Monday, November 25, 2013

Pittsburgh Business Weekly Figures it Out

My local business weekly, the Pittsburgh Business Times , last week launched a total revamp of its traditional and new media platforms. 

We’ve all seen this kind of thing before.   A newspaper or magazine redesigns its graphic format and then to as much fanfare as it can generate, unveils the new look as a whole new variation of the publication. 

Because news consumers see “re-launches” of media channels so often, they tend to be de-sensitized to what the Pittsburgh Business Times did, and what it represents to the current direction of media. 

This situation is different.  So here’s what the Business Times has done.

Management went back to the drawing board and used focus group research as its guide.  Organization leadership abandoned any pre-conceived notions of what the publication needed to do and queried its readers, digital users, subscribers and news consumers in general. 

What the organization found was that digital media has not so much replaced print or other traditional media as it has added another useful layer.  However, its emergence has forced the more traditional forms of media to focus on their unique value.

To more fully appreciate this, I will lay out the conventional  view of media:

1.    Broadcasting – TV and Radio – is considered most immediate.  When a news story breaks, traditionally, a radio reporter was first on the scene and thanks to telephone technology, could file the most immediate report.  Later, satellite technology and helicopter cams gave TV the edge because of immediacy, resources and, of course, pictures.  Subsequent use of mobile communications technology have changed things even more.

2.    Print Dailies were considered less timely than broadcasting.  But thanks to their large newsroom staffs and the ability (or luxury) to assign beat reporters, they became the news resource of record and could be counted on to provide perspective to breaking news within a 24-hour news cycle.  This gave newspapers more gravitas than broadcasting.

3.    News Magazine weeklies and monthlies took the newspaper advantage one step further. They had large, accomplished, sometimes renowned staff members.  Celebrities in their own rights.  They had the time and resources to develop comprehensive features and provide perspectives that neither broadcasting or newspapers could.  When you read a news magazine, you get provocative thinking, excellent writing and superior graphics and photography.

This model of media coverage has stood for decades - that is until that last few years when the Internet entered the picture.

When the Internet first exploded on the scene in the 1990s, blogs made an impact.  Terms like "citizen journalist" became commonplace, as individual bloggers with no more journalistic training than knowing how to use a computer weighed in on politics, business, hobbies and any number of topics.  The influence of both the blogger and the Internet created a new form of competition for the news consumer’s attention. 

While this made a dent in the news media business, the Internet was not done. 

It seems that just as blogging started to flatten out with blogs losing their punch due to an increasingly cluttered marketplace, social media emerged, and that changed everything once again.
Combined with this is the development of sophisticated smart phone technology that literally put the power of a full computer in the pockets and purses of news consumers.

Blogs and other forms of Internet content have led to the term “content is king,” which is to say that now we are beyond clutter.  Information is everywhere – sourced everywhere, accessible everywhere in real time.  We’re now becoming accustomed to living our lives in a sea of information that we tap whenever we want.

Against this backdrop, it’s almost ironic that newspapers would fade. How, in an era, where news consumers demand more and more information, could the gatherers and repositories of the largest amount of that information be struggling?

The short and most simplistic answer is that industry leadership has not been able to get past the fact that paper as a medium is fading but not the need for information.

That’s what makes the Business Times’ recent project so interesting.  Here’s what they found as explained in the overview provided by the Business Times’ publisher Alan Robertson:

·         Readers still see the Business Times as a “primary source of local business news.”

·         Digital users increasingly “rely on our Twitter feed and email newsletters to keep them up to date.” 

·         Subscribers spend as much as 45 minutes reading the physical newspaper and prefer to “get their news once a week.  They’re looking for the answer to the question: What does it mean?”

·         News consumers are “switching platforms at least 20 times a day – from mobile to desktop to tablet to print.”

That last bullet point almost sums it up.  News consumers are media channel agnostic.  They aren’t simply moving away from print to digital. They are moving back and forth with extreme frequency.  What’s driving their movement has more to do with where they are and what they need to know or want to know at any given moment.  Instant access is now assumed. 

So, that conventional model may not have changed as much as media watchers think.  Newspapers still have their place, as do magazines, but there are a few new layers in play.  And those layers are driving the change.

Smart media organizations like the Business Times now have a better understanding and have made certain organizational changes to meet the needs of the marketplace.

The Business Times' news delivery structure involves all platforms and a commitment to “supplying continuous content.”  Not just hourly, daily or weekly – continuous.

As Robertson says, “News will break first digitally, on Twitter and at your desktop; online you’ll read those stories that matter to you just after our reporters learn about them.”

Of course, the Business Times, like other print organizations, have incorporated video into their digital platforms, so they are now wading into the same arena as that formerly owned by broadcast organizations. 

As for the print edition, the newspaper said it will explore new reporting approaches where reporters are branded by their beats.  The newspaper will focus on more in-depth reporting and features you can’t get anywhere else.  The goal here is for such stories to “set the agenda for community discussion on a variety of topics.”

