Sunday, August 26, 2018

Curiosity: The Most Important Thing for Communicators

A young friend—a student in a creative communications progam—recently asked me to name the one skill that has been especially useful to me in my career.

“It seems that the communications world is changing so much that some of the skills I put time into learning might not be as valuable years down the road,” he said.

“Can you think of skills that you've always improved upon that haven't gone out of style?”

What would you respond?

What I told him was that the most important thing for me in my 37 years of doing journalism, communications and marketing is not a skill at all.

It’s curiosity.

For me, if there is any one thing that separates great communicators from good or average communicators, it is being curious about the world.

Curiosity is not a skill; it is a quality of your personality, something you develop and nurture.

It is always asking: "Why?"

Fortunately, many of the people attracted to careers in journalism or communications are headed that way because they are curious—they want to know why the world works the way it does, or why people behave the way they do.

As for the skills needed to do communications, those will always be changing.

I have seen that up-close during my career.

Since I started in 1981, I've gone from the world of Gutenberg to the world of Google; from mailing press releases to fax to e-mail; from pasting up magazine pages to graphic design programs; from land lines to cell phones; from printed newspapers to social media.

It’s been an amazing and dizzying trip. So many changes! 

But one thing has always stayed the same for me: Being curious about the world, and then telling the stories I find along the way.

And when you are curious, there's no end to the stories you will find.

My friend Steve Bell put it this way, in the context of songwriting.

When people compliment him on the songs he writes, he demurs, telling them that the songs are all out there—he just bumps into them because he has his antennae up.

Similarly, good communicators are people who have their antennae up. They can’t help bumping into stories, no matter where they go—because stories are everywhere.

Of course, having good skills is also important, especially at a time when the way people receive information is changing so fast.

But just knowing how to use the latest technology isn’t enough. I have met skilled communicators who turn out pedestrian work.

The best communicators, in my opinion, are the ones who see stories that others don't. They have their antennae up all the time.

They are always alert and alive to the story ideas that are all around them; they can't stop looking for them.

After finding the stories, they need to know the best ways to tell them. That's where skill comes in.

But it all starts with curiosity, so you can use your skills to tell the stories you find. 

One of the best quotes about the role of technology versus storytelling comes from famed American journalist Edward R. Murrow.

Murrow, who died in 1965, never got to see how computers changed the way we communicate. He never knew about something called the Internet.

But he saw enough to know what they could—and couldn’t—do.

Said Murrow:

The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.

That, and how to be, and stay, curious. 

Image above from The Hans India. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Pink Gorilla Suits, or Getting Media Attention for Charity Runs, Walks and Whatever

A friend wrote recently to ask for advice about raising money for cancer research.

His children were planning a run in a local park to raise funds in memory of their child—my friend’s grandchild—who had died of a brain tumor.

He wanted to know: How could he get media attention for the run to raise funds for other children and parents in the same situation?

After expressing sympathy for the loss of his grandchild, I told him the truth: It would be very hard.

The best way, I said, would be to tell the story of the grandchild, or what his loss meant to the parents, or about others facing the same thing.

But even then, it would be tough.

It’s not that the media are jaded, or don’t want to help people raise funds for good causes for things like this.

It’s just that there’s so many of them. It’s impossible for the media to cover them all.

I know; as a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, I get e-mails from people who want me to write about their fundraising efforts of various kinds.

There just isn’t enough time or space to write about every one.

Ever since Terry Fox tried to run one-legged across Canada in 1980, there have been multiple runs, walks, rollerbladings and whatever else across the country, or in most any locality.

All of them are well-meaning, done for the best and most altruistic purposes.

And all of them want media attention.

Frankly, it’s impossible for the media to do that, especially considering the downsizing that has occurred at most media outlets lately.

A gimmick helps, like the man who is rollerblading from Manitoba to the Pacific Ocean in a pink gorilla suit.

(Although the publicity didn’t necessarily help in this particular case, since reporters also discovered he has been charged with fraud—not exactly a stirring endorsement for someone who wants you to donate to their cause.)

As for cross-country charity walks, runs and whatever, not only are they hard to do and get media attention for, they often fail to raise as much funds as hoped.

This was addressed by the National Post in 2017.

In an article titled Why your noble plan to cycle or run across Canada for charity is probably a bad idea, author Tristin Hopper notes that some of these efforts fail to even cover expenses.

A cross-Canada marathon “remains lodged in the Canadian psyche as a noble and surefire way to support a cause, but it can be one of the least efficient ways to generate money for charity,” he writes.

In many cases, participants “would have generated more cash for their cause if they’d just stayed put, gotten an entry-level construction or resource job and donated the paycheque to charity.”

Which raises another important point; the media is wary of lending its support to charitable causes today—they don't want to be accused of promoting efforts that defraud donors.

So don't be surprised if reporters want to know if causes are connected to reputable charities, have the proper permits and approvals, and can explain how expenses will be covered.

So: What to do if you want to do a run or walk or something else for charity?

Plan for it as if the media won’t cover it. Use social media, personal networks, word-of-mouth, whatever.

And if they do cover it, be prepared for anything—even if you have a gimmick like a pink gorilla suit.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

New Story Formats to Attract Younger Readers Online

It’s the Holy Grail for communicators today: What will attract the attention of readers online, and then hold it?

(And if you don’t know what a Holy Grail is, then I’ve either piqued your interest or you’ve already moved on.)

That’s the quest the BBC set out on. (There’s that Grail image again.)

Over a period of eight weeks, the British broadcaster tried various new storytelling formats to see what kept younger people engaged.

