platforms. Indeed, online news (so far) hasn’t drawn significant audience share away from traditional broadcast news. The audience likes both, they use both for different reasons.

There will always be a market for what broadcasters do, no matter if it comes out of a television set or a PC, or people find it by clicking a remote control or a URL.

For broadcasters, the biggest challenge today is expressing their value to their audience and to their stakeholders. It’s not an easy thing to do in institutions where “what I have is what you want” defined the mission since the inception.

It’s even worse in countries where there has always been a strong “state” presence in news coverage, which more than anything else drove audience away from broadcasters to the internet, when it became available.

But recognize that so far the internet has been a spectacularly poor content provider. It’s clear the big internet sites don’t know how to do it very well, and depend on the more traditional news sources to give them the content that people will come to.

The visual language of the internet is still being discovered, and new forms of storytelling will certainly emerge to match the unique “lean-in” characteristics of the internet audience.

But for now, the internet is totally dependent on broadcasters (and the print media). It’s time we recognize that rather than competing for audience, it is a symbiotic relationship: both need each other, and offer fundamentally different services to serve different audiences (and this by definition means that the idea of one staff doing everything is the wrong approach for success... the skills, and the storytelling are fundamentally different for the two different mediums).

If broadcasters decline what will the internet do? Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, remarked famously that if the “mainstream media” goes under the internet will become a “cesspool” of information. Internet providers and aggregators will collapse without material from mainstream broadcasters.

The paradox is that the internet, which seems to be challenging the primacy of the traditional media, has a vested interest the “mainstream media” not only surviving. but thriving.

If, without broadcasters, the internet is a “cesspool”, what does that say about where news and information is today? Audiences are confused, and at the same time they have more options than ever. More than ever, people are looking for the truth, and they are looking for quality.

Broadcasters are the only institutions capable of providing that in today’s environment. And what is quality?

• Coverage of all sides of the issue
• Coverage of diverse issues
• Proving relevance: connecting complex issues to real life experiences
• Effectively challenging the government and powerful interests
• Representing the interests of the public
• Breaking stereotypes
• Compelling to watch: clear, understandable, and human

In short, it is programming in the public interest that also happens to interest the public. That's where our public service broadcasters need to be stronger. The old attitude of “what I have is what you want” is dead.

Broadcasters can no longer automatically assume that people will come to them, although that's what the traditions of the institutions tell tell them, and what they would like to think deep in their hearts.

Today, news organizations have to prove relevance to audiences. They can do that in several ways:

• Use audience research to target audiences, and also to recognize how different audiences are than the people making the programs

• Prove relevance: set a news agenda that is more in line with what people really care about... not reflexively what news people think people care about

• Straight and serious: cover issues of importance to the audience in a serious manner

• Give the audience some of what it wants, but mostly what it needs: recognize there is a balance between want and need, which defines editorial identity

• Don't be shy about setting the agenda. Think for yourself, based on what you think our audience needs to know

Tom Brokaw of NBC News called the Digital Revolution a “big bang”, and went on to describe that all these little information planets are out there now, and the audience is looking for a safe place to land, a place where they can get information they can trust, that also happens to be produced well. That is still the the primary role of broadcasters.

The audience needs to know that when they want information that is straight and balanced, and stories which are told well, Most broadcasters can be trusted for that… as opposed to online content which is (so far) mostly partisan, biased, plain wrong, or simply sloppy and amateurish.

Unlike commercial stations, the public has a special expectation of “public service broadcasters (PSBs).” PSBs are expected to to hold to certain standards, and appeal to the widest possible audience, reflecting and giving voice to the entire society, and viewing audience, if they are to enjoy the tremendous privilege and market advantage of license fees.

Commercial broadcasters scream because they don’t have the money that public service broadcasters do, and they may be right. PSBs are getting a subsidy, because they have a mandate to operate in the interest of the public.

License fees, far from guaranteeing independence, shackle PSBs to politicians and the whims of elected officials. But the license fee also gives PSBs freedom. It is only public service broadcasters who can really challenge the government and powerful interests, free of commercial (and political) pressure. It is only PSBs who can fund investigative stories, and use the advances in technology to drive storytelling forward.

And only PSBs have a unique cultural role in their societies, based on tradition, and the embracing of the latest technologies first.

For traditional news organizations, the challenge in the “internet age” comes down to one thing: communicating what they do, why they do it that way and why that is valuable.

