Shazam! NBC may have just given us a glimpse into our transmedia future

Now that the Olympics are over, we can reflect on the performances we witnessed not only from the athletes (awful, great, and everything in between), but also from the network that brought London into our living room and onto our smartphones (ditto). NBC caught plenty of flak for tape-delaying a giant portion of the events rather than broadcasting them live. For frustrated sports enthusiasts and vitriolic Twitcrits armed with the #NBCFail hash tag, that was something of a mortal sin, not least because in this media-saturated age spoilers pervaded the atmosphere like a greenhouse gas.

There are economic factors to consider, however. NBC paid about $1.2 billion for exclusive U.S. broadcast rights to the Olympics. The company had to recoup that money somehow. Rolling the marquee events, highlights, and personal stories into a single primetime package consolidated eyeballs and, by extension, boosted ad revenues. The strategy seems to have worked, as ratings for the London Olympics were reportedly the highest of any in decades. People clearly tuned in despite the time-shifted broadcasts. NBC Research President Alan Wurtzel even told Reuters reporter Liana B. Baker that people appeared even more likely to tune in when they already knew the results.

Of course, it’s tough to credit any strategy, alone or in combination, when the company had a monopoly on coverage. Television viewers didn’t really have anywhere else to go, so the only solid conclusion one can draw from NBC’s ratings success is that a lot of people wanted to watch the Olympics and did.

Whatever you think about NBC’s broadcast strategy, though, you have to give them some credit for pushing the envelope just a little further on the digital front. The company’s transmedia approach to covering the Olympics was a promise, even if not quite fulfilled, of a future in which the Internet and TV (and, really, all media) finally, harmoniously, converge into a kind of unified and, yes, very social experience.

I got to hear about some of the ingredients of that digital strategy when I was invited, along with other local journalists and members of the Online News Association, to NBC4 Studios in Burbank for a sort of digital show-and-tell.

Mekahlo Medina, the local affiliate’s tech and social media reporter, tried to capture the spirit of this drive toward digital convergence when he reminded us that “TV is social and always has been.”

Medina put up a black-and-white slide showing people gathered around an early television set and pointed out that families and friends used to make TV viewing a social event. Advance slide and we see some dude on the couch, feet on an ottoman, a laptop glowing on his lap and a smartphone in hand while he’s watching TV…alone. The implication here is that even if technology seems at first to have isolated us, social media is making TV a shared experience again as people interact with their friends remotely. Interesting theory.

That said, on the social media front, a lot of what we saw has become rather standard fare (or at least should be) for any news outlet, TV or otherwise. Among the takeaways, which should sound familiar by now:

- create a Twitter hash tag to help guide or at least aggregate the conversation
– retweet, reply and favorite your followers on Twitter
Storify events when appropriate
– encourage user-generated content using social media platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest
– ask questions on Facebook to get users more engaged
– create dedicated Facebook tabs for special content

But I did hear at least one useful tip I had never considered. NBC4 did a Facebook countdown by posting a new cover photo every day leading up to the opening ceremony.

For now, changing your cover photo counts as a significant activity in Facebook’s algorithm, at least according to Olsen Ebright, the NBCLA.com producer who headed the social media charge. The result is that your Facebook page will surface on your fans’ walls every day. It’s a strategy that could be useful for other Facebook campaigns, too.

So, how did the local affiliate fare with its social media strategy? All told during the Olympics, NBC4 saw an above-average gain in Twitter followers, and its Facebook likes roughly doubled, according to stats Ebright shared with the group.

Outstanding numbers to be sure, but it’s tough to conclude that any of the aforementioned tactics had much to do with them. As it turns out, it was the tried-and-true approach of a big-giveaway contest that appeared to generate the sudden spike in Facebook likes. The prize? A check for $40,000 to help some lucky fan pay his or her mortgage for a year.

In fact, a series of contest giveaways (iPads, $400 gas cards, theme park tickets) and a campaign for charity were probably the main reasons NBCLA.com shot to 350,000 Facebook fans from about 20,000 just last fall.

Call it an investment. Ebright told me that four years ago Google searches were still the largest referrer to their site, with Facebook providing a smaller but still sizable share. More recently, the two have alternated in the top spot, and during the Olympics, Facebook consistently surpassed Google as the single biggest referrer of site traffic to NBCLA.com.

Not every news organization will be able to afford such big prizes, but NBC4’s success is a sobering reminder that if you want people to come inside to see your content, you first might have to offer an incentive just to open the door.

As impressive as NBC4’s execution of its social media strategy was, though, the really exciting stuff came from the mother ship. There were two standout strategies — at least for this observer — that got to the core of what transmedia can mean.

