What can local citizen journalists contribute to the coverage of a major natural disaster? What can we do well that others cannot? What are our limitations? As a journalism professor, I often explore those issues, but now I have had a chance to test my theories.
As co-publisher of Lansing Online News, I had a platform that others didn’t when a dangerous ice storm that began the Saturday before Christmas 2013 left hundreds of thousands of people freezing in the dark without power across a large swath of the United States and Canada. Here in mid-Michigan nine days later (Dec.30), thousands of people are still without power, and the overnight temperature last night dipped into single digits.
The local Gannett newspaper, the Lansing State Journal, is reporting that there are still 3,200 customers of the municipal power company BWL (Board of Water and Light) without power. (Only 65 Lansing-area residences served by the much-larger private utility, Consumers Energy, were still without power at the same time.)
A tick-tock of our coverage
Sunday morning after the storm, my first post on Lansing Online News offered a few pictures of the ice taken on my back porch. The weight of the ice on the trees made it treacherous to venture further, but I was only beginning to see how long the problems would persist. At that point, I thought that might be the extent of my contribution. After all, I had Christmas dinner to make, so I hoped the ice would melt soon.
A quick look at Facebook. however, suggested that the situation was more dire than I had realized. The tens of thousands of people in our state who awoke to find themselves without power but who had smartphones immediately turned to social media for information and to share stories. Friends without power or a generator wanted answers about when the power would come back on, especially if they had small children worried the ice might make it hard for Santa to find them. A couple who had launched a new retail store this summer saw their much-needed Christmas sales halted.
Most people were thinking the outage might last a couple days, but these would be a critical few days. I was home between semesters at Michigan State University, enjoying the opportunity to work on my book uninterrupted. As Sunday unfolded, I sensed that LON might be a useful vehicle for sharing information. Bill Castanier and I had launched the site five years earlier, expecting it to become an edgy alternative publication. It had instead evolved into a quirky mix of our preoccupations (books, politics, poetry) and those of our much-valued contributors. Our goal was never to replicate local news coverage, but perhaps we could fill in a few gaps.
The next two posts on Sunday illustrate our niche. To show the beauty and not just the danger, we posted some stunning Instagram images from Melissa Osborn, a young woman we know mostly from her work with the East Lansing Peace Education Center. Then I gathered information for a Resource Listing that I kept updating and adding to each day. Emergency numbers. A list of warming centers. How to keep the pipes from freezing. The carbon monoxide threat from generators.
Respected reporter friend Todd Heywood, known for his years of investigative work with Michigan Messenger, IMed to offer to use his new Christmas camera to capture videos with the experts at Preuss Pets on how to care for exotic pets as houses without power began growing cooler. Todd rendered and uploaded the videos so that we were able to begin posting them by Monday morning. (We would have been faster but he had play practice Sunday night.)
As it became clear that our community was becoming two societies – one with power, one without – I saw that LON needed to raise questions about whether enough was being done to deal with the crisis. On Tuesday, Christmas Eve, I asked “Should Governor Snyder activate the National Guard?” As a former victim of domestic violence, I worried about the families where violence against adults, children and pets is a threat when stress levels rise.
That’s the kind of issue that the mainstream press does not always think about, so I posted “Cabin fever increases the danger of domestic violence,” offering short-term and long-term strategies. The story touched a nerve. Not only did a friend reveal her past experience with domestic violence, but a woman submitted a comment about how she was trapped at home with an abuser. (As the gatekeeper, I did not post her comment, because I feared it could put her at greater risk, but I emailed her with telephone numbers to access help.)
Asking the tough questions
By Christmas Eve, it was obvious that state and local leaders were woefully unprepared to deal with the disaster, and their communication was almost non-existent. (Notable exceptions include Lansing City Council President Carol Wood and East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett.)Citizen journalists are less constrained, so I began hammering the theme that they needed to do more – Snyder and Bernero to us – let them eat Christmas cake? In addition to listing their sins, visitors also received a great recipe for Gluten-Free Golden Harvest Cake.
On Christmas day, the only post was my brief musing on how the issue of access to electricity cleaved us into the have’s and have-not’s, featuring my cheesy screen shot of the home page of our state’s online media powerhouse MLive.com. My background in community policing persuaded me to write “Applying the lessons of community policing to icepocalypse.”
The next day, LON contributor Therese Dawe, a beautiful writer whose Stone Soup offerings usually opine on issues of death and dying, posted her lovely “Ode to a Frozen Wonderland,” featuring a photo of a frozen leaf taken by one of her friends. (Many contributors post on their own, so I often awake to find a notification of a new posting I had not known was coming.)
