From the telegraph to the smartphone, journalists reporting from the front have always drawn upon the latest gadgets. Every day, though, a different kind of war reporter pushes technology in a very different theatre of war. I speak, of course, of the Internet, where pitched battles are fought by newsrooms across the most unassuming of combat zones: your daily commute, your lunch break, and even your night in front of the telly. The weapons of war are the big guns like Facebook and Twitter, and what’s at stake is one of the most coveted prizes of all: your attention.
One of the veterans of this online battle is NineMSN editor in chief, Hal Crawford. As well as running one of Australia’s most popular news portals, Hal and his colleagues blog extensively on Share Wars, where they pore over the data collected from the virtual foxholes and jungles of social media. I caught up with Hal to talk about what audiences share and why, and how sharing changes news and those who tell it.
Hal, one of most enduring mantras in the media industry – as long as I can remember – has been that “content is king“. That without original, compelling content – or a means of accommodating the commercial interests of content creators – any media venture is likely to fall flat on its face. But you and your colleagues have written extensively about how sharing will drive a new era of journalism. Now, in the age of Facebook and Twitter it’s often said that “if content is king, then distribution is god almighty.” Is that a fair distinction? When it comes to working in digital news today, just how many other things are there to worry about between heaven and earth?
I like your way of putting it and I like the way you summed it up there, John. I think you’re absolutely right and your question points to a big issue, which is to what extent as a news professional do you have to concern yourself with distribution. To what extent can you stay connected to the story, and only the story, and all of the other things that the digital age brings up, which is the need to be more technically literate in a professional news organisation. The thing that I would debate immediately is that I still regard the story as the single most important factor in the success of any digital news undertaking. If we limit this to digital news, the quality of your story is the single biggest factor in determining whether or not you’ll be successful. You’ve got to put that out there. Exclusive information is the single most powerful thing that you will ever have. If you look at the rise of sites like TMZ, before Perez Hilton faded out, what made that successful were exclusive stories. The things that other people didn’t have. Those sites built a reputation on that, and using that reputation they were able to build their channels and build their media strategy. So, for me, it’s not the only factor that you need but it is the single biggest factor. Content, in that sense, is still extremely important. If you think about your general approach, people like you and I, what is different about us if you compare us to media executives from 20 years ago, I think we’re more likely to be a bit techie. What does that mean? What does that point to? It points to the fact that you have to know the platform. To be aware of the possibilities, you have to understand the platform. You really need to have that technical interest. You’re probably still going to be a storyteller and you’re still going to be interested in talking to people and telling human stories, but in order to be able to understand all the new tools and what’s the best way to – for example, what’s the best way to use Facebook as opposed to Twitter? What should I put my social editor on to? Should I just have him concerned with Twitter all day? Well, the answer is no, obviously, because you’re not going to generate an audience from Twitter, you’re going to use it as a media tool. I can talk more about that later. To be aware of these possibilities, you have to be the kind of person who is quite happy talking to a developer. Or finding out what’s new, because in doing so you discover there are many possibilities. So, there’s that very real kind of change there. If you think back to being a newspaper journalist you didn’t have to trouble yourself with the technical side of the medium.
Sure, it’s sort of like saying you never had to roll up your sleeves and understand the intricacies of a printing press but that’s changing now?
Yes, absolutely. I think people have to understand the technicalities if they want to get anywhere with the editing process. It’s a matter of professional pride. There’s a lot of justified professional pride, I think, about understanding the advantages and the strengths of good editing, and the craft of old world media. That kind of knowledge and skills don’t go away; they’re still important. But there’s this whole other level of craft that you have to embrace, like when the site breaks how do I talk to the developer about how to fix it up? It’s very practical stuff. If you can’t communicate with these people, then your undertaking is going to be unsuccessful. All of these things which keep the site running from day to day, which in the past people wouldn’t have had to think about, is now really in the domain of the journalist. I think that’s why, at NineMSN, we have stuck to the naming convention of calling our reporters “producers”. A lot of people think that’s a little bit weird, or a little bit bureaucratic in its language.
