Crosstown Digital Communications

News Posts

Retaining a Sense of Awe in Research News

One of the themes of my presentation “Storytelling as a Framework for Higher Ed Web Marketing” is that we in higher ed are in the business of celebrating ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The feats of the NASA scientists who orchestrated last night’s landing of the Mars Curiosity rover certainly fall under that category.

What’s remarkable – beyond, you know, lowering a rover to the Martian surface with a skycrane – is how NASA told that story. They did it with amazing content that informed, entertained and engaged a rapt online audience (even at 1:30AM EDT on a Sunday night) with not just personality but also humor and drama. (Tim Nekritz wrote a great blog post this morning talking about how they expertly leveraged shared experiences and the real-time web.)

But most importantly, their content had a heaping dose of awe. Through videos, tweets, live-streams and blog posts, NASA conveyed unabashed acknowledgment of the fact that the events transpiring were absolutely amazing, reflecting a very human longing for knowledge and thrill of discovery. And that, to me, was one of its strengths.

Why So Serious?

I couldn’t help but think about higher education (as I often do) and how we talk about research. We want to own our research accomplishments. We want to be noticed because of them, in order to attract funding, faculty, students and partnerships. In doing so, we often think organizationally, clinging to journal citations, jargon and internal priorities in shaping how we communicate about research. Research, after all, is a very serious thing.

But as I read about Curiosity – a highly important scientific undertaking with not just societal impact but also very real, hard science behind it – I wondered why we in higher ed can’t talk about research with the same level of personality, (appropriate) humor and downright inspirational quality that NASA employs. Research is serious business, sure, but it’s also important and awe-inspiring and creative and, sometimes, beautiful. We could be covering a technology that will help save lives on the battlefield, or a treatment for a rare disease that gives thousands of sufferers hope, or environmental analysis that will renew a community. These are amazing things that matter, and our faculty and students are diligently pursuing these solutions every day in the lab across the quad.

Sure, we need to write for the grant funding agencies, and sure, we need to write for the tech transfer partnerships. But if we’re trying to convey to the world how we are relevant, essential and innovative, can’t we find a way to retain that sense of awe in our communications? To capture some of the secret sauce that kept people up way past their bedtimes last night?

Telling the Story of our Research

Employing some of the basic elements of storytelling can help enliven our research coverage while embracing that sense of awe. Just look at the drama pervading the above “Seven Minutes of Terror” video (while still conveying the science and showing off some of the engineers behind the mission) and the quirky character of the (absolutely awesome) @MarsCuriosity Twitter account. Even NASA’s tagline for the mission, “Dare Mighty Things” (borrowed from a quote by Theodore Roosevelt) brands the initiative with historical significance, making it feel like just the latest chapter in an ongoing narrative of American ambition and accomplishment.

As if we needed more drama, NASA is facing major budget cuts. Their need to demonstrate relevance and value is urgent. And what is one of their key strategies for doing so? Telling (and owning) their story, of course, through smart and savvy use of various content tools at their disposal, while making it something in which we could all participate and be invested. For a cost of $7 per American, they gave us a hell of a show – and the curtain has really just gone up.

True, we may not be landing rovers on Mars at our university. (Or maybe we arehat tip to Kyle Judah.) But we’re doing things that matter. Can we find a way to inspire and engage in our research coverage the way that NASA has done?

Do you have an example of higher ed research coverage that not only informs and educates but also inspires and engages? Please share in the comments!

A Newsroom Without the Drama

New York Times newsroom, ca. 1942

Lately, everyone is talking about Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama, “The Newsroom,” where an anchor goes rogue and dares to, you know, report the news. I don’t get HBO, but I did have a chance to watch the pilot in my hotel room recently, and I know that if I did have HBO, I’d be hopelessly hooked. I wouldn’t even be writing this—I’d be off reading episode recaps and character analyses. (Good thing I don’t have HBO, huh? Sigh.)

See, when people ask me about my professional history, I have to be honest and admit that, as much as I love higher ed, my biggest career thrill was working in the newsroom of The Boston Globe. It’s a thrill I don’t think higher ed could ever top, if only because breaking news is an adrenaline rush like no other. (I wrote about it a little bit in this LINK article about being an ex-journalist in higher ed.)

My career has taken a few twists and turns since my days at the Globe, but I still find myself in the business of dealing with newsrooms—of a slightly different sort, of course. Organizations, in higher ed and beyond, are realizing that they can be their own publishers. They can own their stories and communicate them to the proper audiences in the most appropriate manner. Hooray! This is great!

But it’s also work. It takes a whole heck of a lot of process and protocol to make those stories shine, and a lot of that is work that the audience never sees or even knows about. The best newsrooms, in fact, are silent, invisible machines that churn our all sorts of relevant, targeted content without revealing their inner workings.

