Wrap-up: Strategy and planning

In digital media, it's tempting not to have a strategy. Avoid that temptation. Figure out your moves. (cc) Mukumbura / Flickr

As we prepare to retire the Argo blog, we’re producing a series of wrap-up posts that capture key aspects of the model we used. This post is part of that series. You can find all our tools and lessons here.

When you work in digital media, you face a constant temptation to scorn strategy and ride the wave of chance instead. First of all, the Internet is always hungry, and any time spent planning is time you could have spent posting. And you’ve already got instant analytics, letting you see exactly what folks are responding to in real-time; why not let the whimsy of crowds set your course? Lastly, a failed strategy is much more costly than a failed post. In light of that, why not just keep churning and hope that over time your successful posts outnumber your clunkers?

One good reason: “Just keep churning” is neither an inspiring motto nor an especially viable long-term course of action. (It’s worked, don’t get me wrong. But it’s got a killer burn-out rate.) Throughout Argo, we encouraged both the stations and the individual editors we worked with to develop strategies for success, not just streams of content. This happened on at least four different levels:

  • Long-term strategy for the site: One of the first exercises we undertook with all the stations was to take their topic proposals and assess the opportunity each of the proposed topics presented. But each station had to determine for itself what its long-term goals were. This was a nuanced calculation. The aspirations of some stations could be measured numerically: more users interacting more meaningfully with more content. But other stations hoped to make inroads into new communities in their cities or to develop authority on underreported issues. It’s not enough to have a goal; you’ve got to have a mechanism for assessing it, so you can figure out whether your strategy is working.
  • The checklist manifesto: I, like Atul Gawande, am a believer in checklists. Over the course of Project Argo, we developed several checklists to help stations optimize their sites for greater success, including a checklist of tasks to complete before each site launched, a checklist of questions to ensure the site was being effectively promoted, and a checklist of items for editors to go over with bloggers each week to keep them focused on planning and strategy as well as on the daily grind.
  • Content planning: Original content was a big part of the Argo model, and we knew that bloggers couldn’t develop big, splashy banner posts without plotting what they wanted to cover. So we encouraged them to plan their content on a daily, weekly and longer-term basis. We also advised them to write posts with an eye towards packaging those posts up into larger pieces.
We worked on establishing check-in points with each of the stations as time progressed to review how well we were executing on our strategy, and how well the strategy itself was performing. The parameters of the grant gave us some help on that effort; we – along with the stations – were required to file quarterly reports for our funders with updates on our success.
That’s a good concluding note: Check-ins are key. It’s important not just to have a plan or a strategy, but to determine in advance when and how you’re going to assess it. Then, based on what you find, adjust.

Wrap-up: The basics of blogging

As we prepare to retire the Argo blog, we’re producing a series of wrap-up posts that capture key aspects of the model we used. This post is part of that series. You can find all our tools and lessons here.

The building blocks of blogging include tone, frequency, focus, headlines, images, and of course, content.

Blogging hasn’t been around long enough to have developed universal truths. But it does come with a heap of conventional wisdom, along with a pile of stereotypes.

Beneath it all, every blog is purely a format: a series of posts, typically arranged in chronological order. Beyond that, every element of the blog is yours to imagine. As we plotted the Argo sites, we paid special attention to these six aspects:

Tone: Blogs have acquired a reputation for being snarky. But there’s nothing essential about the format that requires that tone, and it comes with the distinct disadvantage of turning off a sizable part of the potential audience. I recommended that the Argo sites downplay the snark, and I’d give the same advice to almost any site with a journalistic purpose in mind.

“Unsnarky,” however, does not mean “lacking personality.” In this post, we wrote about the different aspects and possibilities of a “bloggy sensibility.” We also held a webinar exploring how a site can reconcile having a strong voice with the desire (that many stations expressed) to remain impartial in reporting, and followed that up with a post walking through how four bloggers treated the same poll.

Frequency: Few scientific measures of how posting frequency affects site traffic exist, but anecdata and conventional wisdom have long held that sites that post stories more frequently tend to receive more traffic. By and large, the most popular websites feature new posts many times a day. Given that we were aiming for significant growth for the Argo sites and working on habituating our bloggers to the pace of the Web, we emphasized frequency at the outset, encouraging the bloggers to publish quick posts at least three times a day, along with a more considered, reported banner post. (A number of the bloggers were new to the Web, having come from less-frequent publishing outlets such as newspapers, and we felt it was best to err on the side of encouraging more frequency.)

I wouldn’t recommend this pace for all bloggers on all topics, especially after our two years of experimentation. If we were starting the project over again, I’ve mentioned that I’d encourage them to play more with both the length and frequency of their posts.

