Tips on managing a website, from measuring traffic to understanding new platforms for news and information.

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How to get your news site banned from Reddit

I’ve called Facebook a capricious despot when it comes to how its mystery algorithm dishes out prime News Feed real estate. Figuring out how it favors certain types of content over others can have a major positive impact on your site’s traffic. For better or worse, news organizations are dependent on Facebook for an ever larger share of visitors.

But Reddit might be even more confusing to news organizations. It’s a place where successful posts can expose your content to an international audience of millions and lead to big traffic spikes — but also where human moderators can cut you off for bad behavior or suddenly decide your domain is no longer a good fit for the site’s primary news section.

The Atlantic has experienced both forms of banishment, barred for a time in 2012 due to overzealous link sharing by its then-social media editor. More recently, the media company’s domain has been banned from /r/news, a subreddit that all Reddit users see by default unless they unsubscribe, alongside other major sites like The Huffington Post, Vice and Salon. Content from the sites dropped off severely late last summer. Read more

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Tuesday, Apr. 15, 2014

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Hyperlinking could help journalists in defamation lawsuits

This is the second in a series of articles by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on legal issues that can affect journalists. It is written by Cindy Gierhart, Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation Legal Fellow at the RCFP.

Media scholars have noted for years that news outlets lag significantly behind blogs in their use of hyperlinks. But recent court cases suggest that news media may want to increase their use of hyperlinks as a way of defending against defamation lawsuits.

Let’s take a look at a couple of scenarios where hyperlinks have helped media defendants.

Scenario #1: Facts supporting an opinion

Suppose a blogger writes, “I think the mayor is a thief.” Even though it begins with “I think” and sounds like an opinion, it is followed by an assertion of fact. Standing alone, that statement could be defamatory. But if the writer provides hyperlinks to accurate accounts on which the conclusion is based, then the statement may be considered “pure opinion” and not defamation.

If readers are presented with a series of facts (either in the story or via hyperlinks), they can follow how the writer developed the opinion – and readers can use the facts presented to form their own conclusions. An opinion, even though it’s based on facts, cannot be proven true or false, and thus cannot be defamatory. Without supporting facts, readers are forced to take the writer at his or her word, which legally is the same as stating a fact, which can be considered defamatory.

A federal district court in California confronted this issue as far back as 1999. In Nicosia v. De Rooy, Diane De Rooy alleged on her website that Gerald Nicosia embezzled money from the estate of Jack Kerouac’s daughter. The court ruled that De Rooy sufficiently disclosed the underlying facts behind her claim by hyperlinking to other articles she wrote on her website.

“These [hyperlinked] articles were at least as connected to the news group posting as the back page of a newspaper is connected to the front,” the court wrote, and therefore they should be considered facts she disclosed to support her claim.

This does not mean you can say whatever you want so long as you add hyperlinks. The linked resources must support your statement and provide a basis for your opinion.

It is best to explain the underlying facts within the text of your article and not rely solely on hyperlinks. Links can break, or you could find yourself in a court that doesn’t recognize the importance of hyperlinks. But adding hyperlinks as a precaution or as additional information certainly couldn’t hurt.

Scenario #2: Piggybacking on another’s fair report privilege

The “fair report privilege” is a legal defense to defamation. It provides immunity from liability – even if the statement turns out to be false – so long as you obtained the information from an official public document or a statement by a public official, you cited the document or official as your source, and you fairly and accurately relayed the information from the source.

For example, in court documents, a soon-to-be-ex-wife accuses her famed politician husband of having an affair. A reporter accurately and fairly reports on the accusation, citing the court records. A blogger then writes that “allegations of an affair surface.” The blogger does not mention the court documents, but he hyperlinks to the original news story. The husband, in fact, did not have an affair. The statement was false.

Traditionally, the first reporter would be covered by the fair report privilege because his account was based on court documents. The blogger – without disclosing that his information came from public documents – would not be protected by the privilege.

A federal court in New York recently grappled with this issue in Adelson v. Harris. The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) wrote on its website that “reports surfaced” that Sheldon Adelson “‘personally approved’ of prostitution in his Macau casinos.” The phrase “personally approved” was hyperlinked to an Associated Press story, which quoted a court document in which a former casino executive accused Adelson of approving of prostitution at the casino.

Because the AP story was protected by the fair report privilege (even if the allegation was false), the court ruled that the NJDC was also protected by the privilege because it linked to the AP story. (The case is currently on appeal.)

