My response to The Hartford Courant’s “Spanish-language strategy” with Google Translate

NOTE: This post originally appeared on Web Journalist Blog.

“Como una cortesía para The Courant, por demostrando ignorancia y falta de respeto a su propia comunidad, déjeme decir: lo cagaron.”

If you were to translate this using Google Translate, guess what… it would be wrong. Anyone who is bilingual wouldn’t be surprised. But they would be surprised in hearing that a news organization would solely depend on using this primitive service as their “Spanish-language strategy.”

Sadly, this isn’t a joke: Hartford Courant’s Spanish site is Google Translate by Poynter.

But, instead of just being disgusted or insulted by The Courant’s “strategy,” let me offer some tips for an actual strategy:

  1. Hire a diverse staff, and in this case, a Spanish speaker. Listen to them. Anyone in their right mind would have told you this was a bad idea.
  2. I know resources are tight, as an affordable alternative to hiring more staff, partner up with the local Spanish-language news organizations. Believe me, they are there. And they’d love to help you inform the community. (Hey Courant, have you tried working with Connecticut’s Latino News Source: ctlatinonews.com?)
  3. No Spanish-language news organization in your town? Look again. Think radio, newsletters or neighboring towns. Any of these will be better than an automated site.
  4. Still confused? Reach out to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists to find local members in your area, including Spanish-language news organizations.
  5. But, let’s say there are no Spanish-language news outlets. Partner up with the largest, Spanish-language local business. They know their community and are fully aware of the information network that is functioning now.

Lastly, apologize to the fastest growing demographic in your community for treating them with such little respect. It’s not a smart business move to belittle them, especially if you want to tap into their growing influence.

I preach experimentation, risk taking and embracing failure. You experimented and took a risk… and you failed. Oh, did you fail.

Learn from your big mistake and start genuinely engaging with your own diverse community.

Do you have any tips for The Courant or any other news organization trying to serve its Latino community? Please share them in the comments.

Oh, and if you are wondering, here’s how I’d translate my statement:

“As a courtesy to The Courant, for displaying its ignorance and lack of respect to its own community, let me say: you f&*#d up.”

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

What's missing from the debate on "rebooting journalism schools"

“Rebooting journalism schools” has been a hot topic this spring and summer, culminating at the recent convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in Chicago.

A key figure in the discussion is the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton, who headed a group of foundation leaders calling on America’s university presidents to put “top professionals in residence” and to focus on applied research. Newton had previously challenged journalism schools to consider a new degree structure to “put professionals on par with scholars and give the highest credentials to people who are both.” This Newton post offers a good sampling of the discussion to date.

Another leading voice is the Poynter Institute’s Howard Finberg, whose speech in Europe in June helped launch the debate. Finberg followed with a good summation.

It’s a lively discussion. Lots of truths have been spoken, lots of silly things said, and many topics worthy of debate have been raised. Here are a few points I think need adding (or stressing more than they have been to date):

It’s about the PUBLIC. This is after all the POINT of journalism. These are the people for whom it all exists. Remembering this can help us focus on the most critical questions: How do we work most effectively with the folks who are now creating the journalism with us? How do we best engage citizens? At the heart of this debate, we must place their needs and wants -– indeed, the ways in which they are actively reinventing journalism even as we discourse about it. The current discussion seems to harbor the notion that the debate is primarily between the academy and the “industry” –- an idea that is sorely out of date.

There is no end-point. No matter how effectively we debate this, no matter how well we “solve” the questions confronting us, there’ll be no stasis. These conversations have been going on for a good while (here’s a summation of one from two years ago at AEJMC) and they’ll go on for a long time more. Change is our new reality, and it isn’t going away. As Google’s Richard Gingras said at AEJMC, “How can we create work cultures of constant innovation?” (His questions at the end of the speech are terrific thought-provokers.)

Indeed, Gingras had a great closer — especially for an audience that hasn’t exactly been marked over the years by revolutionary zeal: “The success of journalism’s future … can only be assured to the extent that each and every person in this room and beyond helps generate the excitement, the passion, and the creativity to make it so.”

