Lessons for online journalists from #CNNFail and the Iran uprising

As Iranians took to the streets over the weekend to protest the country’s recent election, thousands of users of Twitter were staging a protest of their own: against CNN for not devoting as much attention to the Iranian situation as Twitter users wanted.

The hashtag #CNNFail became one of the top trending topics on Twitter Saturday night, as Twitterers expressed their outrage over CNN airing repeats of feature interviews instead of live coverage of the protests.

On Saturday, I retweeted this comment from @pinoy2com: “#CNNfail is 4th most Tweeted keyword. A turning point for audiences signaling what they wanted covered by mainstream?”

Indeed. The virtual protest provided several valuable lessons for online journalists who wish to retain the respect and loyalty of their audiences in an increasingly interactive world. Here are 10 lessons from #CNNFail:

1) People still want news

Let’s not forget amid the culture of failure that’s consuming our industry that people still crave news about their community, and their world. They care. Don’t buy into the stereotype of modern individuals living in their own high-tech media cocoons.

That said, just because something runs in a newspaper or on a news website doesn’t make it newsworthy to the public. People are turning away from print editions and evening news broadcasts because they have more choices and because the information offered by traditional news outlets too often doesn’t measure up in information quality. Don’t mistake a public rejection of lazy reporting by over-stretched newsrooms that didn’t hire enough reporters with expertise in their fields as a rejection of the news. It is merely a rejection of cheap journalism conventionally packaged as news.

2) People want international news

Community news may be the foundation of traditional news reporting, but with the Internet linking like-minded people from around the globe, and immigration bringing people from many lands into readers’ hometowns, the geography of “community” is expanding for many readers. As immigration and the Internet introduces us to people from around the world, readers are more likely to feel a personal connection with news from those communities.

Again, don’t buy into a stereotype that people, especially Americans, don’t care about the world beyond their nations’ borders. They do… when there is real news to be told. (See point 1.)

3) People will get upset when they don’t find news where they expect it

On one level, #CNNFail speaks to the esteem with which many viewers held the news network. They expected CNN to cover this story, as it developed.

They didn’t expect that from Fox News, a propaganda arm of the Republican party’s right-wing with no track record of providing accurate and credible original reporting. Nor did they expect it, as much, from MSNBC, which is more widely known for its U.S. domestic political commentary (in the mornings from the right and the evenings from the left) than for international reporting.

CNN has delivered sharp international reporting in the past, and people expected the network to deliver it again. Once you’ve established a reputation for high quality, you have a responsibility to continue living up to that or else have your once-loyal consumers turn on you.

4) People will go wherever they need to get news

With CNN delivering reruns and feature interviews during the first night of the protests, people turned to what sources did deliver the news they wanted. And that turned out to be… each other, enabled by social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook. By using retweets and hashtags, the public became a virtual distribution networks for what information did trickle from Tehran that evening, either from amateur sources on the ground, or traditional news outlets such as the BBC that were feeding substantial coverage to the Web.

The challenge for news organizations, or even for solo publishers online, is to be able to provide that news channel when the public wants it, in a forum where people can find it. Fortunately, for cash-strapped newsrooms, we have lesson 5…

5) People want to participate in the news

People don’t just want news, they want to engage with it. This lesson should be obvious to any writer: Our craft is saturated with advice about “engaging” readers and “drawing them in” to a narrative. The best news doesn’t leave the reader as a passive observer, but brings him or her into the story, so that he or she can relate to it.

The Internet allows journalists to bring reader participation to an explicit level. The lure of Twitter lies in its invitation to the reader to become an actor in its narratives, to use their own status updates, retweets and replies to become one of the story-tellers, rather than remain a passive consumer.

Not everyone engages this option. But the fact that it is there, and one can see others engaging it, empowers even those who never tweet themselves.

So why not take advantage of this, to cover for your news organization’s lack of resources?

6) If you can’t afford to cover the world 24/7, empower your viewers and readers to help cover it for you

Yes, the devil’s in the details here in decided how such a system might be implemented, but too many news organizations today aren’t yet ready to even consider the idea of empowering readers to determine coverage. Let #CNNFail teach them the hazards of failing to do that. Yes, in an ideal newsroom, a robust network of foreign bureaus would stand ready to cover the news whenever it happens, and even small local papers would staff 24/7, but let’s face it, too few news organizations have that anymore.

I’m not suggesting that you merely turn over a section of your homepage to reader tweets. Or simply employ a Digg-like voting system to allow readers to move content toward the top of the page. Potential for spam and abuse is strong, and if there’s a lesson we’ve tried over the years to drive home to you on OJR, it’s that journalists need to cultivate communities before they should expect any meaningful content to spring from them.

So, let’s move to lesson 7.

7) Create and test a system for reader submissions and page editing before a crisis happens

A newsroom’s own employees must be the initial members of its online community. Empower them to post to the site directly, and to vote up others’ posts. Then extend that power to thoughtful commenters and other site visitors as you scale this feature to the point where it can be open to all readers, with the community policing itself.

Find how people try to abuse the system, then adapt the environment to withstand that. It takes time and programming skill – don’t pretend it won’t, and don’t shy away from paying for that. But the power you unleash with a well-designed and carefully cultivated reader community is the power to prevent #CNNFail and to provide the forum that readers want during important news events, no matter when or where they happen.

That brings me to two lessons not directly related to #CNNFail, but very much following the uprising:

8) Plan for rerouting news to the public should a medium fail or be blocked

If you want to be a force in your community, whether that be a single town or the entire world, you must be able to deliver your content. You’ll lose your audience if a government can block your website, or a lightning strike can take our your server.

The beauty of the Internet was its design as a distributed network, one that could route around any single point (or multiple points) of failure. Proxy hosting can help for large sites, but take this opportunity to rethink your approach to services like Facebook and Twitter, as well. These shouldn’t be afterthoughts in a promotional strategy. They can provide alternative distribution networks at times when circumstances force your news off the Web.

9) Plan for rerouting info from the public, as well

Information flows both ways now, especially so once you’ve engaged a reader community to start providing substantial content. In the weeks to come, I expect to see detailed analyses of how Iranians were able (or not) to overcome government efforts to block the flow of information within and out of the country. Someone in your organization should be geek enough to find and understand them, because these will be the additional lessons you must learn.

Another message I retweeted on Saturday, from @TeteSagehen: “Iranian regime tries to shut down Twitter, but API structure allows for endless workarounds by clever ppl. APIs = Freedom”

10) Close the loop by reporting on your efforts

You don’t need to do this on your own. Readers can, and will, help news organizations when those readers feel that their thoughtful input is welcomed, and respected. Tell them that you’re hearing the lessons from #CNNFail and want to learn from them. Report upon your progress in this process to involve your readership and create a distributed 24/7 news source that can’t be lost or blocked, by ill will or by Mother Nature.

There are great stories, and great resources, in any community. Let’s take #CNNFail as a reminder that we need to find them, and embrace them, before circumstances give our once-loyal readers and viewers another excuse to turn away.