There were a few raised eyebrows recently when Fairfax unveiled elements of its digital strategy because it used language identifying journalists as “first responders“. Many thought this to be needlessly bureaucratic and new age. But I do understand what you mean by the word producer as embodying an intersection of technical know-how and journalistic skill. Do you think in the future there will be more producers rather than what we understand as “normal” journalists? Do you think that’s where we’re heading?
When people were thinking about how the digital age would fare 15 year ago, they put a lot of stock in what I’d call a superficial intersection of technical knowledge and journalistic knowledge. It’s not exactly like that. How it differs is that for one reason or another, you have fewer resources in the newsroom. You don’t have an army of people standing in between you and the printing technology. You’re going to have to be able to do a lot of it yourself. What I would look for in a young producer is first and foremost the ability to write, and to understand the story. All of the classic media requirements. But I’m also looking for someone who I’d call self-sufficiently technical. It is a real drag on efficiency and resources if, when something simple breaks in a technical sense, or there’s some sort of technical challenge and the person can’t think for themselves. If they know about these basic things, it might take them 5 minutes to fix up. But if they don’t know that, or they have a fear of technology, they’ll have to file a ticket, somebody from a different floor will have to look at it, and you’ve still got the problem. The image is broken or the site’s down, for instance, before help arrives. I think a general technical competence and confidence is important.
It’s important for journalists working in an online space to have the skills to troubleshoot and triage technical problems – is that fair to say? They need to be able to identify and isolate a problem, solve it to the best of his or her ability, and if not then escalate it to the people that can.
Yes, that’s exactly right. There’s no room for people who throw up their hands and say it’s not my job. That’s a hopeless attitude. That will get you nowhere.
I just want to wind it back to something you said earlier, about the need for content to be exclusive. I couldn’t agree more. You’ve recently written on your blog about “how to make contagious content” and I’m wondering how the two concepts intertwine? You describe most digital news, in part, as being a combination of the unexpected and familiar. I’m having flashbacks to psychology textbooks, because that sounds reminiscent of Freud’s concept of the uncanny! All jokes aside, is there a psychological formula that compels a person to consume a piece of digital news? Is formula even the right word? That seems to suggest a neat, orderly method and one that can be replicated – is that the case? There’s an element of gut instinct on the part of the journalist or editor who has the measure of his or her audience, too, isn’t there?
You’re right, insofar as there’s no formula because every formula for sharable or contagious content will be superseded as soon as it’s turned into a formula. That’s the way human attitudes and knowledge works. We crave novelty, and we crave new information, and that’s the most important aspect of news, no matter what format you’re dealing with. New information is the single most important part of the story. What we’ve seen, however, is that there are reproducible elements that you can look at, and know that they’re going to be shared better across social networks. I was talking with Andrew Hunter, my collaborator on Share Wars the other day. We were looking at the data. We were thinking, okay we’ve got these things that are more likely to be shared. For instance, they might be dogs acting like humans, or things that are awe-inspiring, scientific discoveries, people dying – generally, we find that mortality is a big one – and we were thinking to ourselves now what is the hole? What’s missing? What isn’t sharable? That could be as important as what is sharable. We realised that sex wasn’t sharable. Sex just wasn’t appearing in the data. If you think about traditional, knee-jerk media thinking it’s that sex sells. Well, very interestingly it doesn’t seem to share. For whatever reason, people don’t want to put their personal field or personal brand next to news with sexual content. That’s very interesting. That was a bit of an eye-opener for us. If you look at an approach to understanding sharable news content, the way that we’ve done it is not to theorise but to collect the data. We look at the data and see what people are actually doing. I think that’s a valid process, no matter what you’re doing. The vision that we’ve been extracting from the material has been trying to catagorise what people have been attempting to do, for themselves personally, for their personal brand. We tried to make this theory as useful as possible to journalists. To get really specific, people seem to share news about earthquakes a lot. I don’t know why that is, but we’ve certainly observed it. Earthquakes, as I said, dogs, and there’s a bunch of other things, too.