“It is true, of course, that shielding defendants who hyperlink to their sources makes it more difficult to redress defamation in cyberspace,” the court wrote. But that’s a good thing. “It is to be expected, and celebrated, that the increasing access to information should decrease the need for defamation suits,” the court wrote.

There are a few limitations to this approach, however.

First, not all states recognize a fair report privilege, and those that do vary as to what documents or statements are covered by the privilege.

Second, Adelson was decided by a federal court in New York interpreting Nevada law. Another court interpreting another state’s law might rule differently. It is best to always attribute your information directly to the public document or official from which you obtained the information and only rely on hyperlinking as a backup.

Hyperlinking cannot put an end to all defamation claims. But given the recent court decisions, news media may want to rethink their hyperlinking strategy.

Related: How to use FOIA laws to find stories, deepen sourcing Read more

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Tuesday, Apr. 08, 2014

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Right workflow tools can reduce pain points in news organizations

 

That tweet from Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, touches on an important topic in the news industry, but one we rarely discuss. Workflow.

In the world of journalism, production workflow and process is not glorified. Nor should it be. But it should be respected. For all the talk about business models to save journalism, we talk very little about the tools that allow us to get the job done, let alone which ones are more efficient. But a profitable journalism industry is an efficient one. If you’ve ever pulled out your hair trading Word documents with track changes, then you know the saving grace of a good workflow.

“We are finally starting to see news [organizations] that are serious about the tools they use to do news better,” said Eric Eldon, the former co-editor of TechCrunch. “It’s a matter of mixing and matching the new things that are out there for whatever you want to get done.”

Let’s be clear, this is not about forcing more production out of employees. That’s self-defeating. This is about processes different organizations have for workflow so that everyone is working efficiently and in a sustainable manner.

“[When] designing workflows always, always start with the people …. . Do they feel like they have one more thing to do, or one less thing?” Suzane Yada from Center for Investigative Reporting told me. In talking with her colleagues, Yada found some pain points were easily solved by changing their current workflow and other pain points needed a new tool. They eventually settled on Podio, a work collaboration platform, and they knew it was the right tool because it allowed them to check off those pain points. They could work the way they wanted, not conform to the rules of a project management tool.

The “daily miracle” of putting out a newspaper has turned into a 24/7 never-ending miracle. News organizations are constantly buzzing. Reporters are filing copy, editors are checking in with them and making new assignments. Producers, multimedia/video editors and any number of other specialists play their part.

Whether it’s whiteboarding or entering the final content into a CMS, it’s part of a workflow. These systems are complex, often specific to the organization (and its leaders) and usually receive little attention or discussion, but much can be learned if we shared our processes. While it’s the great journalism that wins awards and boosts branding, it’s the project management systems underneath that allow anything at all to happen.

Project management software is how the tech industry gets real. Much like a content management system, the tools and systems one uses to manage define how you’ll work, what you’ll produce and how much friction there is throughout the process. Project management tools are opinionated; you have to find software that agrees with you.

“I generally think the biggest problem in workflow isn’t necessarily a step, but a culture … . New tools are great, but you have to make sure everyone uses them similarly and you have to have all around support for them. That means everyone’s got to buy in and get something out of it,” said Kim Bui, senior breaking news producer with Digital First Media’s Thunderdome.

There is no shortage of tools: Hipchat, Campfire or Slack for group chat. Asana, Pivotal Tracker, Trello or Podio for task-based management. Google Docs, Dropbox for file management. In an unscientific survey, the products above along with Basecamp, GoToMeeting, Skype, Google Hangout, Kapost, Convio and Salesforce were some of the most mentioned tools in various organizations’ workflow. But this list is not exhaustive and the combinations are endless based on needs. Maybe you want a group RSS feed. Try DelvNews. Maybe you want to manage a large group of community members contributing content, try Kapost. There is no one size, there is no silver bullet. It’s what works for your needs. But don’t settle for a system that puts the burden on you.

At Circa the development team uses Asana while editorial uses a combination of Trello for task management, HipChat for communication along with group emails, Zappier, and of course our own custom content management system.

I once heard the adage: “Everyone loves their project management tool. Everyone hates their project management tool.” In the end, it’s all about how you use a tool to make sure your work is flowing. If energy is lost to friction, then an organization needs to take a hard look at its systems to refine them.