Since then, our focus has been on holding officials accountable. Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero held a news conference on the Saturday after Christmas that also featured J. Peter Lark, the general manager of BWL, East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett, local police chiefs and representatives of the Red Cross and Advent House. As the video below shows, Bernero is hot-headed, which does not always serve him well. This is one of 14 YouTubes I produced and posted on the site, so that frustrated residents who couldn’t be there could see the full statements of the participants.
Todd joined me at the news conference, which was also open to residents. Here he challenges the GM of BWL about their emergency plan,which the company has yet to provide though they promised to do so (roll tape).
I was able to press Mayor Virg Bernero and East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett on their decision not to bring in the National Guard.
While the local news offered short soundbites, we could let people see this woman with three children who works at a local convenience store try to explain to the officials that she is at wit’s end because she had to throw out all the food in her refrigerator, has no money to buy more and temperatures are threatening to dip into the single digits. We also worry less about maintaining access because we never know when we might be kicked out.
What have we learned so far about the role citizen journalism plays? This experience reaffirmed how liberating it can be not to worry about commercial considerations. Because LON has no income stream (no ads, no fund-raisers), we can publish what we want without fear of losing advertisers or subscribers. If you think we were too tough on the local officials at the press conference, we don’t care if you never click again.
This also means that there are stories I would love to do but my day job intrudes – I need to finish preparing for my classes that start next week.
Good news as well is that we do not have to worry if many of our conversations occur on Facebook and Twitter and not on our site. Since clicks do not generate income for us, when I am pressed for time, I can post updates through social media without the pressure to drive traffic back to our site. Uber-responsive East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett and I conducted a back-and-forth on the Porch Light plan whose logic I questioned. A core group of committed community folk now “share” the Facebook updates so that FB becomes the go-to place for the latest.
Our ability to fill gaps has also prompted a local TV station to discuss how we can work together to FOIA the emergency plans the municipal power company promised. Todd’s questions at the news conference were so pointed that the station also wants him to freelance for them on this story.
Another advantage is that we focus on getting people the information they need rather than on producing everything ourselves. I have worked as a victim advocate for years, so I can quick to use resources on domestic violence created by others rather than to wait to interview locals who may be struggling with power issues themselves.
We used Scribd.com and other techniques to provide resources from places like Extension on issues like frozen pipes. One reason the local media were slower to post advice may well stem from the fact they waited to interview a local plumber. How ironic that the citizen media publication prioritizes speed over localization.
The storm also brought us new visitors. Our traffic for the week rose by more than 4,000 page views compared to Thanksgiving week in November, despite the fact as much as 40 percent of our audience was without power. However, in our case, this does not mean greater revenue but it could mean more costs.
The downside of our freedom from economics is that we have no money to pay people when we really need help. Despite a low-grade temperature, I spent 14 hours editing, rendering and uploading the videos from the presser. Even a student intern would be a blessing.
The good news, however, is that more people are now offering to help. A former student who is now in law school will help me carry my video gear to the special meeting of the Lansing City Council tonight. Indeed the momentum generated by our coverage has prompted us to recruit more contributors. Our core LON brain trust will meet this week to plan a meeting to enlist some newbies.
Our goal has always been to let the publication follow whatever path makes sense for the community. I remain proud of what we could do and frustrated that we cannot do more.
Whether it is a plus or minus, even our ice storm aftermath coverage reflects our individual talents and quirks. (A recipe for cake? Domestic violence? A poem?)
We have learned that we cannot do everything but what we can do we want to do well. We make mistakes, to be sure, but we try to be quick to correct them. I want to thank all our social media friends for asking questions, suggesting resources and keeping us honest.
Bonnie Bucqueroux teaches journalism at Michigan State University and is co-publisher of Lansing Online News.
You are burning with a passion for investigative journalism. Or maybe you want to report on what’s happening in your local community. Perhaps your goal is to provide incisive analysis for a niche audience of like-minded followers, whether the issue is climate change or the NFL draft.
But how will you keep your vision alive? Even a labor of love requires pockets deep enough to pay for the server space to showcase your “free” content. And if you do not find a way to pay yourself and your contributors at least a little something, chances are you will eventually wear out or burn out. The web is littered with tombstone sites that will never again be updated (a few of which are mine).
Please scan the list below to see if some of these ideas might make sense for your online news venture. None is guaranteed to make you millions, but if you can draw a crowd (or an affluent niche), one or more should help you “monetize” your efforts. (Think multiple revenue streams.)
- Paywalls – Whether paywalls will work in the long run remains an open question. Business publications like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times appear to have few problems persuading their affluent audiences to sign up. The New York Times, arguably our national newspaper, abandoned its first attempt at a paywall but now seems committed to the strategy.My local Gannett paper, the Lansing State Journal, is experimenting with a paywall, though circulation appears to be declining overall. My favorite magazine, the pricey New Scientist ($154 a year for a subscription to the print publication) offers three different packages: (1) print only, (2) web-smartphone-tablet and (3) print-web-smartphone-tablet.