One of them was a little gem of an innovation that comes, surprisingly, from the world of music: Shazam. For those who aren’t familiar with Shazam, it’s an app for your tablet or smartphone that can “hear” music and identify whatever song you happen to be listening to. That may not sound like an obvious tool for a journalist, but Shazam has recently entered into partnerships with other media organizations, including NBC, to offer some intriguing applications for their audio recognition software.

Nabisco tapped Shazam to help market one of its trademark crackers, Wheat Thins, by linking a TV ad to Twitter and Facebook.

“Through Shazam’s technology, the audio in the television ad identifies the sound and links to a pre-written Twitter post. Those who tweet the post get a free sample of the product,” wrote Laurie Sullivan, reporting for MediaPost.com.

But NBC appears to be the real test case. Shazam put that partnership front and center on its website, encouraging users to “tune in and tag” Olympic moments at anytime while watching NBC’s coverage.

So with what were the curious, tech-savvy members of the audience rewarded? I can’t say firsthand, since I’m an on-again, off-again cord-cutter (that is, I try to save money by ditching cable and instead get my TV shows and news via the Internet). But according to the site, when you hit the Shazam button on your phone or tablet while watching any of NBC’s Olympics coverage, you were treated to any of a number of goodies, including:

- a schedule of events
– athlete bios, news and photos
– up-to-the-minute results
– the latest medal tally
– interactive viewer polls

It only takes a little imagination to extend what NBC and Nabisco have already done with the Shazam app.

A lot of people, for instance, listen to the news as audio while they drive or otherwise move about. A tech-savvy media outlet could reach out to its audience while a major story is breaking and locate potential citizen journalists near the event. The CJ’s hear the request, hit the Shazam button, and get a special link that they can use to submit photos or video straight from their phones.

TV stations could link their viewers directly to extended Web content with a touch of a button. They could direct their audience online to get charts and other data visualizations, exclusive Web videos, relevant stats, helpful background and explainers to give context. All this without making anyone get up from the couch, say, to scan one of those increasingly obsolete QR codes.

And, of course, there’s the already-proven social media application. It’s like having a share button on your TV and in your radio. Your audience sees it or hears it, Shazams it, and shares it on their favorite social media network. Now their friends and followers have a direct link to your story.

The other exciting glimpse into the future of transmedia coverage was also the most obvious — the oft touted if much trashed attempt by NBC to live stream every event via the Web and mobile devices.

I won’t go too deeply into the details, since this territory is well trod (follow any of the links at the top of this post). The short of it is that for the first time fans of the Olympics had access to the raw uninterrupted stream of events both prominent and obscure.

Using NBC’s smartphone and tablet apps or its Live Extra website, anyone tired of the main event on TV could switch over to the live stream and watch something else, like badminton or trampoline (did they really make that an Olympic event?!). They could even watch multiple events simultaneously.

Cool, right? Well, yes, though I do wonder how many people would tune in if C-SPAN did something similar. (“Split your screen and get four simultaneous committee meetings live from the capital!”)

And this is where the complaining starts. The streams were not without their hiccups. A lot of complaints centered on poor video quality and service interruptions, which, in the 100-meter dash, could well mean you missed the entire event.

The Android app, for its part, garnered a measly average of 2 stars from the user reviews in the Market. Which brings us back to those angry Twitcrits.

In defense of NBC, I might offer this: no new technology, especially when deployed so ambitiously, ever comes off flawlessly.

Louis C.K. said it best when he told Conan O’Brien in a clip that went viral on YouTube, “Everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy.”

In his four-minute rant, Louis mentioned an airline passenger who, having just discovered that he had in-flight access to the Internet with his laptop, gets upset when it stops working.

“How quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago!”

Indeed.

The Digital Rap Sessions, or how die-hard traditionalists and emerging media yahoos became One

I had seen it happen before. When I was a kid, acoustic instruments went electric, outraging traditional musicians. When I became a musician, electric went electronic and the traditionalists who objected to electrifying instruments now denounced synthesized sounds as not even being music. But music, organized tones, has always remained the thing—not the amplification through wattage or the digitizing of instruments.

Many traditional journalists reacted much in the same way to digital and social media, and, in journalism and mass communication schools across the country, professors often railed against and slowed the development of digital media programs, even as the rest of the world moved rapidly on.
A year ago, in this journal, I wrote about an experiment in which I added digital elements to my Intro to Journalism class. As the associate dean and lead multimedia professor where I teach at Florida International University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) in Miami, I thought it was time to include Web development and the use of social media in classes before students were admitted fully to our program, instead of in the capstone journalism course when they were exiting the school.

Intro to Journalism is traditionally offered as a lecture class, not a skills class, with periodic quizzes based on a textbook, a mid-term and final. Some of my students were taken aback when, on the first day of class, I asked them to develop a WordPress site and post a written assignment. Those students who had a sense of the digital now, whose reach was beyond personal posts on Facebook or Twitter, were enthusiastic about the opportunity. There were 112 students in the lecture class; in hindsight, a couple of teacher assistants to help read the postings and comment on design elements would have made this a more efficient experiment.