David Cohn is director of news at Circa and a member of Poynter’s adjunct faculty. Previously he worked on some of the first endeavors exploring crowdsourcing and crowdfunding in journalism. You can find him on Twitter at @digidave. Read more

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Friday, Jan. 31, 2014

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How Digital First Media hopes to transform workflow, culture of ‘newspaper factories’

Digital First Media has unveiled plans to transform its newsrooms and put its money where its name is. “Project Unbolt” aims to address the problem of digital efforts at the mercy of existing newspaper infrastructure.

The first of Digital First’s 75 daily newspapers to get the unbolting is the New Haven (Conn.) Register, where digital transformation editor Steve Buttry will lead efforts to rearrange and reimagine the newsroom’s workflow, culture and structure. He’ll also work closely with three other local papers — The (Willoughby, Ohio) News-Herald, The El Paso Times and The (Pittsfield, Mass.) Berkshire Eagle — for the pilot program.

The project’s name comes from Digital First Media CEO John Paton’s observation that the company’s newsrooms are print operations with digital “bolted on” — remarks that rang true but stung, Buttry wrote on his blog.

“It’s a little uncomfortable for people who rightfully think they have been working their asses off to be digital-first,” Buttry told me via phone. Indeed, it’s not as if Digital First newspapers have been ignoring digital to this point — the New Haven Register posts breaking news throughout the day and has a mobile website. But at many of these “newspaper factories,” as Buttry calls traditional newsrooms, it’s still often newspaper-style stories that end up on the web.

Newspapers have become comfortable publishing content online before it runs in print, but the nature of that content has been influenced by newspaper thinking throughout the planning, reporting, writing and editing process. So Project Unbolt is about going beyond publishing content first on digital; it’s about publishing content first on digital in a digital-native way.

 

Workflow and culture adjustments

Buttry says Digital First newspapers have performed well online in two related areas: live event coverage and breaking news (he pointed to the Denver Post’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Aurora movie theater shooting). That type of content is necessarily digital-first and makes for a natural place to begin weaning newsrooms off newspaper-first mindsets.

The bigger challenge: changing the thinking behind routine beat coverage and enterprise reporting.

For example, Buttry said a reporter on the education beat who is used to filing one story about test scores in the evening could instead write a quick four- or five-paragraph story in the morning when test scores are released and follow up multiple times during the day as she gathers reaction and context.

That already happens for some breaking stories at newspapers with daytime editors who continuously edit stories as they’re updated or just after they’re updated, Buttry said. But now it’s a priority to get all reporters to stop sitting on news until it’s fully developed, pristine and print-ready.

Major investigative or feature pieces present another dilemma: They usually run in the Sunday paper, Buttry said, when web traffic is sparse. Instead of Sunday features being the entire story, newspapers could publish elements of stories as they’re uncovered, which also offers more opportunities to crowdsource and include readers along the way. This thinking reflects the notion of news as a process rather than a product, as Jeff Jarvis (who serves on Digital First’s advisory board) puts it.

And then there’s the content itself in enterprise stories, which can be rethought as interactive databases online or as series of video pieces.

It all sounds like a lot of work — work that might require more staffers, I told Buttry. “More staff would be great, but the economic realities are the economic realities,” he replied. “Unbolting is going to be with the staff we have now. If the economic performance isn’t good enough to keep maintaining that, unbolting won’t save us from staff cuts.”

So while an iterative, multimedia-focused reporting process doesn’t necessarily require more reporters and editors, it’ll likely require disruptions to the workflow and duties that staffers are used to. Maybe top city editors end up working more day shifts instead of night shifts, or reporters take on more multimedia duties.

Meanwhile, there’s also the matter of convincing grizzled reporters and editors of the merits of blogging and engaging on social media. But Buttry said Digital First journalists are mostly excited for the changes.

“I’m not gonna say there’s not gonna be any pushback or learning curve,” Buttry said. “But I don’t hear so many resisting, curmudgeonly, ‘you can’t make me change’ reactions anymore. I hear learning-curve types of questions.”

What about print?

Despite Paton’s aggressive investment in digital, he acknowledges print isn’t disappearing tomorrow: “Whatever life there is in print — and, of course, there is some and it must be preserved just as it must also be used to fuel our investments in our digital future,” he said in a presentation to the Online Publishers Association posted on his blog.

Said Buttry regarding Project Unbolt: “We may not serve our print readers as well as we used to, and as somebody who loves print, I’m sorry about that.”