The strategy requires a modest investment in development to set a cookie that counts how many times a person visits and then blocks them if they reach the maximum without becoming a paying subscriber.
Most paywalls allow visitors at least one free view beyond the home page before they are required to buy a subscription to see more. However, many paywalls are relatively easy to defeat. NYTClean was a free downloadable browser extension that spoofed the Times into thinking you had not reached your maximum. Copying a story’s headline from the home page and putting it into Google often allows you to enter through a back door. Beginning in 2012, however, the Wall Street Journal ended First Click Free (FCF) on some of its stories.
Andrew Sullivan is no doubt the most famous blogger to go the paywall route at least semi-successfully. The Dish (formerly the Daily Dish when he launched it as a standalone and when it was part of The Daily Beast) became a standalone site again in January 2013. He originally charged a lump-sum payment of $20 a year but now charges $1.99 a month, at the request of his visitors. His a target is $900,000 for the first year, which he says is his break-even point. (Seems steep to me, but Sullivan has always done well since his days as the editor of The New Republic, and he now has a small staff to pay.)
In March, Poynter reported that Sullivan had cut free reads to five every 60 days and was tweaking his model to make signing up easier. According to paidContent, by July Sullivan had recruited 28,000 subscribers who produced $715,000 in revenue, though as this chart shows, signups dropped precipitously after the initial buzz generated when he was still a Daily Beast regular.
In another post, paidContent notes that Sullivan raised almost half of his initial nut during the first 24 hours after announcing his plan. They also report that this conversion rate remains stuck at 2.5%, though that is far better than the 1% that many sites achieve.
Paywall optimists often argue that the move toward tablets and smartphone apps offers new opportunities to begin charging. While it is true that an increasing number of people receive their news from mobile devices, questions remain about whether more than a handful of sites can compete against all the free content out there.
- Freemium (Free + Premium) – This model is based on providing the content for free, while giving visitors options to pay for various extras. This approach was championed by former Wired editor Chris Anderson in his book “Free.” In some cases, a dedicated audience might be willing to pay extra for a forum or “private” videos or other content. However, Salon abandoned its “premium” membership. The annual fee allowed people to enjoy their content ad-free, but advertisers no doubt complained.
- Advertisers and Sponsors – While many people knock banner ads, there are local and niche advertisers who may be eager to pay a daily, weekly or monthly fee to put up display ad with a link back to their site (or a page you can build them for a fee). Another strategy is to enlist a sponsor for a specific section or an evergreen entry. (“Evergreen” posts are ones designed to draw traffic over time, such as a directory or a historical package.) Startups can offer “Charter Advertiser” status for folks who pay to advertise from the start. That status could include a promise not to raise rates for the first year, or it could confer a 10% discount (or more) forever. A WordPress site often makes it easy to rotate ads, and premium themes like those from Elegant and Gabfire often offer widgets that handle the backend for you.
- GoogleAdSense – Many bloggers sign up for Google AdSense in the hope money will roll in without any additional effort. However, as Amy Lynn Andrews of Blogging with Amy writes, the key is either to have high traffic or a niche audience that Google advertisers will pay top dollar to reach through your keywords. She reports that Laura Turk’s site for crafters called TipJunkie.com attracts seven million visitors a month, generating $12,000 a month for its owner just through AdSense.
Our hearts beat faster when we read about these one-in-a-gazillion cases, but journalism is often a tougher sell. Google offers lots of tutorials on making the most of AdSense because it is in their self-interest to help you. However, it will also punish you by canceling your account if you fail to adhere to its requirement or you try to cheat by clicking on your own site or recruiting others to do so.
One of the best free resources is still John Saddington’s 2011 A Blogger’s Guide to Earning More with Google AdSense. Anything you do to improve your performance for Google AdSense is usually good for improving traffic overall. Learning how to tag using keywords that lure enough of the right audience is essential.
Last year Google announced a meta keywords tag for news sites. It takes a bit of tweaking your CSS to make this happen, but it means you no longer have to write dull headlines just to load them up with keywords.
Without going too deep into the weeds, Double Click for Publishers (DFP) is a Google product that integrates with Adsense. One benefit is that DFP may help you secure higher rates for some of the AdSense links on your pages. As always, Google products offer superior analytics that you can use you to help you make tweaks to boost your income.
- Alternatives to Google AdSense – If you are denied admission to AdSense or you are banned, check out the Top 10 Alternatives to Google AdSense. You might qualify for an option like Vibrant Media’s In-Text (where green links in copy generate popup ads). Or you may find that there is a particular ad network for your particular niche. For example, the Liberal Blog Ad Network offers established site that have more than 2,500 page views a week for more than two months that meet other criteria a chance to use their advertising widget.