Still, a year after the experiment, those students who were in my Intro class and were now in my capstone multimedia class were more advanced in developing and writing for the Web than the students who had been in more traditional such classes. These students had an extra year to meld journalistic values and reporting skills in a digital environment.

While teaching Intro, I thought it was a good time to gather a few faculty I knew who also were infusing digital and social media components into their classes. Our school has two departments—journalism and public relations/advertising—and though we newly had added a multimedia course to our core undergraduate curriculum, in which students are taught Final Cut, Soundslides and Audacity, and had updated our graduate programs (a Spanish Language Journalism master’s program and Global Strategic Communications program) with Web and social media work, we had not yet developed a formal digital major or graduate program. I thought this would be a good opportunity for us to compare notes and maybe find a path to a more cohesive way of teaching new media in our school.

I didn’t want to call a formal meeting, or ask faculty to serve on yet another committee to evaluate our digital relevance. As the ongoing change in media lends itself to improvisation, I sent out a vague email saying that I was holding a Digital Rap Session in the dean’s conference room. My idea was to gather a small, free-wheeling circle of professors, sort of like a musical jam session, where we could basically riff about our in-class digital experiences.

As nobody RSVPed, I thought I’d be having a meeting of one. I was surprised, actually thrilled, when eight faculty from journalism, public relations and advertising, some technology-oriented and some more traditionally-based, wandered into the conference room. Issues relevant to the seismic shifts in the media were usually discussed in separate departmental meetings.

Some of the faculty came to this Session out of interest, some out of curiosity—”What’s a Digital Rap Session?” But there were no accidental tourists here. Of the eight who showed up, all had either been infusing their courses with either theoretical discussions about digital media or hands-on work.

Several professors had been teaching our new multimedia production course, so there was discussion as to whether we were being realistic expecting students to learn Final Cut, Audacity, Soundslides and Web design in one semester. A mild debate also broke out about WordPress—as most of us were using it for Web work, did we need to purchase a dedicated WordPress server?

We found common ground—and were surprised—when we discussed student competency in digital skills. Several of us had made informal surveys and discovered that only about 20 percent of our students felt comfortable working on the Web or in video. Was this a national trend, or was it because our school is a minority-serving school—71 percent Hispanic, 10 percent African-American, 3 percent Asian—and weren’t exposed to the opportunities in their high schools?

The hour Rap Session ended without a commitment to meet again or to pursue any kind of action plan to develop new curriculum. But I felt the meeting was successful, if only for the easy-going atmosphere and collegial gathering of faculty from the three different disciplines.

Unstated, but apparent, was that, in spite of individual efforts to teach students digital media, the school needed a more cohesive pedagogical approach.

I let the Rap Sessions sit for the rest of the fall semester, then put out another call for a Session immediately after the spring semester started.

The number of faculty in attendance grew to ten. The need to create a digital program had fermented—we universally agreed that we had to produce an organized program that addressed the concepts and theories of digital communication, in addition to our digitally-infused courses.

Initially, we thought that the group that most needed these skills were recent graduates and people already out in industry who wanted to retrain, so we first went about developing a generic 16-credit Certificate in Digital Communication that could appeal to journalists, public relations reps, advertisers and interested lay people. Faculty from both of our departments contributed ideas for hands-on Web work and more theoretical courses in digital communication.

Over the next few meetings, as more faculty joined the discussions—the Sessions now had more than 50 percent of our full-time professors—we thought of expanding the certificate into a master’s program, as many schools are doing. But ongoing conversations with industry partners indicated that they wanted newly graduated Bachelor of Science students with the skills and understanding of the digital age. A formal survey of undergrads indicated that they were enthusiastic about enrolling in a digital media program.

Our group finally decided that it was critical for us to teach the fundamentals of the digital era in a uniform undergraduate program. As we developed the curriculum, we felt it was necessary to make it possible for students to overlap some of the digital media courses with journalism, public relations and advertising courses, so that they could benefit from the merging of majors.

Our new major—the Digital Media Studies—requires students to take the same core courses in writing and grammar, law and ethics, visual literacy and global mass media as our journalism, public relations and advertising students. Courses more specifically dedicated to digital media, including Introduction to Digital Media, a study of metrics and the impact of social media on social movements, follow the core. Students then have the choice of continuing in one of two directions: media management and entrepreneurship, or advanced production project-based courses that integrate Web, video and writing.

The major flew through school and university curriculum committees and was unanimously approved by the university’s faculty senate. It begins in fall 2012.

Throughout the Rap Sessions, I kept waiting for faculty objections that could slow or possibly derail the process. But there were none. Only surprisingly good-natured collegial discussions. The Sessions seemed to capitalize on a rare moment, when the timing and growth of the digital movement obviated the need for the school to produce a program to maintain its relevancy.