This may not sound new to you, but what’s critically important here is that a news organization restructured itself around news consumer patterns.  So, rather than simply let the news consumer pick and choose its sources at random, this news organization has best positioned itself to meet all of those needs, at least in its niche as a regional business news resource.

If there is a moral to the story it is to the news organization’s credit that it left its ego at the door and challenged itself to be what news consumers want it to be. In doing so, I think it has become a model for other news organizations rooted in a print heritage and working to find their way in this digital era.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Reporters Prefer Twitter

Ezra Klein of the Washington Post’s WonkBlog wrote an interesting piece this week on why journalists prefer Twitter to Facebook.

He laid out what many of us know, that Facebook as still much larger and on a more steady growth trend than Twitter or just about any other social media channel.  Yet, when we turn on our televisions, read news reports or listen to news, it seems that the social media driving force behind much news is Twitter.

It appears that regardless of the news story, reporters are now including reference to public reaction to the situation at hand by reporting on how Twitter users are reacting to the news.  Twitter, in effect, becomes part of the story.

Not only that, but it seems reporters and their employers are some of the most active users of Twitter, from both an output standpoint and a monitoring perspective.

Klein makes it clear: “…journalists – and quite often, the organizations that employ them – clearly prefer Twitter.”

But why?

He says that “Twitter is simply more useful for our jobs.”

This makes sense. Twitter is a structured news feed of sorts without all the extra information on users and their social life you might find on a typical Facebook page.  And it’s much more time-sensitive than both Facebook and LinkedIn. 

While posts on other social media channels may have longer shelf lives, a Twitter post may be only of relevance for less than a few seconds.  For example, when a sports reporter tweets, “If they miss this field goal they lose the game.”

In itself, such a tweet is meaningless, but that’s not how the media sees Twitter.  The media likes it because it’s a barometer of public opinion streaming in real time.

Plus, when news breaks, Twitter is a way to get inside information as it happens.  If there is a mall shooting, the media watches Twitter for tweets from people still inside the mall.  If a CEO is conducting a big press conference, reporters tweet snippets of the event in real time, all as part of the larger mosaic of coverage.

Then there is the final product.  Klein believes Twitter’s value is tied to the fact other journalists are reading their work.  He writes, “Tweeting your articles ensures they’re seen – and discussed, and retweeted – within a community that includes not just your friends and peers, but the people who might hire you someday.”

Monday, November 11, 2013

All I Want for Christmas is … a News Drone

It’s right there on Amazon and you can buy it just in time for Santa to deliver it in his reindeer-powered drone (I think).  It is in fact a drone, but not just any drone.

This one is the DJI Phantom Aerial UAV Drone Quadcopter for GoPro, to be exact.  In the interest of full disclosure, the product and the company are not a client.  I first learned of this from a Twitter post I received a few days ago when a journalism professor from Syracuse University had posted a photo of this interesting little four-prop device that could serve as a catalyst for newsgathering of the future.

Dan Pacheco is the Peter A. Horvitz Chair in Journalism Innovation at the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University, but enough of the formalities. 

Dan posted to Twitter a photo of a drone with a camera mounted on it with the caption: “Hmm, I wonder where our new dji Phantom with GoPro mount will fly on this rainy day?”

The question and the photo certainly got my attention. I haven’t really thought about the use of drone technology for other than military or law enforcement applications. 

But this is for personal/private use and it’s the real thing.  And the fact that it can be used with a camera mount for newsgathering opens the door to a million possibilities.

According to the drone’s descriptor on Amazon, it arrives “ready to fly.”  All you need to do is unpack it, attach the propellers, charge the “LiPo” (I’m assuming that’s a power source) and install the transmitter batteries.  I’m also guessing that however you’d like to outfit you’re drone, that’s on you as well.  So if you want to mount a camera, you have to purchase a compatible device and install that. 

Thanks to some recent news features, I’ve seen how these types of drones operate. They aren’t toys.  They tend to fly very stable and agile.  I’m not sure about this one, but they can be disarmingly quiet.  Each of these features make drones highly efficient tools for surveillance and information-gathering.

Just thinking about the drone and its potential took me back to my own early reporting days in and how such technology might have changed the way we covered news. 

Once I hid behind a patrol car as the police negotiated with a hostage-taker in a residential neighborhood.  If I had a drone, I could have flown the thing over the house or even near the house to see what was going on, though I’m sure the police commander would have had something to say about that.

Then I thought about my role as a PR person.  How will a drone affect my work in PR?

No doubt, I would have to take into account that news reporters could and would gain access to places we’d prefer they not, such as near power wires, and plant and company employees, to name a few.  Would we be within our rights to “take down” the drone if it flies into our private space?  I don’t know.  I do know that such acts of surveillance and retaliation would not come without significant controversy.

What about our own use as PR professionals?  Can we use drones to access areas that before may have been logistically impossible to access?  I would think drone technology would come in handy for capturing visuals of everything from a complex or vast manufacturing process to a store grand opening.

WATCH: First time students fly newsgathering drone prototype October 4, 2013 in Syracuse University's Manley Field House.

