Five lessons from 2007

We hope that you’ve been reading, enjoying and learning from OJR throughout 2007. But just in case you’ve, um, missed an article or two here is one editor’s humble attempt to distill an entire year’s articles into five simple lessons.

1. Newspapers: Get a breaking news blog

I asked several friends of OJR to suggest their favorite news sites and features of the past year, and many Southern California neighbors pointed toward the coverage of this year’s wildfires by the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune’s

In May, I wrote about the Los Angeles Times’ use of a breaking news blog to keep readers informed about that month’s wildfires, which struck the city’s popular Griffith Park.

Blogs are the ideal format for breaking news, as they allow newsrooms to swiftly publish little bits of information, as they are confirmed, and without having to weave them into a traditional story format. They also make it easy for readers to see “the latest” on a developing story, rewarding the reader and making it easier for traditional-print newsrooms to compete with the immediacy of broadcast media.

2. Get widget love

Text, photos and video are just three of the tools available to online news publishers, with which to engage readers and hook ’em into spending more time with your site.

Millions of Web readers are using online widgets, from embedded YouTube videos to online polls, to dress up their blogs, personal websites and Facebook and MySpace pages. There’s nothing keeping news publishers from using these same tools, as well.

  • The LAT and SignonSanDiego employed Google Maps in addition to blogging, to help readers see where the fires were, in relation to their homes and workplaces.
  • Easy-to-use online polling tools can help news publishers provide an attractive way to get readers to contribute their first bits of content to a website, leading them into discussions and other ways of participating on the site.
  • Check out OJR’s “to-do” guide on publishing tools, for more low- and no-cost widgets that you can employ to help spice up the functionality of your webpages.
  • And don’t forget the Web’s original interactive widget: hyperlinking, which can help enliven any news story by providing additional context and background, without interrupting its narrative flow.

    3. Learn from sports how to engage readers

    While newspaper websites tend to do well in moving pageviews and attracting audience during major breaking news events, most of such sites do a poor job to drawing traffic and building community on a daily basis.

    With one exception. At most newspapers websites I’ve encountered, the same section of the site consistently leads in traffic, comments posted to the site and inbound links from other sites.

    That’s sports.

    Sports provides the best training ground for managing reader comments, its columnists transition well to blogging, and sports desks tend to have many writers and editors who are heavy Web users themselves, allowing them to bring all the pieces together in compelling and heavily read Web productions.

    Not to mention that sports reporters tend to have no fear of data, using sports stats on a daily basis. So the next time you are assigned to put together a new online publishing project, why not bring on some help from your sports department — or look to a sports blogger for inspiration?

    4. Ask readers for information, not articles

    The failure of one “citizen journalism” Web business after another this year ought to be showing news publishers that a business model based on readers doing reporters’ jobs for free isn’t working.

    That does not mean that readers do not have information that can build the foundation for a website. Or that readers are unwilling to share that information. It’s just that they are not, except in rare or special circumstances, going to produce that information within or according to traditional journalism story formats.

    Instead, ask for information in nuggets: A photo, a short eyewitness report or a questionnaire. Use crowdsourcing techniques to collect sets of data that you can use to provide a well-reported investigative feature or breaking news package.

    User-generated content powers many of the Web’s most popular sites, from blog communities to discussion forums to photo-sharing and other social networks. News publishers can better employ the power of “UGC” for journalism if they resist the temptation to see content-generating users as replacements for reporters and start looking at them as great potential sources.

    5. Call out the liars

    The new year will challenge all online news publishers. Not because the new year will bring its own news stories, new website competitors and new temptations for readers’ time. Almost certainly, 2008 will see the popping of the housing bubble drag the U.S. economy into recession. That will further endanger ad revenue even as publishers hope for election-year campaign advertising to surge.

    How do you distinguish yourself among all this information competition? Don’t rely on the value of and goodwill toward your publications “brand.” If that was gonna bail you out, it would have already. No, news publishers need to provide information that is more timely, more accurate, and above all, more useful and rewarding to their readers in order to claim a larger share of what might be in 2008 a shrinking ad revenue pie.

    Readers today are drowning in lies: People lying about their employment and income to get home mortgages. Mortgage lenders lying about their borrowers’ lies. People lying about relationships and pre-existing conditions to get health insurance. Politicians lying about criminal investigations, CIA tapes, Iranian nuclear programs, disaster preparations, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, etc.

    The news sites that prosper in 2008 and beyond will be the ones that do not leave their readers hanging with “he said, she said” coverage, but that report aggressively to reveal to readers who’s lying and who is telling the truth.

    The online medium is changing journalism. But not just to make it a 24/7, global, clickable and interactive. By unleashing fresh competition on the field, it is pressuring established newsrooms to wake up from their lazy practice of stenography-as-journalism, and start calling out the liars again.

    Now, whether those newsrooms respond to that pressure by stepping up their reporting… or by badmouthing the ‘Net, is up to their leaders.

    We’ll see what happens in 2008. Happy holidays!

  • About Robert Niles

    Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


    1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for suggestion number five.

      I’m a small-town journalist and probably am in no position to talk, but I am sick to death of national journalists serving as stenographers — when they know what they’re writing is crap.

      The best journalism of the year is the stuff that debunked what we thought we knew or what we had been told — Charlie Savage’s Globe pieces are a remarkable example.

      But I’m afraid that suggestion #5 will remain largely a suggestion. I am not hopeful that corporate journalism organizations will support stories that leave them vulnerable to attacks simply because they have gone where the herd is not.

      Real press criticism seems to have gone to the blogs, where it becomes instantly partisan and therefore easy to ignore.

      I am, however, glad that an influential publication such as OJR saw fit to link truth-telling to business growth.

    2. Halilu Usman says:

      NILES- kindly recall my comment on independent journalism sometime ago. While I thank you very much for, once again bringing to the forefront the vextious issue of ethical journalism, I am confident that the Online Journalism practitioners can take the lead in the business of telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In my opinion that is the only way we can make a difference and force the traditional media practitioners to take the cue. We all need to realize the fact that if we are not telling the truth, we are simply lying.

      A wonderfull year ahead to you, Shafqat Islam, Robin Miller, Hong Hung, Juli Schatz, Jean Yung, Tish Grier, Maryn McKenna, Cody Stasiak, Michael Parks, Xeni Jardin, Chris Jennewein, Anthony Moor, Lisa Stone, and every other person at OJR.