Research must be tuned up to match the urgent need for informed change. Insults are always traded on this question between academics and practitioners, but the truth is the best stuff often comes from a union of the two. Giving pros a chance to be part of the academy produces all kinds of wonderful work. Last year we brought veteran editor Melanie Sill to Annenberg, steeped her in academic life for one semester, and she turned out a terrific “Case for Open Journalism Now: A New Framework for Informing Communities.” Same thing happened with David Westphal a couple of years earlier, who turned out richly helpful (OK, he’s my husband; it’s still true), reports on foundation funding and the role of government.

Similarly, Columbia put Len Downie and Michael Schudson together on “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” and followed that with a fine “The Story So Far: What we know about the business of digital journalism.”

Lots of good work is happening in the more traditional academic ways, as well. Here are two examples, thanks to Carrie Brown-Smith. AEJMC president Linda Steiner’s contribution to the debate correctly points us to AEJMC’s “Research you can use,” a project I was involved in many years ago when I first came over to the academy from the practice, but which has never quite caught on.

That’s in part because of the pace at which academics embrace (or don’t embrace) change. Carrie Brown-Smith of the University of Memphis comments wryly, following the Finberg posting, on the posturing and “hand-ringing by mostly well-established senior faculty.” She adds: “We just need to get off our duff and make an effort to use the unprecedented array of tools at our disposal to connect with professionals, such as blogs and social media.”

Still, it remains true that key questions cry out for thoughtful research while too many scholars toil endlessly over arcana. What might we do to encourage web media to fill more reporting gaps? How can we better understand how people use online information? Are we seeing any impact from our student’s greatly increased understanding of the “business” side of journalism? How might we assess empirically the decline of the quality of journalism and its impact –- if indeed we can establish with certainty that there is one?

We must redefine our “market.” We know that the quality of journalism depends on the quality of the demand for it. How might we play a greater role in media literacy? We know that the academy seems to be experiencing some of the disruption that has hit so many media institutions. What if we put these two facts together and started serving more and more of the public in smaller chunks of time (and money)?. Finberg cites a great example: UC Davis is experimenting with “digital badge” programs that can “measure core competences rather than the standard three-credit course.”

We can build on the far richer connection that now exists between the academy and journalism professionals. Oddly, the current debate has several references to an increase in the long-lamented distance between the academy and the practice. Finberg did a survey and found that 95 percent of academics thought a journalism degree was vital to “understanding the value of journalism,” while only 56 percent of professionals agreed. That sounds remarkably promising to me. Given the history of this relationship, I’d be amazed if more than a quarter of practitioners would have agreed with the academics on their positive assessment (of their own work, mind you) a decade ago. We are seeing evidence every day that media professionals want to work with journalism schools. In fact they are doing so in ever-increasing numbers of partnerships and collaborations. Good things can come of this.

We need to be the labs that experiment and test new techniques and share lessons about best practices. We at USC Annenberg are lucky enough to be one of three testbeds (along with CUNY and UNC) for Geanne Rosenberg’s terrific project on best legal practices. Like many other schools, we are creating new apps and new methods of journalism in our Annenberg Innovation Lab and our Mobile News Incubator. It’s not easy or neat. I got a call as I was writing this post about yet another intellectual property question we don’t seem to have given proper attention to. But that’s exactly the kind of challenge we ought to be confronting — and helping the practice deal with.

Diversity! My final point brings us back to the beginning. This is about the public. And the entire public is not old, white and male (I can say that, since I’m two of those). We can’t serve, be partners with, or even begin to understand a diverse population –- if we’re not one. And we mostly are not. A remarkable number of discussions on the future of journalism –- the FUTURE of journalism –- are conducted by groups that look like the Kiwanis club of Peoria in 1950. This won’t do. When we hire and put into place people who look like the future and are excited about its promise — that is when rebooting ceases to be a conversation and becomes reality. The biggest change we need in journalism schools is an ever-changing cast of characters.

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.