Today, the most critical challenge broadcasters face is the need to do a much better job of explaining their value to their audience and their stakeholders, in terms both can understand.

Web news, not websites

One of my “steckenpferden” (something that just keeps coming up in my thinking) is how we specifically tell stories that attract audiences for the online medium. No one has successfully defined this yet (as we have for television, radio, cinema and print) but it is coming.

If we can come up with a set of rules, proven to attract audiences to online stories, it seems there would be a market for this. So here’s some of the thinking. It’s mostly all theoretical now but it’s an approach I think might be worth developing for news clients and their online platforms.

Of course, there’s both a production aspect and an editorial aspect.

Deciding how stories should look for the online medium should be driven by the technology and how people use it (just like TV, radio and cinema) - obviously. But not so obvious to many news websites around now.

There’s a growing consensus that laptops and PCs are on the way out, and a new study predicts that by 2015 more mobile devices will sold than either of those. So the technology of choice for most news consumers will be the mobile device. The question is, what does content 1) look like for those devices and 2) how do news people choose the stories and produce them?

Research about people’s habits when they use their iPhone, iPad and Blackberry should be a part of designing the online content. Production characteristics need to reflect user habits. The easier it is for the user, the more likely they will engage with the story.

News production for mobile platforms should include: super fast retrievability and display; stories that are easily changed, updated, and added to (by user sharing and linking); bold text, provocative headlines (the essential skill in compelling online news writing), iconic images, close ups, raw material (footage, interviews and especially primary sources - such as .pdf's of the budget document, etc). High quality audio will also be a very important component as these are phone based devices; a “game” component will probably also prove to be very important in engaging audiences. Again, all of these things are about the devices themselves and how people use them.

There is also a big shift in what to “program”, aka editorial choice. That has changed as the web has grown. What many newsrooms don't understand: “websites” simply don’t work anymore.

Today, more than 80% of Google searches are people simply looking for answers, not websites. They just know they will find it “somewhere” and it doesn’t matter where. So it will probably be proven within the next few years that, with the exception of an elite few news organizations, it is a waste of time, money and talent for most stations try to build a “news channel” on the web.

A better, more effective approach for building audience share for a station's online platforms may be to focus on what the web does best: building “communities of interest” around specific topics.

Succesful online news operations will recognize it isn’t practical to maintain a news website that covers “all” the news that happened that day, but rather that the editor/producer decides on far fewer (let’s say ten), only the “biggest” stories of the day using whatever criteria is important to them, and develops just those selected stories in-depth for the website.

It will be the talent and sense of the people deciding which stories to cover in-depth each day that will draw audience share (and compel the audience to “share” it.)

The New York Times reported how “niche” websites often trump bigger players like AOL and Yahoo when it comes to news coverage: the Times observed that consumers of web news “program their browser” with stories that appeal to their sensibilities, in other words, the programming of a news website is less important than how a particular story is presented for particular audience.

That's again confirming the general trend, that online news audiences are searching for answers, not websites.

The obvious implication is that online news stories that are intended to build and maintain “communities of interest” and “program” to them could probably build audience share.

Instead of trying to cover the news the way broadcast channels do, the key challenge for editors and producers of online news will be 1) to identify what specific issues would be most likely to appeal to the online news audience each day and 2) create stories about those issues that are compelling, fun and most importantly, easy for audiences to engage with on the devices they like best.

Creating compelling sequences for online news

To define effective visual language online, look at the most common method how images are organized to express ideas visually: it’s called the “sequence.”

The classical sequence is a series of three shots: wide/medium/tight leading to a “payoff” or result.

In effective sequences, shots are organized in a logical way, often starting wide and moving into the action (obviously it doesn’t have to be that way every time). At its most fundamental, the sequence is simply the series of shots you use to get to your soundbite or payoff.

The question is how do we create compelling sequences that play to the unique characteristics of the online medium? That “lean-in”, engaged, and active viewer who is ready to click away at every moment?

For effective visual storytelling online, recognize that choice is vital; all images are not created equal. The first image in your online sequence must be a powerful one, compelling enough to keep the online viewer engaged, and watching.

Wide shots usually don’t work; they are just too hard to see in a small window on a computer screen.

• Sometimes a medium or wide shot can work. But it has to be a clearly recognizable process, such as a ceremony, a street protest, or a sports match

Closeups and tight shots almost always work, especially human details, such close ups of people’s faces, hands and clothing

Signs work well. A sign is literally something the audience can read: “Police”, “Meeting in Progress”, “Toxic Waste”, etc. But make sure it is readable.