I learned a lot about this at the Globe, but also during my time at Tufts, where
I had a hand in multiple news efforts—including the university’s new integrated news site, Tufts Now, which was more of an exercise in editorial problem solving than it was a mere website.

A lot of people ask me about Tufts Now and say many nice things about it. “Great online newsroom!” And while I love hearing people say this, because I’m very proud of what our team accomplished, it compels me to clarify something:

A newsroom is not a website.

A newsroom does not end in .edu or begin with www.

Newsrooms are silent, invisible machines. Your news website is what that machine, all gears spinning and pistons churning, churns out.

A news website like Tufts Now may look great, but it’s like an iceberg—the true heft of it, warts and all, is hidden below the surface. Buried deep in that icy mass are the real successes—and the real challenges—that no one ever sees.

If you look beneath the surface and chip at the ice a little bit, what you’ll find is that a newsroom consists of calendars, editorial workflows, messaging priorities, incredible stories (of course), epic whiteboard sessions, CMS customization, usability testing and surveys, social media, community management—and much, much more.

But above all, a newsroom is people. You can have the best stories at your fingertips, and the most advanced equipment and technology at your beck and call, but if your people aren’t invested in either the value of telling those stories or the best process by which to tell them, all you’ve got is a machine that makes a lot of noise but creates nothing of lasting value.

I am extremely fortunate to have two opportunities this fall to talk about how to create these silent, effective story machines. One will be on Sept. 27 as a speaker at the inaugural Content Strategy Summit, an online event organized by Environments for Humans. Alongside incredible speakers such as Relly Annett-Baker, Margot Bloomstein, Karen McGrane, Melissa Rach, Ginny Redish, I am going to talk about content strategy for online news organizations. There are many unique content strategy considerations for organizations that find themselves publishing news content, and I hope to share some insight on a few of them. (Psst! You can get 20 percent off of this incredible lineup by using the code 20GEORGY when you register.)

In addition, I am presenting a post-conference workshop at HighEdWeb on creating an effective online newsroom. That’s going to be a fun, hands-on opportunity to learn what makes a higher ed newsroom work, diving into many of the same ideas I’ll share in my CS Summit presentation and that I’ve shared with many audiences and clients over the past year-plus. I’m really looking forward to that. (Psst! You can still sign up! And early bird registration for HighEdWeb is available until July 31.)

When I first spoke about this topic at HighEdWeb last year, my talk had a “Newsies” theme, and I feel that it’s appropriate to invoke the film (not the musical) again here. Because, like Davey says, “Headlines don’t sell papes. Newsies sell papes.” The stories don’t tell themselves. It’s up to us to tell them. So let’s figure out how best to get that done.

Photo by vitike/Flickr Creative Commons

Audio: The Forgotten Flavor of Multimedia we talk about multimedia content, nine times out of ten we’re referring to video. But today, I want to talk about an oft overlooked multimedia content type: audio.

At first glance (or listen?) you wouldn’t think audio is too sexy: nothing to look at, nothing in motion. Right? But well-produced audio can be quite a compelling content type. A story heard in the teller’s own voice, combined with the context of ambient noise and even tasteful background music, is a powerful experience.

It’s worth noting what most video experts say: shaky or grainy video will be forgiven if the audio is clear, so make sure you get it right. Even video is all about audio.

Writing for Nieman Storyboard, Julia Barton describes the impact of audio content thusly:

Writers and video producers live in dread of the wandering eye. Audio producers live for it. That’s what makes us, in our secret hearts, troublemakers. We want you to lose sight of everything in front of your face: to stare through that dish in your hand, ignore your children, drop into a glazed-over trance of our making. Maybe don’t drive off the road, but please do miss a few exits or get stuck in your car. Good audio should be dangerous that way.

Your story should always guide your content decisions. Which medium best serves your story? How is your story best spread and delivered? It’s worth considering audio as an answer to those questions.

Loud and Clear

Audio is alive and well as a standalone medium, as recent findings by Edison Research indicate:

  • According to the 2011 “Infinite Dial” study [PDF] by Edison Research, the weekly online radio audience (including AM/FM and Internet-only streams) has doubled every five years since 2001, now reaching approximately 57 million teens and adults each week thanks to the prevalence of broadband internet and mobile devices.
  • Forty-one percent of respondents said they like or love audio podcasts (compared to 36 percent for video podcasts), and 53 percent like or love online radio.
  • In Edison’s fifth annual “The Current State of Podcasting” report, published in fall 2010, they reported that 12 percent of respondents had listened to an audio podcast within the past month, with 70 million Americans ever having listened to a podcast (31 percent of whom are between the ages of 12 and 24).

