Is Koto-zukuri the future of news?

John Cameron Swayze on the Camel News Caravan. Photo from Wikipedia.

John Cameron Swayze on the Camel News Caravan. Photo from Wikipedia.

In the newspaper business, newsroom types would often fret about something called “advertorial” — ads that were designed to look like news content. The company always made sure they were prominently labelled as advertising content (the labels were never big enough to satisfy news types) and that the text was in a font that the newsroom didn’t use (as if readers really realized the difference.)

Ah, for such simple days. Now, we have this: Koto-zukuri. That’s a Japanese phrase that describes how corporations tell their stories. And in the process,we’ve wound up with this: Nissan recently signed a contract with the Reuters news agency to use some of its content on the car maker’s site. So does that make Nissan a news site now?

In some ways, we’re coming full circle — back to the days of the Camel News Caravan on NBC. Except nowadays, why would Camel even need NBC; it could go start its own news operation if wanted?

It’s easy for journalists to bemoan this sort of thing, but as a consumer, I find myself enjoying the options and taking advantage of them. We see lots of sports leagues starting their own networks and, essentially, their own news operations. I get most of my baseball news from the Major League Baseball website, which posts its own stories (for which there’s always a disclaimer that the league didn’t sign off on the content.) Granted, most of those are straightforward game accounts, not more complex reporting and investigation. But in many ways, it’s better coverage than I can find elsewhere. Instead of one game account from each game, there are always two — one focusing on each team. Try finding that elsewhere.

I suspect we’re likely to see more non-news sites incorporating news, thereby evolving a whole new species of quasi-news sites.

What are some other examples here?

Why Patch failed in so many places

Soviet partisans operating under Sydir Kovpak in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.  Wikipedia.

Soviet partisans operating under Sydir Kovpak in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.  My experience in community journalism has borne out a military truism: An indigenous force almost always trumps an outside invader. (Photo from Wikipedia)

So why did so many of the AOL hyperlocal sites fail? Of all the reasons being expounded, here are two I’ll add to the list based on our experiences here in Roanoke.

* Not all communities are communities. Some are simply places. For a hyperlocal site to work, it needs to be built around a jurisdiction that already has a strong sense of community. When we were figuring out what our community news zones would be in Roanoke, we had a checklist we used to try to measure sense of community. Does the place hold parades? Festivals? How big is high school football on Friday night?

Here’s a story I like to tell that illustrates the sense of community. In 2010, the Cave Spring High School and James River High School boys basketball both won state championships (in separate size classifications) on the same day. That evening, the Cave Spring team returned to Southwest Roanoke County to a modest reception at the school attended by friends and family.

Out in Botetourt County, though, the James River team returned to a full-bore parade through downtown Buchanan. A police car lead the procession. The team rode in on a firetruck, circled around downtown and then was deposited in front of the firehouse where a crowd of hundreds was gathered. Every politician who wanted to speak was given a chance, and believe me, they all did. Then all the players were expected to speak, as well! Finally, when all the speech-making was done, the team and crowd retired to a reception inside.

And this wasn’t just something done for a boys team; when the team’s volleyball team won the state championship a year later, the same drill was repeated. The point being — Botetourt County has a much stronger sense of community than Southwest Roanoke County — so it shouldn’t surprise us that our online traffic with The Botetourt View is significantly higher than with our SWoCo site in Southwest Roanoke County, even though Botetourt is less populous and rural and Southwest Roanoke County a populous, affluent suburb.

So I have to wonder if Patch simply picked some of the wrong places.

* Secondly, our experience has been that to do true hyperlocal journalism, or community journalism, you need an indigenous workforce. In war, a guerrilla army of natives always has an advantage over an invading conventional force. It’s the same way in journalism. Don’t hire some J-school grad from who-knows-where and send them into a community and expect them to be a community journalist; they’’ll get beat by the competition if that competition consists of true locals — even if those locals don’t have formal journalism credentials. Those locals know the place from the inside out; they will have street credibility you can’t buy. It’s better to find some people who are wired into the community and teach them the journalism skills they need than to take a fully-credentialed journalist and send them into a strange place and expect them to beat the locals. That’s not a message journalists and j-schools want to hear, but it’s the business reality.

A new species of hyperlocal or community journalism

The cover of The Botetourt View, our community news publication for Botetourt County, Virginia. We almost always feature kids on the cover.

The cover of The Botetourt View, our community news publication for Botetourt County, Virginia. We almost always feature kids on the cover.

I am convinced that here in Roanoke we have evolved a new community journalism. Our community news products may superficially look like colorful version of a traditional community news tab — but they are really web-first products that rely on a robust social media presence.

Recently a colleague went to a conference where digital products was on the agenda. I looked at the description and told him I should be the one presenting. In jest, I gave him this promotion, although as I look at it, it’s dead-on. I’m really surprised other media companies haven’t tried to copy what we’re doing.

• Do you face competition from suburban weeklies?
We can show how to compete against them and beat them at their own game.

• Is your existing community news product underperforming?

We can show you how we took a money-losing product and turned it into not one but three different money-makers.