Affiliate Marketing – Affiliate marketing is a way to earn a commission on clicks and sales. Some companies offer their own individual affiliate marketing programs. Liquid Web, which has its headquarters in my town, offers a fairly typical opportunity. If you qualify, the company provides you coding for a banner ad for your site. The coding contains your unique tracking code identifier so visitors who follow the link and buy the product generate a commission Liquid Web will then pay you.
An important key, however, is to make sure the advertiser fits with your audience. (In addition to his sexist Super Bowl ads, GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons is famous for shooting elephants, so featuring his ads could alienate important audiences.)
Individual advertisers within the aggregator network may offer different commission options and a variety of display and link ads for you to choose from. Many offer specials at various times during the year. However, the challenge, as with AdSense, is that you must generate enough traffic and sales or you risk being dropped.
Commission rates vary from about 2% to 15% or more. Volume matters, but so does the cost of each item. My site Sustainable Farmer offers a link to Farm-Tek through Commission Junction, and I will start planning expensive vacations as soon as I start selling a $5,000 hoophouse or two each month.
Amazon, which sells just about everything, pays fixed rates on specific categories of products and escalating commissions currently from 4% to 8.5% on general products the more that you sell.
- Coupons – The major coupon sites Groupon and DealChicken both offer affiliate marketing opportunities through the aforementioned Commisssion Junction. Because coupons are typically geographically based, you may find that a major media market in your area has already tied up the rights to your location, so your application will automatically be rejected. (Though the money could be nice, the annoying DealChicken dropdown ads might also cost you some valued visitors.)
- Donations & Kickstarter-Type Fundraisers/Pledge Drives– PayPal offers a Donation button for individuals (check the rules) and non-profits, while Google Checkout only provides buttons for non-profits. For the most part, tip jars and donate buttons simply don’t produce enough to buy lunch now and then.
Sites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo and GoFundMe allow individuals, for-profit companies and non-profits to raise money in a discrete period of time, which makes them potential sources of start-up funds or money for special projects. The Kickstarter model requires you to hit your target within a specific number of days, or you get nothing. Indiegogo and GoFundMe give you whatever you raise within the time period you specify.
Kickstarter also urges you to spend money on an escalating roster of inducements for your donors based on how much they give. Before you are approved, their monitors will often warn you that success often depends on offering a rich array of give-aways, but you need to remember that fulfillment will cost you time and money.
- Co-Promotions/Gifts – Alternative news sites such as Truthout periodically offer books by their writers or those who hold similar opinions as a gift for donating. These can be a win-win for the author and for the site. Journalism that focuses on a specific niche like food or sports might find creative ways to co-promote products with valued advertisers.
- Monetize Your Video – Video is becoming an increasingly important part of the mix on citizen journalism sites, so finding ways to make money from video could generate significant income over time. One options would be to sell custom ads and cut them into your videos. But not only does that require significant technical skill, the costs would include paying for servers that can handle streaming video. Note that both YouTube and Vimeo will reject videos with preroll ads.
YouTube is probably a better bet than Vimeo for most citizen journalism sites. TubeFilter reports that Vimeo recently added a tip jar and pay-on-demand, but neither makes good sense for a news site. Becoming a YouTube partner confers numerous benefits beyond making money, including the right to upload unlimited HD videos of any length.
I have uploaded more than 800 videos to my YouTube channel (bucqui) since 2006. I currently have more than 1,600 subscribers and more than 2.2 million views. Since becoming a YouTube partner and monetizing some of my videos, I have seen a healthy jump in the size of the payments paid to me through my Google AdSense account, which is how Google pays you.
Though I might do things differently if I were starting out today, I put videos from all my projects on the same channel, since YouTube provides additional benefits to partners whose total views total at least 15,000 viewing hours over the previous 90 days. If YouTube approves you as a partner, you will see a $ monetize icon show up alongside your list of videos in the Video Manager. Just click, answer a few questions and you are good-to-go.
Do you think the Bud Light can is there by accident?
- Product Placement in Videos – You can also make money by negotiating with an advertiser to place one of their products in your video. YouTube asks you to disclose when you do, since it does not want to place a Miller Light ad in a video where you are paid to display that Bud Light can.
- Showcasing Salable Skills – In retrospect, the traditional marriage between editorial and advertising barely made sense, since it required creating an entire department that had nothing to do with producing great stories. So why not create a boutique consulting firm based on what you have learned to do well – write great stories, shoot and edit quality video, develop and design killer websites and promote your site through SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and social media (Twitter and Facebook). Your services can range from providing the services directly or training other companies how to do these things themselves. A friend who reports on authors and the book industry in our state find himself offered jobs that range from helping authors promote their books to speaking engagements.
