[…]in the last year or so, many have started finding work as journalists inside companies. That new appetite for “corporate journalism” makes it easier than ever for journalists to leave their posts. Intel, IBM, GE, Oracle, and countless others have hired reporters. Some companies have a blogger or two; others are building full-fledged news organizations.
The result is that these days a lot of good journalism is being committed outside the walls of traditional media companies.
My theory is that in the age of the internet, it’s what you write, not where you write it, that matters.
Dan Lyons on why he left the media business.
If you’re a writer who wants to write about interesting stuff, you can do well by working for an organization that does interesting stuff.
This bit on culture stood out to me:
[S]ay you’re the manager of an already established media team that is a bit stuck in its ways – how do you help your team adopt good new media habits?
[…]changing the culture of an institution is a difficult problem to solve. One thing that has worked for him is identifying someone who ‘gets it’, creating a space where that person can experiment, and then prominently highlighting the successes.
Over time, people get a sense of what earns you recognition in the workplace, and they become emboldened by the explicit institutional support for that sort of initiative to become more creative in their work. In summary, reward risk-taking.
I don’t think it’s possible to understate the value of having executive support when adopting new modes of communication. If bosses are only happy with press mentions, media teams are going to seek press mentions.
One of the great challenges of social media communication is figuring out which new successes merit highlighting. It’s nice to get likes, and shares, and new followers, but driving up those numbers might not be a worthy goal in and of itself. Indeed, many bosses switch from seeking press mentions to seeking a rapidly growing follower count. In many instances, however, the goal should be to build a devoted audience, which comes from consistency over a lot of time.
Because of this, it’s important to highlight Delaney’s call for a place to experiment. Experimentation allows for many failures on the path to success. A good boss understands this and will reward consistent effort in addition to more obvious successes.
Writing is improved speech. It is harder because it is better. It takes longer because it can carry more meaning. It requires more concentration because it carries more weight. It is more permanent because it is tested and refined. Writing is harder than talking because it counts for more, not less.
Tumblr shut down its short-lived Storyboard blog last week. In Tumblr’s own words, Storyboard was an initiative to “tell the stories of Tumblr creators in a truly thoughtful way – focusing on the people, their work, and their stories.” I don’t know why Tumblr shut it down, but Storyboard was a good idea. It was a great channel for Tumblr to go direct and tell its own story.
The need to go direct
Tumblr needed Storyboard to fill a gap in its media coverage. Tumblr is enormous. It powers over 100 million blogs. With so much activity, Tumblr is impossible to pigeonhole, but media outlets regularly try to define it as a place for memes, or teen diaries, or animated gifs. Tumblr certainly has a lot of those things, because, as its founder, David Karp, has said “whatever you find [on Tumblr,] you’ll find a lot of it.” It’s inevitable when you power 100 million blogs.
So, instead of waiting for journalists to report on the breadth of its service, Tumblr hired a bunch of journalists to do it for them. It makes perfect sense. Many good journalists are looking for work, and journalists have the perfect sensemaking skills to explain the wide world that exists on Tumblr.
The approach to Storyboard was a twist on what Ezra Klein calls “revenge of the sources,” which is his explanation of how journalists are being displaced by the people they used to write about. Instead of paying journalists to write about a person’s work, why shouldn’t media outlets ask the person write about it herself? Countless professionals are happy to write in exchange for exposure (why do you think I’m writing this right now?). Forbes’s “contributed content” model is a perfect example of this trend.
What Tumblr did, however, was hire journalists to tell its own story on its own turf. Instead of churning out press releases for journalists to turn into stories elsewhere, it just hired journalists to go ahead and write good stories about Tumblr on a Tumblr blog. If Tumblr is going to take its brand beyond “that meme and gif site,” it needs to make sure its full story is being told, and Storyboard was a way to do it.
Case in point, our co-founder Lee Vann is featured in a Daily Dot story explaining that his more conservative consulting clients have been reluctant to adopt Tumblr. It’s supremely ironic that the Daily Dot story was written for Storyboard, but didn’t make it up before Storyboard was shut down.
The awkwardness of going direct
Charlie Warzel, deputy technology editor at Buzzfeed.com, told the New York Times in its piece on Storyboard’s closure, “It is always peculiar when a social network branches out into publishing, it just seems odd to bring on even excellent editorial talent to cover what is already going on organically.”