• Do your advertisers want to reach women with children in the home?
We can show you how we’ve created an audience that isn’t otherwise engaged with a daily newspaper.

• Do you want more coverage of high school sports but can’t afford it?

We can show you how we’ve created a guerrilla army of people who now send us hundreds of photos each week for dirt cheap, or sometimes even free.

• Do you want to know how you can use online to make people want your print edition even more, instead of less?
We can show you how we now generate more than 1 million pageviews per year, and at the same time increased the demand for print.

So Salem, our community news publication for Salem, Virginia. Notice the sticky note -- advertisers love these.

So Salem, our community news publication for Salem, Virginia. Notice the sticky note — advertisers love these.

The cover of SWoCo, our community news publication for Southwest Roanoke County, Virginia. Yes, we cover rec sports!

The cover of SWoCo, our community news publication for Southwest Roanoke County, Virginia. Yes, we cover rec sports!

Every newsroom needs a capitalist

I believe in the free press and free markets. But the Commie Mints are delicious.

I believe in the free press and free markets. But the Commie Mints are delicious.

When Carole Tarrant was named editor of The Roanoke Times in 2007, she created what seemed to some an unusual org chart. There was a traditional managing editor position. But then there was another position no one had ever heard of, because it had never existed before — Senior Editor for New Channels.

And that was me. (Previously, I had been assistant managing editor for content and planning, basically the AME in charge of news.)

This new position was essentially a senior editor (reporting directly to the editor) in charge of new ventures. Or, put another way, I was the newsroom’s designated capitalist (although Carole was a pretty shrewd capitalist, of her own.)

It was Carole’s belief that for newspapers to survive, they needed to find new revenue streams — and better for the newsroom to be in charge of that than anyone else. She also didn’t think that mission fit easily or naturally within the rest of the newsroom structure. Hence, my position.

In the years since, we created a new species of hyperlocal coverage — which, I should point out — has also been profitable. I’ve also been the newsroom’s designated point person for dealing with advertising on various other projects, some one-off ventures, some more permanent, some which never got off the ground because we didn’t deem them profitable.

Carole sometimes joked that she’d turn a Marxist into a capitalist. I was never a communist, of course, but it was a good in-joke on newsroom culture. When she came back from a trip to New York, she brought me this package of “Commie Mints” as a kind of tribute to my work.

Keynote speaker at Media Day at Bluefield College

Dwayne Yancey speaking at Media Day at Bluefield College. Photo courtesy of Bluefield College.

Dwayne Yancey speaking at Media Day at Bluefield College. Photo courtesy of Bluefield College.

I was the keynote speaker at Media Day at Bluefield College in Bluefield, Virginia on April 23, 2013. I told the students, faculty and media members that now is actually a great time to get into the news business, because all the old rules are changing, the new rules have yet to be written and those who join now will be able to help write them.

Here’s what Bluefield College sent out about the event:

Bluefield College paid tribute to the work of local journalists during its 14th Annual Media Appreciation Day, April 23, which featured remarks from Roanoke Timessenior editor Dwayne Yancey and the presentation of a $1,000 award for excellence in media.
Since 2000, Bluefield College has hosted the area’s media professionals on campus for a luncheon, keynote address and media-student roundtable, all part of Media Appreciation Day. The event, according to BC officials, is designed to “recognize area media representatives for their efforts in promoting Bluefield College and serving the community.”
“We want you to know how important you are not only to Bluefield College, but the community at-large,” BC public relations director Chris Shoemaker told the 30 journalists in attendance. “We’re grateful for the ways in which you share our story – our news, our activities, our accomplishments, and our hopes and dreams – but even more appreciate of the greater role you play in informing and educating the public at-large.”
As part of the recognition for the day, the college presented two Shott Excellence-in-Media Awards, made possible by the generosity of media entrepreneur Michael Shott and his North Point Foundation in an effort to help preserve the legacy of the Shott family who pioneered the presence of news media in the Bluefield area.
The Shott Excellence-in-Media Journalist Award, determined by votes from the local media and featuring a $1,000 cash prize for the journalist who demonstrates excellence in his or her vocation and who makes a significant contribution to the local community, went to longtime Bluefield Daily Telegraph senior editor Bill Archer, who outshined 20 other nominees from 10 different organizations.
“He is a journalist who cares deeply about the communities and the people of this region,” said Shoemaker, who helped James ‘Smokey’ Shott present the Excellence Awards. “No story is too big or too small. He will cover a small-town festival with the same zeal and enthusiasm as major, breaking news events.”
Archer, winner of a variety of awards for excellence in writing from the West Virginia Press Association, began his journalism career in 1986 with the local weekly newspaper The Twin State News Observer. He became executive editor of that publication before joining the staff of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph in 1992, where he has remained for the past two decades. A pillar in the community with more than 30 years of service and civic engagement, Archer is also a historian and author, having published nine pictorial histories of communities in theregion.
“He is perhaps the best-known journalist in this area,” Shoemaker read from the nominations for Archer, “thanks to his dedication to the idea that it is his job to inform, entertain and inspire his readers, all while being a vital part of the region he serves.”
The Shott Excellence-in-Media Student Award, featuring a $1,000 scholarship and designed to recognize a current BC communications student who demonstrates excellence in the classroom and in his or her extracurricular communications activities, went to senior Angi Highlander of Hampton, Virginia. Lauded by her professors who nominated her for the award for her leadership, work ethic, versatility, communication skills and service to others, Highlander was described as a “great writer,” “very good graphic designer” and “exceptional oral communicator.”
“She brings to every class she takes an unabridged commitment to excel,” Shoemaker read from the nominations for Highlander. “She projects a delight in learning and graciously shares this enthusiasm with everyone around her.”
Outside of the classroom, Highlander completed two public relations internships, captained the women’s volleyball team, served as a resident assistant, sang with two BC select student voice ensembles, taught abstinence to high school students, and functioned as a personal aid for a handicapped student at BC.
“She is genuinely devoted to serving others,” said Shoemaker, “and poised to use all of her skills to make important and lasting contributions in the world.”
BC’s Media Day program also included a keynote speech from Yancey, a 33-year veteran of the industry, who now serves as senior editor for new channels at the Roanoke Times. Involved with a variety of new ventures to deliver news across multiple platforms, Yancey spoke to his colleagues about a changing media industry, revolutionized by technology and social media.
“We are in an era where all the old rules are giving way, so my advice is to be prepared for the maximum amount of change,” Yancey told his fellow journalists. “Smartphones, web service and around-the-clock breaking news cycles have created audiences accustomed to getting live news any time and anywhere they want it. It’s one of those great transition periods in history where everything seems to change so quickly — be it the Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance, or the end of the dinosaurs. Exciting to look back on, but sometimes very confusing when you’re in the middle of it.”
Despite the industry’s rapid change, declining revenue and increasingly competitive environment, Yancey told BC’s aspiring journalists to be encouraged about their prospects for success.
“It’s a great time to get into the industry,” said Yancey, who also supervises five niche publications for the Roanoke Times, “because everything is changing. Rules are being rewritten, and you, unlike those in the industry today, will not be encumbered by the idea that ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’”
BC’s Media Appreciation Day also included a roundtable discussion between members of the media and BC communication students. During the roundtable, the students asked for advice about “getting (their) foot in the door” and “reporting controversial news,” among other topics. The journalists also discussed how best to prepare for a career in journalism, the advantages of diversifying your skills, the competitiveness of the industry, and audiences’ demand for sensational news, among other issues.

Video: What I learned from our daily newsroom webcast

This was the logo for our daily webcast, the TimesCast.

This was the logo for our daily webcast, the TimesCast.

When I came up in the business, print and broadcast were two very different things, and naturally we print people looked down on the broadcast folks as superficial pretty boys.

So when Mike Riley, the editor of The Roanoke Times, proposed that we get into video back in the mid-aughts — and do so by launching a daily news webcast — you can imagine the reaction in some quarters of the newsroom.

But we did it.

From 2005 to 2007, we produced a daily webcast we called the TimesCast — this was look before the New York Times appropriated that same name for its own. (We offered this advice to the Times here.)

Photographer-turned-multimedia journalist Seth Gitner was the technical genius (he’s now a professor at Syracuse University, by the way.) I wrote the scripts and used my theatrical background to recruit and direct an in-house crew of presenters.

We weren’t the first newspaper in the country to do a webcast but we were certainly one of the first. When the TimesCast started, it was the only video we were doing and got decent traffic. Later, when we started other video projects, the numbers declined. Keep in mind, the TimesCast was launched as an experiment; it was never a business with a business model behind it. By definition, an experiment is a success if you learn something from it. By that measure, the TimesCast was a great success for it.

Here are several things we learned, usually the hard way:

* Video is a skill-set that doesn’t always come naturally to a newspaper. Because it involves visuals, photographers seem to take to it more naturally — although some reporters turned out to be very adept at the story-telling aspect of it.

* Video is also very time-consuming, and ultimately proved to be an expenditure of time we couldn’t justify on a daily basis. The problem with a daily webcast is that it expired with that day’s news — (although you can still find many of our old webcasts online.) Breaking news video always produced more traffic, and other video projects usually had longer shelf lives that produced more “long tail” traffic over time. We produced a sports spin-off — a weekly Sports TimesCast featuring our beat writers for Virginia Tech and UVA football. That did better, because of its longer shelf life and I always thought that had more economic potential. Eventually, we shut that down, too.

* Marketing is key. I don’t think viewers expect a newspaper site to have video. That may be changing, but if you really want to promote video, well, you have to promote it. I still think our sports webcast could have been a business success if we had invested in promotion. On the flip side, that would have also required more discipline on the content side — keeping the length tight, for instance, and the conversation more newsworthy.

We did win an award for the TimesCast; it took third place in the online category in the Virginia Press Association’s convergence category in 2006.

Here’s our April 4, 2006 edition:

Here’s some advice we gave the New York Times on the matter.

Search “Roanoke Times TimesCast” on YouTube and you can find some others.