Yet print will remain a concern, but one bolted on to digital efforts rather than vice versa. One of the newsroom “pods” will still be devoted to putting together the print newspaper, but meetings won’t revolve around page one. And the print folks might see new duties — including a throwback to a process Buttry was responsible for earlier in his career: “If stories are written in an iterative fashion for digital products, but there’s not a one-take, start-to-finish story as part of the digital product, there could be a return to a rewrite desk or editor,” he said.

And when it comes to those Sunday enterprise stories, editors will likely have the job of gathering previously published digital content into a form that works in print. By then, Buttry said, it might be old news “but not if it’s the only thing you read.”

“The audience, God bless them, are creatures of habit, and we want that habit,” Buttry said. “And as long as it’s economically feasible to feed that habit, we intend to do that.”

So while there’s no intention to abandon print altogether, Digital First certainly seems unafraid to absorb some losses in print if it enables the company to better prepare itself for success in a post-print world.

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Wednesday, Jan. 08, 2014

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New York Times website redesign: the desktop strikes back and other observations

Three instant reactions to the new New York Times website, which went live this morning:

The Gray Lady online: less blue, more white

That each Times headline used to be blue seemed to be less an aesthetic choice than an antiquated signal to users that yes, indeed, you can click on these. Now, those headlines are black, going a long way toward cleaning up the design and making the Gray Lady less blue (minus the blinding Dell ads on the homepage this morning, of course):

Meanwhile, we’ve seen glimpses into the newspaper’s article-level white space goals for months now, and in practice it’s a beautiful change that allows stories to breathe — and for comments to expand onto the page next to the story whenever you choose. And no one on any platform is likely to complain about the end of story pagination.

Native ads? Yawn

You’re more likely to be fooled by one of those pro-Russia print supplements in the Times than by one of the online native ads everyone’s been fretting about. The format of the first paid post on the Times site fulfills Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s pledge to the newsroom that “Our readers will always know that they are looking at a message from an advertiser.” The homepage link to Dell’s native ad doesn’t mix with links to editorial content, and even the URL is transparent: paidpost.nytimes.com.

Desktop strikes back?

I took some heat in December for suggesting that some prominent websites have become so focused on mobile optimization that the desktop experience emerges from the redesign process with new limitations and frustrations. But that’s not the case at all here. In fact, tablets seem to be left behind a bit with the new nytimes.com (the mobile phone version of the Times site was upgraded last May).

Maybe that’s because there are so many great options besides a web browser for reading the Times on tablets. I’m a big fan of the Today’s Paper web app, which the Times touted in December as a good option for both tablet and desktop reading. Subscribers can also access Times content via Flipboard and Google Play Newsstand, two platforms that also attractively include content from other news sources. And, of course, if you still want a separate, standalone app for Times content, there’s the native app on every platform, with millions of downloads since the iPad arrived.

So what seems particularly desktop-y about this redesign? The homepage, for one, which is difficult to read on my iPad Air and still requires pinching and zooming on my Nexus 7. The layout has been virtually unchanged — good for the visual hierarchy and array of story choices sometimes lost in mobile-oriented designs, but bad if you’re one of the dwindling-but-not-insignificant number of tablet readers who arrive at websites via the front door and not side doors like Facebook and Twitter.

Although text is frustratingly small on the homepage when visiting on a tablet, it’s eminently readable in stories. We’ve seen previews of what these article pages would be like in other projects; for instance, “Invisible Child,” the five-part series on a homeless girl named Dasani, was great to read on my Nexus 7. But I wasn’t fully struck by photographer Ruth Fremson’s images until I returned to the story later at my desk on my computer. At article-level, the new ability to view photos in large, glorious detail seems like more of an advantage for those consuming Times content on a desktop computer, laptop or perhaps large tablet than on a 7-inch screen.

(And here’s a big problem I noticed on my iPad: tapping photos in a gallery on my iPad advances to the next photo, but swiping — the more natural gesture for tablet users browsing photos — jumps two photos ahead in the slide show.)

Some stories just can’t be as immersive on small screens, so I’m glad the Times is positioning itself to succeed on large screens when warranted, particularly as we see more intensely visual projects that need the real estate — not to mention the fact that major interactive efforts rarely display well on lower-powered tablets.