(Want me to help you monetize your site? I will often work for gluten-free food.)
But whoa, you say, you started this enterprise to make your living as a journalist. If you had wanted to be a web designer or SEO expert, you would have gone into that business. However, the challenge may actually find ways to generate enough to live on so that you can do journalism that matters. Your journalism serves as your marketing arm – an expanding business card that showcases your marketable skills. Doing contract work for others may also be more appealing than spending the time selling ads, and it ensures you and your staff stay busy and also stay current.
- Think Webcast – The success of online shows like Cenk Uygur’s The Young Turks suggests a real future for live webcasts as Internet TV. Services such as Ustream.tv and Livestream offer opportunities to produce live webcasts (here’s a comparison of what the four top providers offer for free and for a fee). Google Hangouts On Air allow you to broadcast live on Google+, YouTube and through an embed on your site.
My co-host and I simultaneously webcast the weekly show we do on the local community college’s radio station through a Ustream embed on Lansing Online News, our experiment in online citizen journalism. Ustream archives past shows, and a simple button allows us to upload the same show to YouTube.With a modest investment of a laptop with 4G access and one or more Logitech Business Pro 9000 webcams, you can start doing your own “remotes” supported with ads from your sponsors. Or you can offer services to host webinars or webcasts for clients, perhaps by paying a tech-savvy student to run the show.
- Market Your Own Products – If you have a food blog, a cottage industry marketing your own mustard or handmade aprons might make sense. My site Policing.com features a DVD I created called “A Brief History of Policing,” designed for police trainers and criminal justice profs. It comes with a 27-page Study Guide that I created as a PDF.
You might want to produce an ebook of your posts through Kindle Direct or a print book through Amazon’s CreateSpace. Start to think of yourself as a brand (or find a sole sponsor with deep pockets who wants to partner).
- Merch – Sadly, I have never been smart enough to come up with a name, logo, tagline or slogan so compelling that people would pay real money to own them on a t-shirt or coffee mug. Sites like CafePress and Zazzle allow you to create and sell custom products without keeping any inventory, though their prices make it hard to charge enough to justify more than a dollar or two for you on each sale. If you have some up-front funding, a place to store the items and the ability to fulfill orders, you can use sites like CustomInk (t-shirts) or Vistaprint (coffee cups) to create your own items and sell them directly.
- Grants, Contests & Incubators – To be eligible for grants, you may need to apply to the IRS for 501c3 status. However, the Knight Foundation’s Knight Challenge has traditionally allowed for-profit enterprises to apply as well. The competition can be fierce, but grants have the virtue of not having to be paid back. Women who have an idea for a news site should look at the rules regarding the J-Lab’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs program before launch because they only fund startups.
- Hold a Contest – Charge a fee to enter and plan your prize schedule so that it more than covers the cost of the awards. It could be as good a friendraiser as a fundraiser.
- Cut Costs with Free Custom Content– Rarely does a week go by without receiving an email that includes an ardent pitch from a freelancer willing to give me a free article that they will write to my specs. The catch is that they want to include a link to a particular product. While this raises the hackles of journalist who grew up believing in the sanctity of the firewall between advertising and editorial, at some level, the question becomes whether adding a text link to an Amazon product mentioned in a story is significantly different. Though I have yet to succumb, I have checked the work of some of these writers, and many are quite good. I suspect they would have to be to make their living doing this. It may be that this is one way to have others sell the ads for you.
- Barter – Lansing Online News once worked with a developer on creating an easy way for local advertisers to place an ad in exchange for bartering us products and services we could use as gifts to our contributors. (Our goal is to remain ad-free if we can.) For many news sites, it might pay to barter free ads with a developer who would build you a free app in return.
- Community Fundraisers – Don’t forget to think about offline opportunities if you have a strong local following. Perhaps you could host a dinner or a talk where tickets not only cover costs but put something into the pot. If you cover local theater, you might be able to persuade them to allow you to put up a table where you could sell merch and ask for donations.
What have we overlooked? Please leave your comments below so we can update and add new ideas.
by David Poulson, associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental JournalismStephen King recently offered advice useful for journalists covering the environment.
I don’t mean covering it as a horror story – although that’s certainly a reader engagement strategy we all use often enough.
The prolific author of scary tales like The Shining and Carrie and of the current mini-series Under the Dome, tells the Atlantic about crafting first sentences. He spends months – even years – rewriting them, often while lying in bed before falling asleep.
Any writer can benefit from what King has to say about minimalist first sentences chock full of meaning and that establish the voice that carries through the piece. Follow that link; read what he says.