I find that wild weather stories tend to be shared quite a bit as well.
That’s from your personal experience?
Yes, that’s right.
Yes, you also need to bear in mind that there are different audiences, and my audience will be primarily NineMSN – which is a big chunk of the Australian population – but we’re trying to be universal about it. We do have data from a lot of Australian and international news sources. We’re trying to drill down into it all. I’ve got to say, it’s absolutely fascinating and also really satisfying.
Let’s explore that notion of how sex sells but doesn’t necessarily share a bit more. When it comes to sharing, what’s popular – that is, well-trafficked on a news website – might not necessarily be what’s popularly shared. I would agree with that premise. Interestingly, though, we’ve seen an increase in frictionless sharing apps – I’m thinking The Washington Post and The Guardian, for example – which work by readers opting to share all articles they read with their Facebook friends. I think The Guardian announced earlier this year that its social reader app has been downloaded 8 million times and at the time they reported a significant boost in traffic. Of course, I’ve also read that people are abandoning the app in droves. Is this a fair tactic, or is it cheating? Does it work in the spirit of sharing, or does it risk over-sharing? Does it risk saturating and fatiguing readers?
That’s a fascinating question. Definitely, the social readers – whatever you want to call that technique of automatically broadcasting whatever you’re reading on a site to social media – are a very different approach to sharing. I wouldn’t say it’s invalid but it’s not the same as conscious sharing through a social network. It’s a kind of scatter gun approach. I’m sure you’ve experienced this; when you are actually using those sites, pretty much you soon forget that you’re broadcasting what you’re doing to everyone else.
Yes, I think you’re quite right. One of the reasons why I bring it up is that you see an interesting distinction between what people overtly and consciously choose to share, and what they unconsciously and automatically share by way of these social readers. I’ll have friends in my Facebook feed deliberately sharing content from The Economist, for example, and that post will be immediately followed by a salacious piece of celebrity gossip, or something a bit racy. To my mind, they’re not aware of the funny contrast because they’ve long forgotten that they opted into a social reader somewhere down the line.
Yes, that’s exactly right. One of the big tenets of Share Wars is that there is a discrepancy between what people will read and what people will share. I think that’s pretty obvious. What the social reader does is trash that distinction. In that way, it is not a sign that the content is valued. What’s fascinating here is what people value, and how much weight we put on what they value, as opposed to what they simply consume. I think we should be pitting quite a lot of weight on what they value because that pushes good, quality content, and by that I mean quality in the true sense. What you would tell other people about is often what is worth talking about. Of course, sometimes that’s not the case at all, but that idea of what people value will become essential to news organisations because it will become such a high proportion of their traffic. The Nine News brand, as part of NineMSN, gets about 15 to 18 per cent of it’s traffic from Facebook. I think that’s going to increase. It doesn’t matter which social media network you use, I think that proportion of traffic will increase up to a ceiling. It probably won’t every be the majority, but say, for instance, you’re getting 40 per cent of your traffic from Facebook, then what people are tending to share, or what they value, becomes a self-fulling part of your editorial mix. To me, that’s the mechanism that’s at work, and I think that’s a good thing. That was our feeling to begin with, so we set out to collect the data to see if it was true or not.
If the data tends to confirm your hypothesis, and there is a sort of formula that cracks social media as a distribution method, and grasps what’s valued and shared, how does that change a newsroom? Without giving away any trade secrets, how does that affect resource allocation and content production techniques?
It does a lot. I’ve got a reasonably small newsroom of 30 people, effectively running a very big digital news site. The discipline that enforces on you is that everything has to count. You can’t do things that are inefficient. If that isn’t the case, then they’re not doing it right. That is the basic approach. It doesn’t mean that everything has to maximise traffic but that is what people should be aiming for. If you know that no-one’s going to read something, or it may be too dull and dreary, then don’t write it. With that broad approach in mind, you look at social and you try to incentivise people to write things that will be shared the most. In order to do that, you can do a couple of things. One great thing you can do is track the content and display it. If you’ve got access to tracking software you might want to display it in the newsroom. You can put it up on screens. There’s a whole raft of tools that allow you to track your content in real-time. We also have what we like to call a league table, which within NineMSN is a kind of competition for people to create the most shareable content. We have a weekly competition where people get points, so it’s a bit like footy tipping. Let’s say you get 2,000 or 3,000 shares on Facebook, or you top the league for that week, and there’s a prize for the person with the most points at the end of the season, so to speak. It’s simple stuff but it works, and it makes it fun as well.