Symbols such as flags, religious symbols, and logos can work well if they are commonly known and your audience recognizes them easily

“Iconic” images – something that is instantly recognizable almost always work, and almost always a tight shot

Whatever image you choose to begin your sequence, make sure it is as specific to the story as possible, and compelling enough to keep your online audience engaged, and watching.

Defining visual language for online platforms

To define effective visual language for online platforms and online news, start with how people actually “get” stories online. The online news audience is engaged, active, and ready to click away at any moment. Keeping them engaged is all about the elements you choose to tell your story. And broadcast news stories don’t necessarily translate to the “lean-in” online platform.

The online news audience expects online news stories to be:

• “Authentic” (not polished)
• Personal (not strictly journalistic)
• In non-traditional formats
• Interactive - easily changed, added to, shared and linked to other platforms

The question is: how do we express those audience expectations when we are working with our own images and text?

The traditional rules of television journalism don’t necessarily work on the web. Just consider the physical experience: watching streaming video in a small window on a computer, an iPod or a mobile device is, for the viewer, physically very different than seeing the same images on a television screen.

It’s smaller, it might be held in the hand and often the resolution isn't great. The viewer is guaranteed to be impatient, and ready to click away if the video gets boring or irrelevant. The different physical experience suggests the most effective visual storytelling methods for the web will be different, as well.

For example, while television news generally avoids talking heads, these can be effective on small screens; the same goes for close-ups, especially human details such as faces, hands, clothing, and “iconic” (instantly recognizable) objects such as signs and symbols.

Fast edits are not always essential; powerful, iconic images probably are. And pay attention to sound. Consider that compelling audio and iconic sound fits perfectly with mobile devices; after all, that’s what telephones and iPods were designed for originally.

What's so different about storytelling for online news?

Storytelling for the online medium has its own unique characteristics. The clear trend in Online News is that “print” sites are becoming more visual, and broadcast sites are using more print. But eventually this will give way to more visually driven storytelling on ALL news websites, which is why broadcasters and those of us who can tell stories visually have a huge advantage.

The question is, what will it look like? Visual language and effective storytelling for the online medium is still being invented (remember: online is still in the Charlie Chaplin days... and probably the Charlie Chaplin figure is out there right now figuring it all out...)

But we already know the online news audience has some very specific expectations including:

• Stories that are “authentic” (not polished)
• Personal (not strictly journalistic)
• Non-traditional formats (such as raw material and primary sources)
• Stories that provoke engagement and comment (known as “interactivity”)
• Stories that are easily changed or added to
• Stories that are easily shared and linked to other platforms

Counter to the perfectionist storytelling methods of good broadcast journalism, an unpolished, “human” approach to visual storytelling is a common pattern in successful web videos; “stories that reflect real behavior in the real world.”

Consistent with the community-based nature of the Internet itself, web viewers are more interested in what is being produced by other people, just like them. Web video makers succeed when they focus on real people - “authenticity” over perfection.

What the news media REALLY wants

To report on all platforms at all times demands different storytelling approaches: here's how giving news "mediums" what they want makes stories better for audiences.

No matter what the country or the culture, the “news media” is no longer a single, monolithic entity. To succeed in the news business now, the demand is to be on all platforms, at all times.

Today’s storytellers understand that audiences want it all, but the audience uses each medium for different reasons, and in different ways. To make the most out of the medium, use different approaches for each:

Television wants:
• pictures in locations that are visually compelling
• interviews with key players, not spokesmen or PR people
• a strong connection between the story and the lives of ordinary people

Radio wants:
• provocative interviews with interesting, knowledgeable people
• live interviews in “drive time” (that’s the early morning or early evening period when their captive audience is stuck in traffic)
• interview partners who can take tough questions from interviewers and listeners, live

Print (that’s newspapers, magazines, and journals in case you forgot…) wants:
• experts who can speak about an issue in depth
• …with strong opinions
• … and who are capable of thoughtful analysis… and yes, can explain it clearly to a reporter…

Online wants:
• something “authentic”, not polished; personal and subjective
• an “edgy” approach: gossip, informal, fun, happening right now
• interactivity with the audience and constantly updating with links, comments, and blogs – online’s great for breaking news!

Tailor your content to reflect the characteristics of different media. Understand how each medium’s audience uses it, and why they do.