That said, no journalist in the deadline-a-minute crunch for news can afford the luxury of nightly rewrites while lying in bed. My students panic when I suggest they spend half their writing time before deadline crafting a lede.
And yet I argue that it’s time well-spent. It makes the rest of the job much easier. Nail that first sentence and you’ve focused the story and launched a path to the end.
It is a wondrous relief when I get that first sentence right, or at least close enough to right that I know the rest will come.
Environmental reporters write about complex stuff. We have limited space. We know way more than we can report. And we need to engage readers with limited time and attention and perspective and context on what we report.
The challenges are steep enough that until I find that lede, I fret – even panic – if I can ever adequately tell the story. But once I do, the rest is almost following a recipe. Hard work may remain – checking facts, finding quotes, handling nuance, understanding complexity, deciding what to leave out – but the way forward is clear.
I have a roadmap and I know that I have a better than even shot of getting to my destination.
Of course, there is a whole lot more to writing than that first sentence. There’s a danger in overemphasizing its importance. As King notes in the Atlantic, “Listen, you can’t live on love, and you can’t create a writing career based on first lines.”
And I don’t want to make the case that every first sentence has to be a literary gem worthy of lengthy honing. We do journalism. In the best scenarios we have very limited time.
We rarely deal with the best scenarios.
The creation of the lede for the piece you are reading now is an example of what I’m getting at. King’s advice is relevant to any writer. But for this use I needed to connect it with journalists interested in reporting on the environment.
I had a vague idea of linking King’s genre of horror writing with writing about environmental horrors. It’s a hokey concept. And I unsuccessfully worked with it before doing what I often do when I’m stuck for a lede: I wrote a poor one just to get the piece underway.
I rarely can get far without going back for another try. And this time, about four paragraphs in, it struck me that merely including Stephen King and environmental journalism in the same sentence is a plenty good hook for my audience. He’s famous enough that I don’t have to immediately explain him. And sticking King and environmental journalism in the same sentence prompts readers to think, “What’s up with this? I’ll read more to find out.”
As a nod to my original idea, I stuck that reference to environmental horror storytelling in the second paragraph. It just seemed to work there when I couldn’t make it work in the first sentence.
The rest of this piece was work – but I’d call it downhill writing once I figured out those two paragraphs. I’m not saying it’s a first sentence that I’ll lie in bed re-crafting. It certainly won’t show up among the favorite first lines cited by these authors, also in the Atlantic.
But in my view it does the job and was worth the additional time I invested. You may disagree. Got a better idea? Stick it in the comments below.
The importance of compelling ledes is hardly news to journalists. Writers and writing instructors rightfully talk about the importance of beginnings to readers.
But I like what King has to say about their importance to writers:
“Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer‘s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.”
David Poulson is the associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism
Karl Gude, former Graphics Director for Newsweek, now teaches at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism. He created this series of video tutorials about Twitter for his students in 2011. They remain valuable because Twitter has changed little in the meanwhile. The series not only explains the mechanics of this remarkable social media tool but how you can make the most of it.
Twitter tutorial 1: How to sign up, follow someone and send a tweet
Twitter tutorial 2: Settings menu, Design, Profile photo
Twitter tutorial 3: What are # @ RT symbols for?
Twitter tutorial 4: Lists, how to find cool people to follow
Twitter tutorial 5: Tweeting links and shortening them
Twitter tutorial 6: Twitpic.com for posting photos
Twitter tutorial 7: Forget Twitter.com! Use TweetDeck or Hootsuite
CJA Note: Journalists rely on Twitter to stay abreast of breaking news and to solicit tips and information from the community.Tweets can also be embedded directly into stories using Storify, one of the 5 Cool Tools we think everyone should know about.
Karl’s full bio on Huffington Post:
Karl Gude is a creative storyteller and visual communicator who who teaches courses at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism on The Creative Process, Social Media Marketing, Visual Communication and Information Graphics. Gude was the Director of Information Graphics at Newsweek magazine, the Associated Press and other news organizations. During his more than quarter century in news, Karl, an artist and designer, used visual tools like drawings, maps, charts and diagrams to communicate the stories behind seven presidential elections, a slew of wars, natural disasters, scientific and medical discoveries and a multitude of terrorist attacks, including the attack on the World Trade Center while at Newsweek.
My basic rule of thumb is that I want any tool to be free (or at least affordable) and also relatively glitch-free and easy to master. My third requirement is that I want some assurance the organization involved won’t disappear, especially if they are hosting my efforts and therefore might take all my hard work with them and leave me hanging.