I wonder if I might flip things around a bit? There’s been a lot of talk lately about harnessing social news sites as a means of discovering stories. Specifically, there’s been quite a lot of attention paid to Reddit. Of course, there’s plenty of other social news sites, aggregators, social bookmarking sites, and so on and so forth. There’s Digg, StumbleUpon, and Delicious – to name but a few – but Reddit really seems have been thrust in the limelight. How much of a cue should editors and news producers take from what’s trending on a service like this to guide their news mix? What’s the tipping point between using these platforms as a “discovery engine” to tap into what a community regards as interesting and compelling, and going too far? Essentially, taking stories from that community and then telling them back to them? Is there a danger here?
I tend not to view issues like this in terms of danger. My attitude is that it’s here and we have to accept that and deal with it. Reddit is a really fascinating example. It’s been around for years. It was a dirty little secret for all of us digital journalists for a while, and now everyone knows about it. It’s still pretty cool. It’s a reliable place to get story ideas, no question about it. I think the Reddit vibe has also influenced the way more traditional news organisations cover news, which is interesting. The thing that Buzzfeed got criticised for recently, just ripping things off – that’s crap, obviously. That’s just poor form. You don’t have to do that. You can go there, see a great idea, and turn it around and make your own. Or, if you really must rip it off, then you give full credit to the source. You say you found it on Reddit and, of course, you can always link to it. Certainly, what we’re finding is that the Reddit way of valuing a story – the kind of stories that might work on Reddit – is influencing the way we think about original stories. Reddit might disappear in the future, but they’ll always social news sites and their influence and effects on journalists, and that’s perfectly valid.
There certainly seems to be no shortage of social channels. I want to talk about the various platforms – the battlefields of these so-called share wars. It’s recently been announced that Google+ has reached 400 million registered users around the world, and about 100 million active monthly users. That’s not bad growth but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to Facebook’s 845 million monthly active users. Gosh, I think Twitter has 225 million active users and 50 million of those are logging in every day. Media companies in the United States seem to have embraced Google+ to a certain degree, but we just don’t seem to be seeing that here in Australia. I don’t necessarily want to bash Google+, but why do you think that is, and do you think that will change? Or is Facebook going to be the main battleground for the share wars for the foreseeable future?
Well, I don’t mind bashing Google+. What I would say is that we go with what works. My approach is certainly not to think I must make this work, I look at what’s working and I use that. I’m not going to be dogmatic about it. Google+ is meaningless for us from a distribution point of view. Effectively, Twitter isn’t much better. Twitter, for us, an invaluable journalist-facing tool. It’s unprecedented and it’s amazing. In that respect, I think a lot of the hype surrounding Twitter is justified. That is where stories break a lot of the time. It’s a professional tool. For most of Australia, though, it is not what they get their news through. A mainstream media audience is not getting their news from Twitter, and I don’t see that changing with Twitter as it is now. If Twitter evolves, or a news service emerges that is like Twitter but quite different – less demanding, I would argue – that may well change. You’re changing the equation again. Twitter is an amazing tool, but Facebook is where it’s at in terms of driving traffic. It’s a commercial referral engine for this enterprise. It is the social network that the audience understands and interfaces with and feels comfortable with. That’s just me being practical. That’s where it’s coming from. Search is very boring and daggy now, but search also generates traffic. It can’t be ignored. It’s relevant for a news organisation. It’s about the most important sources of traffic. I’m sure you’ve noticed how people on a bus or a train are logged into the Facebook app most of the time, and we’re finding in the past 12 months that’s really changed the way mobile traffic balance. We have a heck of a lot of people coming from the Facebook app, and that’s audience behaviour that has changed relatively recently in Australia.