Yes, lots of activity is happening organically on Tumblr, but no one is covering it adequately – or how Tumblr would like. The problem isn’t redundant coverage. The problem is that readers don’t know what to make of Storyboard’s strange hybrid of journalism and public relations work. It’s not clear who the audience is. The @twitterstories and Facebook Stories blogs take the same approach and run into the same problem. It will be interesting to see if Medium’s About Medium ever takes the same approach.
But this news-not-quite-news writing isn’t confined to social networks and it’s not going anywhere. My friend Scott Lewis loves showing off the strange “news voice” that the NFL uses in its stories on NFL.com. Here’s a line from a story last month:
NFL.com’s Albert Breer obtained communication from the NFL threatening teams with possible tampering investigations if they enter into agreements with free agents prior to Tuesday’s open-market launch.
Really? Great scoop Breer! Are we to believe that NFL.com writers have to court sources at the NFL just like every other hack out there? It doesn’t take long to see through this fiction once you notice it, but there’s something more palatable about NFL.com’s approach because its stories read more like the news stories we’re used to reading.
Going direct isn’t going anywhere
As traditional news sources disappear, organizations will have no choice but to tell their own story. This is a good thing. It enables organizations to create deeper relationships with their patrons without needing media outlets to act as a broker.
This is especially good for organizations with small or widely distributed audiences that were poorly served by traditional media in the past. For example, the Argonne National Laboratory has been great at telling its own story to fellow and future scientists for years.
But, as we’ve seen with Storyboard, going direct is hard. Most organizations have never had to communicate directly. They don’t have the staff, the operations, or even have their own voice.
Storyboard may have been before its time. Over time, all public relations departments will behave more like newsrooms and the shape of what people consider “news” will change. For now, perhaps Tumblr should hire a couple more writers to simply tell stories on its excellent staff blog.
And as technology empowers more people to do more things, one thing certainly won’t change: our need for writers to tell us stories and make sense of our world.
Also posted on Medium.
Just saw this. It’s some of the only advertising for gov/social causes that I’ve ever been impressed by.
Excellent example of how data, plain language, and clear data visualization can come together to create a very compelling message.
The world lost a great voice yesterday when Roger Ebert died.
Ebert was tremendously beloved on Twitter. While he didn’t have as many followers as some other celebrities, his followers really listened to him. Ebert was revered for always being interesting, always having something worth saying, and always saying it well.
He shared his rules for Twitter (we’d call them guidelines) in a long article in 2010. They’re great rules:
My rules for Twittering are few: I tweet in basic English. I avoid abbreviations and ChatSpell. I go for complete sentences. I try to make my links worth a click. I am not above snark, no matter what I may have written in the past. I tweet my interests, including science and politics, as well as the movies. I try to keep links to stuff on my own site down to around 5 or 10%. I try to think twice before posting.
Ebert showed us the bridge between “old” and “new” media: thoughtful communication. If you care about your audience and seek to edify them, you will thrive in any medium. He made it look easy, but he was a pro.
May his influence as a writer live on for many many years to come. RIP, Roger.
How can reporters get people to read their stories and examine their graphs? I believe they can only do this in a lasting way by consistently providing content that is interesting, accurate, clear, and useful. If they do this often enough, they will become a trusted source.
What Few says here about graphs applies to all kinds of content. If you want to become a valuable source of content to people, focus on creating valuable content consistently over time. Using gimmickry to attract clicks might provide some short-term success, but it won’t earn loyalty.
Amtrak made a bold move today when it tried to cheer up a disgruntled passenger with some jokes on Twitter.
It’s great to see Amtrak make this kind of effort. Humor is hard to pull off, and it can backfire. What’s more, many major services like Amtrak may steer clear of social media precisely because of complaints like Raelynn’s. Countless factors beyond Amtrak’s control can cause train delays, so why open yourself up to complaints that you can’t respond to?
Amtrak’s jokes provide the answer. Customers are going to complain on Twitter if you’re there or not. An official presence on Twitter gives you a chance to let customers know that they’re heard and that you care about them, even if you can’t solve their problem. If a customer is having a bad experience, you have a chance to make it a little better by reaching out to them.
Now, your mileage may vary. Like I said, humor is hard to pull off. It’d be weird if Amtrak tried to tell train jokes to everyone who complains about them, but this was a good showing.
Christina Cacioppo shared this screenshot of an exchange with an AT&T customer service representative with this simple commentary: “at&t. you are terrible.”
As we say, your voice is the most important part of your brand. Our focus is to help organizations figure this out as they use social media, but examples like Christina’s highlight the need for maintaining brand voice to be a high priority across entire organizations.