Using those criteria, please consider experimenting with these gems:
- Scribd.com (see sample below) – People hate clicking away to view slow-loading PDF files. Scribd instead allows you to display PDF and ePub documents in a scrollable frame embedded directly in your page or post. Once you register, you can upload any document for which you own the copyright or which is in the public domain. Scribd generates an HTML embed code for you and also hosts the document for you on its site. Scribd prompts you to describe and tag your posts. That can be frustrating when you are in hurry but spending the time to tag always pays off. I also recommend searching the site first to see if someone else has already uploaded your document. You may also find other documents that others have contributed that might make sense for your site. (Note to WordPress users: Don’t take the first embed code you see. Go to the final place where your document is posted, click on the Embed icon at the top and look for the WordPress link on the popup screen. The WordPress-friendly code is much shorter. Paste it into you post using the Text, not Visual, view.)
- Ease of Use: 5 of 5 (simple and reliable)
- Cost: Free
- TimelineJS – One of the things that the mainstream media often does poorly is provide people the background and context they need to understand complex or longstanding issues. Timelines are a great way to offer people a visually engaging history lesson. TimelineJS creates stunning multimedia timelines in which you can embed images, videos and documents, working directly in a Google-based template (created by Zack Wise). My only concern is that the template is stored on the Verite website, not yours, so you must depend on their site staying online. Michigan Radio used the tool to create a comprehensive timeline on the events since passage of Michigan’s medical marijuana law in 2008. (Click here to view the MR timeline.
- Ease of Use: 3 of 5 (the tool is reliable and straightforward but it takes time to learn)
- Cost: Free
- Storify – Want a quick way to assemble a story based on breaking news? Storify is an amazing tool that lets you mix your own original material (text, images, etc.) with social media material generated by others, from YouTubes to tweets. Assemble your article from these various options and Storify provides you an embed code for your site, as well as displaying your Storify on their site. This Storify of Buttercup, the duck with the 3-D-printed prosthetic foot, highlights the virtues of the approach. Text, images, YouTubes, tweets. The whole ends up being much more than the sum of its parts.
- Ease of Use: 4 of 5 (an intuitive tool that is constantly being improved)
- Cost: Free
- Soundslides – A slideshow of images set to music is great way to tell a visual story. (This presentation was assembled from images I took at a local parade, set to music written and performed by my husband and his band.) Soundslides is software that you install on your hard drive. Once installed, you are greeted with two buttons – one to upload your JPEGs and the other your music file (MP3s work great). You can upload as many images as you want, but Soundslides says the optimization works best up to 200 images. Depending on the version, you may be able to create a show without a music file. The program adds an auto-dissolve between the images, and you can adjust the pacing of the show by adding or subtracting images or changing the length of the song. You can caption the images, add a headline and insert credits. To use the show on your site, you must be able to upload or FTP the exported files to your server. (Note to WordPress Users: This link takes you to a Soundslide WordPress Utility that generates HTML you can paste into a WordPress post. This is what the same parade slideshow above looks like when using this utility.)
- Ease of Use: 5 of 5 (pretty much idiot-proof)
- Cost: The free trial version leaves an ad for Soundslides on your project. The basic version is $39.95 and plus is $69.95.
- Ustream.tv – The opportunity to do a free, live webcast once a week – if only for 10 minutes – is irresistible. Bill Castanier and I do a weekly hour-ling radio show on the local community college station (LCC Radio WLNZ 89.7 in Lansing, MI). We also do a simultaneous live webcast through the Ustream.tv site and also through an embed on our Lansing Online News site. LON is our experiment in citizen journalism. The free version also allows us to archive a number of our shows on the Ustream.tv site. When we get too close to capacity for the free version, I go into our stack of videos and use the simple “Upload to YouTube” option to archive copies there. While Livestream and the new live YouTube (through a Google+ hangout) have their own virtues, I like what Ustream.tv gives me for free, including the downloadable Producer software that makes it incredibly easy to broadcast and record shows. I would recommend buying the Logitech Pro 9000 Business Webcam. It runs off your USB and offers incredible quality. It has a stabilizer function that is amazing at the current $89.95 price.
- Ease of Use: 4 of 5 (remember to download and use the Producer software – it makes life easy)
- Cost: Free. The paid version offers things I drool over, such as multiple cameras, but the free version also allows people to comment on the site through social media.
Building an audience isn’t easy, especially if you don’t have a big budget for promotion. But here are six things you can do for free (or at least for a modest investment in time). These tips are designed to attract people who are likely to care, who are likely to visit again and who are likely to recommend your site to their like-minded friends.