Although I spearheaded the Sessions, there was no one leader. Faculty from both departments came and went, felt the freedom to join or not, and contributed ideas.

In the end, the Rap Sessions broke down more than the walls between departments and disciplines, traditionalists and new media types, researchers and practicing professionals, SJMC veterans and the newly arrived. The free-wheeling forum of riffing professionals stepped outside the formal academic setting of assigned committees, and produced a collaborative effort by faculty connected in common purpose. In so doing, it reflected what the Digital Era seems to be increasingly about.

Refocusing student media to align with digital first approach

We all know the way people get their news has been upended in the past two decades. If you wanted to get the day’s news a few years ago you had to get it when the news organizations said you could have it. That usually meant a few times a day on television and radio or when the newspaper was published.

By the time what we now call legacy media was able to present the news it was inherently old.

Times, of course, have changed. News organizations have to change, too.

That’s the basic idea behind why at TCU’s Schieffer School of Journalism, where I work, we’re going digital first with our student media and realigning our structure to allow us to make that happen. We’ve been converging our student media operations over the past few years and this is the next logical — and perhaps most important — step.

We have a four-day-a-week newspaper, the TCU Daily Skiff, a weekly television newscast, “TCU News Now” (which also produces daily updates), Image magazine and our one-year-old converged website, TCU 360.

Since 2009, our student media have moved into a new converged newsroom, began holding joint budget meetings, moved to a single website and switched the copy desk from the newspaper copy desk to copy editing for all of student media. That was just the start.

Now, the separate news organizations are being reorganized into a single news gathering force that will focus on digital and then use the content that is produced to serve the legacy outlets. There is a caveat. Because of its much different cycle, Image will remain largely independent initially. As will the109.org, a community news website that our program also runs.

Rather than centering the newsgathering on a particular media platform, the goal will be to have reporters produce content in real time and digitally. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but it’s one that has to be embraced and sooner, not later.

In our setup, a student general manager will oversee all of student media. Working with that top leader will be a group of journalists focused mostly on content – news, sports and visuals, plus an operations manager to make sure the content gets where it needs to go.

The news group, in particular, will be broken into several teams, or small groups of reporters and a team leader/senior reporter who will focus on beats to come up with and produce stories. Teams could include administration, campus life, Greek life and academics.

Under the operations group will be an engagement person working with social media and a copy desk that will edit stories and post them online, in addition to production specialists who will make sure the paper and broadcast are prepared.

One manifestation of this digital focus could be live coverage of a campus event that takes tweets and relies on an editor – like the rewrite desk of old – to produce that content for print publication.

Steve Buttry, who works for the aptly named Digital First Media and is an alumnus of TCU, helped consult with us – cementing the ideas many of us have had for some time.

The biggest difference from Buttry’s recommendations and what we are doing is that, for now, we’re not reducing the publication or broadcast schedule. Many of us agreed with Buttry. We’d like to go further, but the decision was there simply wasn’t enough time to make such a drastic change on such relative short notice. A university committee governs our student media and the committee hires leaders for each traditional media outlet, according to the student media by-laws. There are also concerns of how advertisers would react.

Digital first is something you’ve likely heard quite a bit about in the past few days. The New Orleans Times-Picayune announced last week that it’s moving to a digital focus and reducing its daily print schedule to three days a week.

The University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald also announced last week that it’s reducing its print schedule to focus on digital, among many ambitious and exciting initiatives.

The Red & Black, the University of Georgia’s independent newspaper, reduced its print schedule to weekly to refocus on digital last year.

In some cases, but not all, a reduction in the print schedule is fueled by a desire to save money.

At a university, particularly one where student media is partly subsidized through an operating budget, we have the luxury that that is not the case.

We get to do this for the right reasons — that it’s the best way to prepare our students for the jobs they will have and because it is how people get their news now.

Simply put, digital first provides more up-to-date news in a more engaging way to better serve the public.

No one that I know in this business is anti-newspaper. However, those in touch with reality know changes like this are a necessity. We can’t cling to daily printed sheets of paper forever.

If there are skeptics, and I’m sure there are some, take comfort in the fact that if you are focused digitally the content will inherently be able to still meet the needs of the print or broadcast products. In fact, when done right, more news content should be produced and available for legacy outlets.

What we’ve found in our discussions about moving to digital first is that reducing the production time associated with traditional media allows for more time to be spent on producing journalism – and isn’t that what we’re all about, anyways?

Universities can take the lead. Some are doing that and we should. There is less pressure and fewer risks for us. If we want our students to enter an industry with a future we have to do our part to figure out new ways to provide great journalism.

I’ve shared a lot here. Now for the most important part: What are your suggestions and advice for going digital first?

Thanks in advance.