Focus: A decade ago, given the relative scarcity of blogs at the time, a snappy, well-written blog without a clear focus could still stand out and garner attention. Today, that’s much rarer. The few recent exceptions, such as the successful generalist blog The Awl, tend to prove the rule. So we encouraged our stations to focus their sites to a topical scope that one person could manage.

Folks who work primarily in non-digital media such as newspapers or radio chafe against the idea of specializing. A broader topic, after all, can ostensibly pull in a larger audience. On the Web, that’s not so true. It’s why you see recent successes such as the Huffington Post and TheAtlantic.com focusing their resources into building niches.

Headlines: A poor headline alone can turn a would-be blockbuster post into a clunker. We gave the Argo bloggers plenty of guidance on writing good headlines, which you can explore here. See also: my 10-question checklist for better headlines.

Images: We put a lot of emphasis on the importance of great visuals in developing a winning site, encouraging our bloggers to “illustrate everything.” To make the bloggers better photographers and photo editors, we pointed them to five photography resources. We also ran through a detailed guide on how to ethically source good images without a large budget.

Content: I put this last because it encompasses many of the other elements, and it should be the thing that sticks most stubbornly in your mind. You can publish twenty stylish posts a day on a topic with a razor-sharp focus, with vivid headlines and compelling images and still fall flat if your site doesn’t add anything interesting or important to the conversation. And conversely, great content can overcome many obstacles to reach an audience. It’s also the hardest thing to do right. Doing it well requires forethought, talent, and most of all, a genuine understanding of your audience and its needs.

Wrap-up: Using social media

I was in Karachi last week, and saw many of these colorful buses. They certainly are social. (cc) Edge of Space / Flickr

As we prepare to retire the Argo blog, we’re producing a series of wrap-up posts that capture key aspects of the model we used. This post is part of that series. You can find all our tools and lessons here.

Over the course of the year, we shared a lot of thoughts on how the bloggers could use social media. But all the advice we dispensed could easily boil down to just four principles:

1. Find your crowd.

Where on the social Internet do the people who are passionate about your topic hang out? Are they on Twitter? Facebook? Do they have a subReddit? The first step in effectively using social media to build and serve a community on a topic is to find that crowd.

2. Listen.

You should spend most of the time you engage in social media communities listening rather than speaking. What questions are people asking about the topic? Who are the most influential voices? What type of storytelling do folks seem to respond to best? When throughout the day are people most active in responding to one another? Start answering these questions for yourself, and you’ll begin to understand how to report and write material that the crowd will value.

3. Respond.

Using social media effectively for journalism means truly being a part of the conversation. You’re not just passively sifting it for story leads and info-nuggets, and you’re not broadcasting, either. You’re thanking folks for passing on good links or leads, commenting on interesting posts, and engaging them in dialogue. Strive to be a visible and valuable part of the flow of information around your topic.

4. Lead.

Once you master the flows of attention around a topic, then you can really begin going where the conversation hasn’t yet treaded – exploring the questions people raise, posing questions they haven’t thought of yet, and generally becoming a leading voice.

For more on these topics, check out my presentation “Mastering the conversation,” and read the post “Own the system, own the story.” I’ve written more about Twitter than any other social media service, so you can also peruse the archives of posts on Twitter here.

Wrap-up: The philosophies behind Argo

Every project should be built on a philosophy. (cc) Sidereal / Flickr

As we prepare to retire the Argo blog, we’re producing a series of wrap-up posts that capture key aspects of the model we used. This post is part of that series. You can find all our tools and lessons here.

Every project should be built on a philosophy. Argo’s had several elements, all of which guided our thinking as we developed tools and techniques for the bloggers in our pilot.

1. Efficiency

At the core of all our thinking was our desire to enable one person to produce as much good material as possible with as little effort as possible. We were asking this person to do a lot, so we wanted to develop software and workflows that enabled them to do a lot with a little. This applied both to the tools we built (read Nieman Lab’s story about our link roundup tool) as well as to our approach to building tools (read “The Argo Philosophy: Capitalize, synthesize, harmonize”).