- Publish frequently and consistently – I cannot count the number of journalism students who come to me complaining that they have blogged for two weeks – three amazing and heartfelt posts – but they still don’t have any comments. Not only does building an audience take time, but it requires maintaining a steady flow of quality content to make yours the ‘go-to’ site for your niche. The good news if you are using a content management system like WordPress is that you can schedule your stories to publish automatically. To ensure a steady flow, consider breaking up an article into two or three stories. Three shorter stories over three days will do you much more good than one long story on one day. Depending on your audience, consider posting a picture with a short copy block today instead of waiting to do a longer story later – one that risks never getting done.
- Be strategic with tagging – I go back to the days in the Nineties when you found my sites by clicking on “B” in Yahoo’s directory, so thank heaven for tagging. But all too often, we treat tags as an afterthought, as the last item on the checklist before taking a break or crashing for the night. One tip is to start thinking of tags while you are planning the story. Put your proposed keywords at the top of your draft as a mini-outline and revise the list when you are finally ready to post. Remember to put yourself in the position of your ideal visitor. What search terms would that person use? (Also, if you come up with a great tag that isn’t in your story, add it somewhere in your copy since most search engines penalize you for using tags that don’t correlate to your content.) And no more than three words per tag. And don’t cheat. Gore Vidal published a book in 1968 called Sex, Money & Death, knowing that these three words would attract attention on the bookstore shelf. But you should never promise one thing and deliver another, or your visitors will never come back again – and they may say bad things about you on social media as well.
- Add an image, slideshow, video or graphic – Research shows stories with images and other kinds of mulimedia typically enjoy higher readership and rates of sharing. The Content Marking Institute shared Skyword’s analysis that this is especially true for news stories. Images and other visual storytelling devices engage people. Usability guru Jakob Neilsen’s research showed that visitors read on average only 28% of your text, even less with longer articles. Even if they don’t watch your video, its presence adds credibility, and it helps to break up the page.
- Make stories easy to share – On the tech side, making stories easy to share on Twitter and Facebook matters as much or more than almost anything else you can do. Add big buttons for social media so visitors can easily share the article with their friends, many of whom probably share the same interests. Be directive. Say, “please share this with your friends if you agree – or if you don’t.” Or you can adapt the strategy that National Lampoon magazine used to stand out on the newsstand.
- Encourage conversation on your site – I often compare the number of comments under the link to one of my stories on Facebook with the actual clicks to the story that come from that source. As we all suspect, many people are willing to weigh in with an opinion without ever reading the article. Especially if clicks matter to your bottom line, experiment with strategies to encourage readers to follow that link. Embed a poll in your story and ask your social media followers to weigh in. Offer a t-shirt to the person who leaves the best comment on your site. Make commenting easy by keeping hoops to do so to a minimum.
- Think scannable – Writers want people to savor every word that they write. But don’t let your ego get in the way of serving your readers. If they get all the information they want from your headline and three bullet points, you have done your job and done it well. Make it easy for them to find the gist of the story. Neilsen’s eyetracker research shows that people scan your web pages with an “F” pattern. (Magazine readers, in contrast, tend toward the “lazy S,” an “S” lying on its side.) So think of headlines, bullets, blockquotes and embeds as ways to summarize and communicate your main points. We read from left to right, so you can stack the deck by putting your most informative items on the left side of the page. Using devices to break up the copy helps keep people scrolling. Once a visitor hits a wall of gray pixels, he or she is much more likely to click away.
- Engage your audience through social media – Note that this does not say “promote your stories through social media.” If you only tweet to say “please read my latest article,” you are wasting one of the best tools you have to build your audience. The time to start engaging your readers is while you are developing your story. Use tweets or postings to ask your followers and friends to suggest possible sources. Ask them for their angles, ideas and insights. Keep them informed about your progress and seek help in overcoming any obstacles you encounter. By the time you tweet that the story is posted, your audience should be waiting for the link. And rather than just say “it’s up,” ask a question or ask for their opinion about the piece. Remember to post or tweet regularly that you are eager for their story ideas, and make sure to thank them, formally and informally, when they help. Sending a frequent retweeter a t-shirt or mug with the name of your publication can earn you a lifelong friend.
The web allows us to use images and video to tell all or parts of our stories. The challenge is to learn how to make better still and moving images. This series of tutorials offers tips and techniques that will help you make the leap from amateur to professional, even if you weren’t blessed with an artist’s eye.
Part 1 of our series focuses on examples of excellence, the range of digital equipment you can use and the basics of painting with light.
Part 2 offers information and advice on composition, including the rule of thirds.
About Bonnie Bucqueroux – Bucqueroux is a digital pioneer who teaches journalism at Michigan State University. A National Magazine Award winner, she produced the first online training for police and the first campaign blog of anyone running for federal office. She co-publishes Lansing Online News, an experiment in citizen journalism, and co-hosts the publication’s weekly radio show on WLNZ 89.7.
Email her at lansingonline (at) gmail.com