I understand what you mean when you say that Twitter is more of a journalist-facing tool because it allows for the emergence of journalists-as-brands as discrete entities. In some ways, they’re separate from the organisations they work for. It’s a different beast for media organisations inhabiting Facebook. I think Facebook is acutely aware of its importance to news organisations as a referrer of traffic, and it’s working to leverage and consolidate that position. They’re baking in new features that assist in the sharing of content, such as the improved recommend function. Do you think other platforms need to embrace the same philosophy if they’re to flourish and survive? Or is it a case of specialisation? For example, there’s been a lot of buzz around Pinterest lately as a visual storytelling and sharing medium, and therefore of great value to magazines. Now, NineMSN’s activities no doubt intersect with its associated stable of magazine products. Is that the kind of things these platforms should be doing – creating opportunities like this?
Pinterest is really fascinating. I think there was a study done recently which actually found that Pinterest was a lousy commercial vehicle. That was a little bit disappointing for everyone, because with it being such a visual medium there was some hope that there may be some way of interfacing with magazine brands, and would drive revenue directly. It would help magazines sell stuff. That doesn’t seem to be the case yet. I would argue, however, that there’s huge potential in that visual area for social networks. I think it’s very important that whatever your strategy is, whatever your interested in, whatever you’re thinking of constructing content around when it comes to considering how you do social news, you need to make sure it’s abstract enough to rise above any particular platform. Don’t pin your entire strategy on Facebook.
No pun intended.
Ha! No. But you’ll be left in a bad position when a situation develops, or features change and your content changes. You’ll need to change. Also, giving too much power from your own enterprise to Facebook – obviously, that’s strategically unsound. I’d say, yes, absolutely, bear in mind that there will be many contenders for the social networking throne, and you have to have a look at all of them and work out what works. I think Pinterest is a great product with a lot of potential but it’s not there yet. How do you use it if you’re a magazine? What’s the best way to use it? I don’t know yet. I think we need to do a lot of thinking and they may need to develop the product further.
Hal, I could talk with you all day but I’ll leave you with one final question, just to wrap things up. As the share wars rage on, what’s next for NineMSN?
I think the future for any media organisation is going to be a combination of the mundane and the inspired. By mundane, I mean that what you’re publishing the very day that you’re contemplating the future is just as important as the future itself. That’s what people in our trend-spotting, future-orientated world tend to forget. If you’re publishing something that you’re ashamed of today, then you should probably fix that right now. You need to deal with that first. Try to be doing good things, the best that you can do, from day to day. You need to look after the business, too. You need to be making sure you’re making enough money and that your books are balanced. That’s the mundane side of things. You’ve just got to make sure you’re doing the right thing. That you’re using Facebook well, and that your site has a quick load time, and that you’re running the right stories and you’re trying to break some news. That’s what everyone does. Then there’s the inspirational stuff. What’s the real direction to be going in? For us, that direction is centered around the audience. Our opportunities have always been invested in the fact that the audience is right. That single phrase is quite challenging for journalists and the traditional way of thinking about the media. Knowing that, or realising that, is important because the future of the audience is just as important as the future of journalism. One of our things is to encourage people to tell us their stories, and then we tell those stories back to the audience. That is an approach that we’re emphasising editorially and with the launch of our new Nine News site, which is going to go live on October 15th. All of the stuff that we’ve been talking about with regards to social is encapsulated in that news site. Putting the audience at the heart of everything we do is the way forward for us. Beyond that, you won’t be surprised to hear me say that social networks are probably going to be the key to the success of any digital news organisation. Not just from the perspective of direct traffic but because you’ll hit the right note. If you’re succeeding in social networks, you’re hitting the right note, and the rest will follow. That’s the tone of the future.
Hal, you’ve given us all a lot to contemplate but we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you very much for your time.
Thanks, John. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.