Certainly some elements of the redesign — like the “hamburger” menu icon — take inspiration from mobile design, and there’s some new tablet-oriented functionality like the ability to clunkily swipe from story to story within a section. But this still notably feels like an effort to first satisfy desktop users, who account for two-thirds of traffic, as Ken Doctor points out at CNN.

And consider this: the videos the Times put together to hype the site launch show desktop browser windows and a cursor exploring the new design with old-fashioned clicks of a mouse. This is just the first iteration of a new, flexible Times web infrastructure that is sure to change a lot in the years ahead, but for now the Times seems surprisingly comfortable with a website redesign that’s friendliest to desktop users.

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Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013

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How journalists can encrypt their email

Journalists, and their sources, have a lot to lose.

And several recent cases have made clear just how easy it is for the government to access electronic communications, with or without a subpoena.

Thankfully, there are a host of free, relatively easy-to-use tools at your disposal to help protect your privacy when sending and receiving emails, as well as browsing the Internet and chatting.

“Encryption technology is like putting your message in an envelope before you send it,” said Susan E. McGregor, assistant director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, in a phone interview.

One of the benefits of using “crypto,” McGregor said, is the government must notify you if pursuing your communications as a means of having them decrypted.

But because the use of these programs is not yet widespread, email encryption is a “cumbersome” process that requires multiple programs, she said.

Still, McGregor added, “there are so many people out there who really want to help journalists do this and do this right.”

One of the best resources I found is a tip sheet produced by Mike Tigas, a 2013 Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Fellow at ProPublica, who, like McGregor, presented on the subject at an Online News Association conference.

“Most journalists should at least understand that [encryption] is an option,” Tigas said by phone. “With time and effort, most people can understand it.”

The first question is an easy but important one: Which operating system are you running?

For creating encrypted emails and texts, Tigas recommends GPG4Win for PC and GPG Tools for Macs. And for sending and receiving encrypted email, he recommends email clients Thunderbird and Enigmail (as opposed to sending encrypted communications via Web browser).

(This how-to guide, from Security In-A-Box, also comes recommended. And an organization called CryptoParty hosts how-to events throughout the U.S. and the world.)

PGP, which stands for Pretty Good Privacy, is a popular tool that allows users to both encrypt and decrypt emails. It’s been around for 15 years and “nobody has the impression that its been broken yet,” Tigas said.

Part of the process of using encrypted email is generating a PGP Key, or keypair.

The system can also be used to verify the sender’s identity and ensure that the received message has not been changed, according to several guides.

You will also need to pick a “passphrase,” which is really just an industry term for a long, tough-to-break password, according to a white paper written by Micah Lee for the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Once set up, users must make their public key, well, public — by publishing it on a website or to a “keyserver,” which Lee says “is basically an email directory that shows if there are GPG keys available for a given email address” — before they can be contacted through the system by other crypto communicators.

Their other key, the secret key, is required for actually decrypting the message sent to you.

Many journalists — including Glenn Greenwald, who understands the importance of crypto perhaps more than anyone else — link to their PGP Key (or include their shorter PGP fingerprint) in their bios on Twitter, in addition to more conventional contact information like an email address or phone number. I spoke with a few of them.

Matt Sledge, a reporter for The Huffington Post, said he hasn’t used email encryption very often. “But I want potential sources to have the option,” he wrote in an email.

Prashant Rao, Baghdad bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, echoed this sentiment. “If it encourages one person to get in touch with me who wouldn’t have otherwise, then it’s worth it,” he wrote, adding that he will “need regular practice and integration to really be comfortable” with crypto communication technologies.

Brian Fung, a technology reporter for The Washington Post, said he is rarely contacted using his PGP key but occasionally partakes in encrypted chats. “It’s pretty easy to do, and handy to turn on and off whenever you need it,” he wrote.

McGregor says installing and familiarizing yourself with encrypted communications “is not something you can do in 20 minutes,” and should not be done while in a last-minute story crunch.

Email encryption technology should become easier to use in the future, both Tigas and McGregor say, once it becomes more mainstream and gets more designer attention and resources.

In addition to encrypting your email, many web security experts recommend using Tor to browse anonymously, encrypting your hard drive and setting up a Virtual Private Network to help protect your identity. McGregor recommends some options for doing so.

While these tools can up your privacy game, nothing is foolproof, especially when your communications are pursued by the government.

In September, ProPublica ran an in-depth story — based on documents released by Edward Snowden — about long-standing government efforts to systematically weaken and break encryption technologies.