2. The “Three-Legged Stool”

At some point during our planning discussions for Argo, our project director Joel Sucherman borrowed the metaphor of the three-legged stool to describe the three elements we felt were essential to each site:

    • Strong original content. One surefire for a site to become a destination is to consistently provide distinctive, informative, enjoyable stuff. We encouraged the Argo editors to put most of their effort into reporting and writing enterprise posts on their beats. I’ve been particularly vocal about the power of the quest narrative as a wellspring for compelling reporting and storytelling, and about the importance of developing deep understanding of a topic to find the most important stories within it.
    • Community and conversation. In the age of social media, we all know that conversation is a powerful draw for people. Sparking conversation – being the subject of watercooler chatter – has long been seen as a primary goal of journalism. In developing Argo, however, we stressed the role of community and conversation not just as an outcome of the journalism, but as an aspect of it. We encouraged the bloggers to treat comments as content, to turn their sources into commenters, and to take feedback – both praise and criticism – seriously.
    • Smart curation and aggregation. As everyone becomes more and more flooded with information, people increasingly look to journalists not just as discoverers of new information, but as filters for all the stuff that’s already out there. Every good journalist is an avid consumer of information on her beat; the best digital journalists are just as ardent about sharing the best of what they find. We stressed the value of informative, well-synthesized aggregation to all the Argo bloggers throughout the project.

Each site placed a different emphasis on these three components, but they were all present.

3. Open-source

One of the requirements of the grant that funded Argo was that the software we produced would be released under an open-source license. We extended this open-source ethos to several other aspects of our approach; it guided decisions about which software to use as well as conversations about what to build. This site is another reflection of our commitment to sharing our thoughts and lessons as the project progressed. I think the team would agree that our adherence to this philosophy resulted in a stronger project with a bigger impact.

Mastering the conversation

I gave this presentation to many of the Argo bloggers early in the life of the project. It’s about a fundamental inversion in journalism: from a media broadcast driven by editors in rooms toward a media conversation driven by ordinary people, living their lives. It’s not all high theory, though. Along the way you’ll encounter several specific tactics great journalist-bloggers use to master that conversation, from Andrew Sullivan’s “Sully lede” to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ community magic.

How Argo communicates (or tries to)

Photo by Stéfan on Flickr.

Among the most difficult parts of this project for me has been figuring out how to conduct or facilitate meaningful conversations among people at 12 stations, spanning three time zones. Here’s a MediaShift postthat walks through some of our efforts to do this:

Project Argo is an ambitious undertaking. It involves networking NPR with 12 member stations spanning three time zones with a different mix of bloggers and editors at each station. The stations cover a variety of regionally focused, nationally resonant topics that range from climate change to local music.

Communicating effectively within these parameters has required creativity and experimentation. And we’re still learning.

I’ll break down our various approaches — what we’ve tried, what’s working, and what we’re still working on — using the three tiers of communication: One-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many.

As they say, “Nothing will work, but everything might.” Read the rest at MediaShift.

The Argo approach to software development

This post for MediaShift considers the development philosophies behind Argo:

Part of the mission behind NPR’s Project Argo is to construct a software platform that can maximize the output of a one- or two-person team of reporters. Project Argo is a collaboration between NPR and member stations to strengthen public media’s role in local journalism. As the project has progressed, we’ve realized that we evolved a set of design and development principles that have guided our work throughout.

This is how software invention looks in the era of the framework: Ten years ago, armed with an unstoppable designer/developer combo like Argo’s tech architect, Marc Lavallee, and our designer/front-end developer, Wes Lindamood, we would have built a system from scratch. But almost from the moment our planning for Argo began in early 2010, two things were clear to us: (1) Software such as WordPress, Drupal and Django gave us a great start toward what we wanted to accomplish. (2) No one piece of software would meet all the needs of our bloggers. The bloggers were certain to use tools like Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and Delicious in addition to whatever we used to publish their site. So we set about building a content management ecosystem, integrating a variety of systems into a coherent whole.

Read the rest at MediaShift.

A list to help you write better questions

A post I wrote for Poynter Online:

If you need any proof about the power of headlines, consider this: what do you imagine drew the majority of people to this post? Chances are that you and others made the decision to click here after coming across the headline. So I’m not going to dwell on why headlines are important.

Instead, I want to give you a checklist, a quick heuristic diagnostic you can refer to anytime you want to make your headlines sing. Print out the list if you’d like, put it by your desk. But I recommend putting every headline you write through this gamut of questions until they become second nature.

Read the full post at Poynter.org.

The lamest blog post of all time …

Sad lego. From Kalexanderson on Flickr.

If you could take a vote to determine the worst types of blog posts, the listicle-without-content would probably show up pretty high. (Yes, numbering is narrative, but if you’re tapping into our reflex to look at anything that’s been put into a numbered list, you’d better deliver X quantity of terrific insights.)

But I’d venture to say that the very worst genre of post is the apology post – a.k.a. any post that begins “Sorry I haven’t written in so long.” The apology presupposes that your community of readers have been waiting with bated breath for your next contribution to the world, checking back every few days in anticipation before clicking away, despondent.

That state of affairs is highly unlikely to be accurate. Typically, the biggest loser when you don’t post is you.

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