Dan Pacheco first started using drones on campus almost a year ago.  His purpose was to experiment with aerial footage for journalism.  Of course this is not without its challenges.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered a couple of state-funded journalism schools to shut down outdoor use of drones. So Syracuse uses its indoor athletic facilities to serve as laboratories for drone navigation.

From a timing standpoint, the FAA is supposed to issue a method to certify commercial drone flights by September 30, 2015. 

My apologies in advance for this (pun intended), but clearly when it comes to newsgathering drones and the possibilities, the sky’s the limit.

Monday, November 4, 2013

How to Engage Employees

In the early part of my career one of the things I would do periodically as editor of the company newsletter was to follow the mail cart through the office when my newsletter was distributed to employees.

I’d maintain enough distance so that I could get an honest glimpse of how employees were receiving the publication.  As you might expect, the reception was varied.

Some would instantly grab the newsletter off the top of their mail pile and drop it into the nearest trash can without ever opening it up to read it. Thankfully, these individuals were few and far between.  Others would turn right away to the last page where we ran little blurbs on employee promotions, honors and other “people in the news.”  Still others would arduously start from page one and work their way through to the back.  Of course, I did readership surveys and other things to obtain reader feedback, but I found this was probably the most unvarnished way to see the employee newsletter at work.

The one constant, I noticed, was that whatever the response, the newsletter received the immediate attention of most everyone who received it.  It almost never accidentally slid to the side of the desk while employees opened other, higher priority mail.  Almost to a person, the newsletter received immediate attention.

What this told me was that regardless of the attitudes of employees towards their employer, the employer’s efforts to communicate to employees will get their attention.  The challenge, however, is to get the employee to give the employer a chance to deliver its message.

With this in mind, here are five tips to create ways that not only get employees’ attention but helps create positive engagement:

Speak to the self-interest

There are many ways to find out what employees care about, from focus groups and surveys, to simply walking around the workplace and informally talking to employees on a regular basis. Over time, you will find out what employees care about beyond pay and benefits, though these two items are always tops on the list of employee concerns.

They also care about job security, safety and health, work-life balance, job satisfaction and career mobility.  And each demographic and segment of the work force likely views these concerns at varied levels of importance to them.  A younger employee, for instance, will likely care less about the company’s 401(k) plan than an employee in his late 40s.  A male employee may be less concerned with the organization’s maternity leave policy than his female counterpart.

Personalize the message

Personalizing the message is an off-shoot of speaking to employees’ self-interest.  But it takes it one step further.  It’s one thing to discuss a new benefits plan that is good for employees, but it’s quite another to communicate the news in simple terms, avoiding jargon, legalese and corporate-speak. 

Use conversational language in your communications.  Create forums such as small group meetings, or in large group settings town meetings, where employees are encouraged to ask questionsCreate dialogue. Demonstrate that communication is not one-way.

Humanize management

October 10, 2013 - Southwest Airlines employees face off
for the 2013 Southwest Airlines Pigskin Plane Pull to celebrate
the annual Red River Rivalry game between the Oklahoma
Sooners and the Texas Longhorns in Dallas.
Source: Southwest Airlines
The age-old term for management in industrial settings was to call managers “suits.”  Usually this is a derogatory term that represents an insular management style.

It’s important for management to work to break such barriers down but to do so in genuine fashion so that employees understand the effort is sincere and part of a real commitment to engaging with employees. 
Everything from how managers dress and interact with employees to where the interactions occur all send a message.  Hosting a barbecue for employees where senior management dons aprons and serves up the food is one way some organizations work to help break down barriers.

Southwest Airlines, a company known as a model for strong employee engagement, holds a Pigskin Plane Pull each year to celebrate a football rivalry its employees in Texas and Oklahoma share. This is just one example of the kind of creativity at play in great workforce communications programs.

But such efforts need not be so elaborate.  The key is to find ways for managers to have face-to-face meetings with employees as regularly as possible so that both management and employees see each other as people first.

Acknowledge there is life outside of the company

If you were to stop by any break room and catch casual conversations among employees, as often as not, they are talking about life outside of work – family, weekend plans or activities, vacations, or just balancing the daily grind of both work and personal matters.

It’s good to tap into this reservoir of goodwill and understanding simply by integrating into certain employee communications channels acknowledgement of life outside the company.

Including employee family news in workplace media, hosting regular events beyond the summer picnic where families are invited, volunteer and other group activities where family members are included. 

Balance content

When creating company videos, Intranet articles or blogs targeting the work force, it’s easy to fall into the trap of populating the majority of the communications channels, top-down, with important information and messages management wants employees to know.  But it’s equally important to understand what employees want to know and need to hear.

It’s good to make sure that articles and features about changes to benefits plans, for instance, are offset by an article about a long-time employee who volunteers at the local animal shelter. 

The key to engagement is always to maintain the human touch.  That is what creates an environment where employees give employers a chance to deliver important information.

Credits to: @workforcenews, @Inc., @SouthwestAir