But to quote a presentation given by The Wall Street Journal’s Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, “For most reporters, the big issues with surveillance are not the NSA but leak investigations, subpoenas, accidental disclosure, and [the] chilling effects on sources.”

 

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Monday, Dec. 09, 2013

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Three simple Google tools journalists can adopt to draw traffic

Google is increasingly emphasizing the ways it can be of service to the media, and the company held a summit in Chicago last week sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Online News Association and Northwestern University’s Knight Lab.

I won’t get into the weeds of how to build Fusion Tables or use the Maps Engine in this recap of the event — see Google’s new Media Tools site for detailed resources. Instead, here are three simple strategies for taking advantage of Google’s products that you can implement right away.

1. Sign up for Google+ Authorship

Google’s Nicholas Whitaker opened a session on Google+ by asking how many of us had a Google+ profile. Most of us raised our hands. Then he asked how many of us actually use our Google+ profiles. The majority of those hands went down, triggering laughter.

To be fair, a comprehensive introduction to any social network, including Facebook and Twitter, would likely be as overwhelming as this one was. The difference is that getting people to use Facebook and Twitter never required quite as much convincing — adoption happened more organically, whereas using Google+ feels like jumping through fiery hoops at a circus with sparse attendance.

I’m still not convinced diverting major social-media resources to Google+ posts makes sense, but news organizations and individual journalists should take a minute to sign up for Authorship. If you have an email address on the same domain as your content (e.g. an @poynter.org email if you write for Poynter.org), it’s easy to link your bylined stories that show up in Google Search with your Google+ profile and other articles you’ve written. That’s good for discoverability and doesn’t require any extra work once you’ve set it up.

Google is, of course, the dominant search engine. So that makes this hoop worth jumping through even if you don’t buy into the social sharing aspect of Google+. Noted Whitaker: “As a journalist, the best thing to do is take ownership of your Google+ profile and your authorship online.”

2. Try Google URL shortener

The folks at Google didn’t lead a session on this particular tool, but Fernando Diaz, the managing editor of Hoy, Tribune’s Spanish-language paper in Chicago, said during a panel that his publication uses Google URL Shortener. A big advantage over Bitly: It breaks down clicks by browser (such as Safari vs. Firefox vs. Chrome) and platform (such as Macintosh vs. Linux vs. Windows).

How many of your readers visit you via mobile devices? Which devices, and at what time of day? These answers can help determine the best time to tweet stories, and whether to use mobile-friendly links if you have them.

One caveat: These analytics are public, so if you want your click analytics to be proprietary, Google URL Shortener isn’t for you. But it’s a good option for journalists who want a very simple way to track what’s happening to their links after they tweet them or tout them with a Facebook post.

3. Become more visible on Google News

News organizations can’t afford to miss out on the referral possibilities from Google News aggregation, so Google’s Natalie Gross offered best practices for making sure the crawler picks up your stories as efficiently as possible — by submitting a Google News Sitemap, for example.

Publishers should also be aware of keyword metatags to emphasize subject matter that might not be obvious from certain headlines (see: “WALL ST. LAYS AN EGG”) and the standout tag, which can be used up to seven times per week for significant stories.

Related: Google gathers tools for journalists in one spot Read more

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Thursday, Dec. 05, 2013

Students at the University of Cincinnati talk on their phones in this April 2006 photo. Campus news sites are seeing their audiences migrate to mobile devices. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

College websites seeing mobile migration, but not all are ready

Website traffic at the University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald was less than 1 percent mobile in 2010. This year, it’s 39 percent and growing. And while visits on desktops have more than doubled to 951,000 since 2010, mobile visits have risen from about 2,700 to 619,000 — nearly 23,000 percent — in that time. (Statistics cover Jan. 1 through Oct. 31 of each year.)

“I told our students that I think next year we will be majority mobile and the news editor asked me: ‘What does that mean for us?’ ” Ryan Frank, Emerald Media Group publisher, said in a phone interview. “It means we’re no longer digital-first — we’re mobile-first.”

It’s a similar story at Ohio State University where I serve as student media director and oversee The Lantern Media Group. The Lantern has seen its mobile traffic grow from more than 16,000 visits in 2010 to nearly 531,000 this year, marking a dramatic rise from 1.4 percent of traffic to more than 25 percent.

But are college-media outlets doing enough to best serve their increasingly mobile audience? Experts say no.