Podcasts are not as hot as they were a few years ago when Karine Joly wrote about the state of higher ed podcasting in the U.S., but there are still 150,000 available in the iTunes store, including a bunch of higher ed podcasts.

Another indicator that audio is a highly viable content type is the success of Soundcloud, the “social sound platform” that has quietly racked up 10 million users and recently landed $50 million in new venture capital funding.

The Soundcloud API has also found its way into Facebook, Storify and thousands of other applications. This includes the recently released Storywheel, a hipster version of the audio slideshow app Soundslides that allows users to create narrated slideshows with their Instagram photos.

The Case for Audio Content

The creation of high quality audio content is within our reach.

  • A white paper by audio content platform Cinchcast observes that audio content is exceptionally easy to produce nowadays, whether it’s with your laptop or iPhone.
  • With Audacity—a free, open-source audio editing tool—we can easily produce great sounding clips.
  • Resources like highlight exemplary audio content from public radio and collects valuable tools and advice for audio storytelling.
  • We already have the opportunities to capture audio content all around us: interviews, events, performances, even chance conversations.

One of the most powerful examples of audio content is NPR’s StoryCorps oral history project, which gives ordinary people the opportunity to record their life stories for both broadcast on NPR and archival in the Library of Congress. Middlebury has a StoryCorps-type project called Murmur, launched in fall 2010, where they collect audio stories from members of the college community at different locations around campus.

“We got all kinds of ‘Middlebury people’ to tell us their personal stories about specific times and places on campus—students, alums, faculty and staff,” says Middlebury senior editor and communications specialist Blair Kloman. “It was almost contagious the way people would hear a story and then get in touch and say ‘I remember a time when…’”

They bridge the campus environment with the audio content by placing orange icons around campus prompting people to call a phone number and type in a three digit code that corresponds to the campus location—in the same vein as the Toronto project that inspired Murmur. (This begs the question of why they haven’t plotted the audio on a campus map, in the vein of this “narrative archeology” project.)

“It started as an alternative to the campus tour for prospective students and has now blossomed into a way for everyone to experience another perspective of the campus,” says Kloman. “Alums love it at reunions, parents love it at family weekends.”

When I was at Tufts, we did a lot of work with SoundSlides, an affordable and easy to use program that allows you to create rich media slideshows with photos and audio files. One of the projects of which I am the proudest is one of my last, a recap of beloved president Larry Bacow’s final Commencement ceremony.

We also used Soundcloud to embed audio files of an alumni chorus singing the school song and the fight song on our History page. An even better example of Soundcloud in action in higher ed comes from Marywood University. They embed high-quality audio clips of interviews into news stories, enhancing the plain text content with the perspective of a story subject in his or her own voice — and perhaps also giving members of the media a sense of how that faculty member would sound on TV or radio.

How are you using audio content to tell your stories?

Photo by joshsemans / Flickr Creative Commons

Get Caught Up in Google Currents

A couple weeks ago, Google joined the mobile content app party by introducing Google Currents, an app for Android and iOS devices that presents publisher content in a mobile-friendly, magazine-style format. Currents comes on the heels of popular apps like Flipboard, which offer the user (especially the tablet user) a slick content browsing experience.

As Matthew Clobridge points out in writing for edSocialMedia, the Currents self-service Producer allows any publisher to have their content show up alongside other mainstream publications.

What this means for schools is that when our community members are reading their morning news via Currents, our up-to-date school news is included without the need for the user to go to another app.

I set up an edition for Crosstown, featuring this blog as well as the In Transit Tumblr site, and it only took about 10 minutes. 10,000 Words offers a walkthrough of how to create your own customized Google Currents edition using the Currents producer. You can include news content, YouTube videos, Flickr/Picasa photo feeds and other social content feeds (defaulting to Google+, of course — there’s also built in Google+ integration for sharing content with select circles). The Chronicle’s ProfHacker recently reviewed the app.

According to Pew data cited by 10,000 Words, 53 percent of tablet owners are daily news consumers. They are also inclined to discover new news sources and spend more time engaging with news content. However, as the same research indicates, tablet ownership does not preclude news consumption via the browser. In fact, the browser still rules the day.

But for a small investment of time up front, you could stake a claim in an emerging news landscape. First, consider the value. Think about your audience. According to your own research and that from organizations such as Pew, are they likely to own and use tablets or mobile apps for browsing news? Then, think about your content. Does the substance and publishing schedule make sense for this format? What array of feeds and sources would you build in, and why?

If you think it could be beneficial given both of those considerations, set up Currents, promote it, plug in your Google Analytics tracking code and see what happens.