“I think a lot of college newspapers are failing to take advantage of the natural audience for mobile news applications,” Rachele Kanigel, associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, where she advises Golden Gate Xpress, said in an email. “Many are so busy covering news and putting out their print and online editions that they don’t have the time and energy to think mobile-first. And social media and the need to feed that beast distracts college newspapers from mobile, too.”

Dan Reimold, an assistant professor of journalism at Saint Joseph’s University, where he advises The Hawk, agreed.

“College students are constantly on their mobile phones. College media are not — at least not yet,” Reimold, who also maintains the College Media Matters website, said in an email. “Most of the student press is still beholden to, at worst, a print-first mentality and, at best, a web-and-print mix-and-match mindset. Mobile is entering the conversation. But it’s not yet a driver in big-picture planning sessions or editorial meetings.”

Limited resources, business struggles

College-media outlets often have limited financial and human resources. They also must deal with high turnover among editorial and business staffs.

Another issue is that “a lot of student editors feel overwhelmed or daunted by the technical challenges of developing mobile apps,” said Kanigel, who is also president of the College Media Association. And there are high marketing costs involved to help ensure a new, native iPhone app is successful.

The Emerald Media Group is unusual in that it has a full-time, professional programmer on staff, who has designed a couple of native iPhone apps and some experimental projects. But the Daily Emerald’s website isn’t where it needs to be from a mobile perspective; Frank said some changes are likely before this school year is over.

To help better serve its increasingly mobile audience, the students working on The Lantern website redesign here at Ohio State insisted that the theme look good and be easy to navigate on mobile devices. The new site, which launched in September after about a year of work, is a big improvement from the old mobile version, which was basically a list of headline links. The mobile version essentially recreates the website pages, including much easier viewing of photos and other visuals. But it took longer than expected to roll out and there have been programming and other obstacles to overcome.

The business side also presents a challenge. Frank mentioned the possibility of exploring native advertising, or sponsored content, as used successfully at BuzzFeed, Quartz and elsewhere.  (Native advertising was discussed by the Federal Trade Commission yesterday in Washington.)

“In a mobile-first world, banner ads are not going to cut it,” Frank said, adding that teaching students to use their phones to shoot video or photos isn’t nearly as complicated as figuring out how to make money for college media in the increasingly mobile world.

Experimentation is happening

Still, the mobile news isn’t all bad.

Reimold said he has seen a recent increase in mobile-responsive sites among student press outlets, along with Instagram experimentation. Student reporters also are “definitely using mobile devices to regularly report breaking news and produce real-time coverage of big events.”

The Lantern and Buckeye TV crews here at Ohio State have used their smartphones to help cover breaking news events around campus. A journalism class here, taught by my colleague Nicole Kraft, provides iPads for student use as part of a broader Digital First initiative on campus.

Frank has seen some success with early adopters in the newsroom at Oregon, where the sports staff got good-quality microphones for their smartphones and recorded audio and video at football practices to upload to YouTube. There was also a recent fire that reporters on the scene covered using their mobile devices.

At San Francisco State, the Xpress magazine has had an iPad app for several years and one issue each semester is iPad-only, Kanigel said. (Here’s one example).

Both Reimold and Kanigel noted the UCLA Daily Bruin as among the best college-media outlets at experimenting with and producing mobile-first content.

Still, many college newspaper editors don’t go beyond optimizing content for mobile, said Kanigel.

“Only a few are truly thinking strategically about mobile when it comes to editorial content, advertising or both,” she said, adding that “I think there are opportunities for college newspapers to do some really innovative, ground-breaking work with mobile technology, but I’m not seeing a lot of it happening.”

The question of the moment for college-media outlets in the mobile realm, Frank said, remains to be answered: “How do we use the greatest reporting tool ever invented, which is in our pocket, and use it more effectively?” Read more

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Monday, Nov. 18, 2013

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Breaking News app’s alerts can shout all day or stay out of your way

Behind the buzz-buzz of a smartphone alert could come anything: News of the death of Osama bin Laden, or a “we have to talk” text, or an email with that job offer, finally.

Or it could be news of a Miley Cyrus twerk, or a “remember to buy milk” text, or an email with an offer to come to Best Buy to purchase a Surface tablet.

Push notifications — full of promise but too often a drag — make for the most intriguing feature of the new Breaking News app for iOS. Although it emphasizes customization, the free app still seems aimed to add to the overwhelming number of chimes emitted from my phone each day.

But there could be a way to make it work for those like me who feel overwhelmed by our phones. And the hope, according to Breaking News general manager Cory Bergman, is that users will adapt the app for any number of use cases.

Here’s how the new feature works: choose from among thousands of topics to fill a total of five alert slots. When breaking news relating to those topics happens — and deemed worthy of inclusion in Breaking News’ stream of 200 to 300 updates in the app per day — you’ll get a notification on your device.

The Breaking News app isn’t out to trick you into assenting to dozens of push notifications per day. This friendly warning appears if you’re about to alert a topic with a high volume of daily updates.

My first few days with the app were rough. I quickly learned that although I have some interest in health care reform, I wasn’t prepared for the deluge of daily alerts on that topic. The app kindly notifies you when you’re about to sign up for a topic with a high volume of updates, and Obamacare averages 40 per day. That might be overkill even for the president, if he had an iPhone (the Android version will be out soon, Bergman said.

By contrast, Breaking News posts an update on the Chicago Bears just once every 58 days. That hardly seems like enough to be useful, especially since most hardcore fans will have other trusted sources alerting them to injuries or scores. Short of the Bears winning the Super Bowl — ha! — I’m unlikely to get any game results from the Breaking News app.

I asked Bergman via phone what makes the perfect alert topic. His response: It’s up to you, but some of the topics that have performed well in the two weeks since the new app was released include specific cities and countries. That makes sense not only for the city and country you live in, but for the city and country you’re from, too.

My hometown is small enough that I certainly would appreciate being alerted right away if anything important enough happens there that’s worthy of Breaking News’ attention. So Columbus, Ind., gets added to my list. By that same logic, so does my alma mater, Northwestern University.

For my particular use case, I’m watching Twitter too often throughout the day to need any breaking news pushed to my phone. And for those too busy on the job to check their phones with regularity, it seems unnecessary to sign up for too many alerts — although, Bergman noted, it can be handy to see a quick rundown of news you missed right on your lock screen when you do finally get a chance to look.

In the app’s previous iteration, Bergman said, his team saw how useful push notifications were in getting users to engage. There’s clearly a demand for editor-selected alerts, which average between three and eight per day and can be turned off, but Bergman said Breaking News is aware of an upper threshold at which alerts become annoying and spammy.

“We’re not that concerned about driving people into the app,” he said, adding that alerts are designed to be consumed on their own. “Clearly that helps us from a revenue perspective over time, but we really want this to be as valuable a tool from the user’s perspective as we can make it.”

Three of the alert topics Bergman said in a blog post that he uses — Seattle, media and football — account for an average of 14 alerts per day. That’s more noise and interruption than I’d want to add to my day, but that’s the beauty of the Breaking News app’s customization.

“We’ve got you covered on the big stories out there,” Bergman said. “And the rest is up to you.”

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Friday, Nov. 08, 2013

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NPR combines interactive, multimedia desks into one

In an effort to make its storytelling even more web-optimized, NPR is combining its interactive news applications desk and multimedia desk into a new “good Internet team.”

That’s not what it’ll officially be called, said Brian Boyer, the news apps editor who will oversee the as-yet-unnamed visuals desk. Each day, the team will aim to answer the question, “What’s the right way to tell this story online and visually?”

Sometimes, Boyer explained to Poynter via phone, that means a Tumblr blog like Dear Mr. President, or a gallery of animated gifs that needs to live outside the content management system, or a searchable database like Lobbying Missouri. The best storytelling solution isn’t always something produced by a programmer, but combines the news apps team’s web-savviness with the multimedia team’s visual acumen to streamline the workflow and produce a better product.

When NPR’s news apps desk was created, it absorbed the graphics desk, leaving the multimedia desk — photographers and videographers — separate. Merging the teams to make a 14-person staff makes sense at NPR, which can afford to marshal all its visual resources in one unit because it doesn’t have a newspaper to put out every day, Boyer said.

“At newspapers, the graphics desk has a beast to feed every day, and it’s not the web,” said Boyer, who founded NPR’s interactive news apps team last year after leaving the Chicago Tribune. “In my experience, the graphics desk has a difficult time finding the time to be more webby because making something for print is frequently very different.”

NPR has no print product keeping the web from being the priority when it comes to visuals of any kind, Boyer said. “Merging teams together will allow us to think about photography and video in a more web-first way.” Read more

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