In an article titled 12 Prototypes, Eight Weeks and Lots of Tapping, What’s Worked and Hasn’t in the BBC’s Quest for New Storytelling Formats, the broadcaster spent two months testing new ways of appealing to younger readers.

As Tristan Ferne, the lead producer for the BBC’s research and development unit put it: What could they do to “make online news more accessible, engaging and relevant to young people?”

Their goal was to move beyond just publishing several hundred words.

With a traditional article, “there is no interaction,” said Ferne.

“This audience is spending all their time in Snapchat and Twitter, where there’s constant interaction in the interface. There’s stuff to do with your thumbs: You can swipe, scroll, tap. We found that [users] expected that.”

What Worked

And so what did they find worked the best?

When readers see a highlighted text, they can click on it to pop out some more information. (Like above, with the holy grail, but keeping them on the page.)
With expanders references to various terms, events and ideas can be expanded to give readers context, definitions and additional information to help them understand the story better.
Jump Offs.
Don’t want to read the whole article? Readers can jump off by clicking on a different way of getting the same content—a video or audio clip, for example. It could be video or audio of the author saying, in his or her own words, the main point of the piece.
Fast Forward.
Not only should the video they jump to have subtitles, it should be easy to speed up or reverse. Skimmable video, in other words. (As in the image above from the BBC.)
After all, most people can read faster than others can talk. So why wait for them to say it?
Through viewpoints, readers are invited to share their opinions or vote on an issue. For example, after presenting an issue two points of view are expressed; readers are asked to vote for the one they favour, and share their own ideas.
What Didn’t Work
Not everything they tried worked, like the ideas below.
Setting the stage with background audio when users started reading an article was too distracting for testers. And maybe a bit cheesy, too.
Drawing In.
“We tried to present a story like the intro to a movie,” says Ferne. “We started with background sound and blurry visuals and as you scrolled it came into focus and there was a bit of background video, like the scene of the story before the story came in.”
But it didn’t work—people wanted to know right away what the story was about before investing time in it. No teasers!
                                                      *     *      *
Looking at the list, I feel tired; who has time to do all that? But if that’s the way communication is going, communicators will need to follow.
What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Nine Ways Newspapers Can Reconnect with Readers

It’s no secret the media is in trouble.

Newspapers, in particular, are really on the ropes.

The main reason is the loss of advertising revenue. For decades, newspapers built their business model on businesses buying ads.

Circulation was still important, especially since it helped establish the price of ads. The more subscribers you had, the more you could charge for advertising.

But circulation wasn’t enough to pay the bills.

As the old adage put it, circulation paid for the paper and ink, but ads paid for the journalism.

When its business model fell apart, newspapers were in trouble.

Faced with the loss of advertising revenue, newspapers turned to the other source of dollars—readers.

But circulation was in decline, too.

At the very time newspapers needed readers to help them survive, they found many of them were gone.

Now they want to get them back, and attract new ones.

But how?

A new book out of Denmark offers some suggestions.

Titled The Journalistic Connection, the book is the result of year-long research in Europe and the U.S.

The authors visited 54 media companies pioneering new ways to connect with their audiences and communities and came up with nine suggestions for ways forward.

1. From neutrality to identity.

In order for people to relate and identity with the media, they must show “what you stand for,” the researchers say.

“Show them who you are, and from which perspective — geographically, socio-demographically, or politically — you view the world.”

2. From omnibus to niche.


Apart from a very few media with global reach, all media can be considered niche operations. However, many broad-reaching legacy media hesitate to openly show and communicate which niche audience they seek to engage.”


Targeted niche media show it “is possible to create both quality journalism of high public value and cater to targeted audiences at the same time.”


3. From flock to club.


Gathering people around the news media, in clearly defined communities — clubs — is a strategy gaining momentum on both sides of the Atlantic. This implies transforming what were formerly known as subscribers, users, or readers into members, that must either register or pay to join the inner circles of the crowd around the news media.”


4. From ink to sweat.


“Many media companies are pursuing new ways to create physical journalism in the form of public meetings, festivals, events, and stage plays. Live and engaging. And yes, they consider it journalism.”

(The Winnipeg Free Press experimented with something like this, with its cafe, as in the photo above.)


5. From speaking to listening.


The legacy media business often has the character of a walled fortress more than of an open and accessible house. But both in the U.S. and Europe, news organizations are increasingly opening up — physically and mentally — in order to be more accessible to the citizens they serve.”


More than anything, “this means listening to citizens and creating more transparency in editorial matters. This can be done through direct personal dialogue, through physical presence in communities, or through the systematic use of small and big data.”


6. From arm’s length to cooperation.


“In order to maintain independence and neutrality, modern journalism has kept its distance, holding everyone outside the newsroom at arm’s length: citizens, interest groups, public institutions, private corporations, decision makers.”


However, “this pattern is clearly changing. More and more newsrooms are involving citizens directly throughout the journalistic process: from ideation to research to delivery of independent content to the subsequent debate of published stories.”


Without giving up editorial gate keeping, a number of media are working with local groups, NGOs and public institutions “as a way to create a both substantially deeper and more engaging journalism.”


7. From own to other platforms.


The consensus in the media today is that it “weakens business opportunities of the news media and their journalistic control when they put their content on social media.”


And “using social media is a double-edged sword. [B]ut handled in the right way — maybe more as a way to cooperate than distribute — social network technologies have big potential to enhance and deepen engagement, while at the same time creating stronger journalism.”


8. From problem to solution.


Even the most hardcore investigative journalists have discovered they gain greater impact if they add a solution-oriented level to their work.”


Also known as solutions journalism, constructive journalism “creates more engagement among readers, users, viewers. They read more, they are more likely to share content, and they express more interest in knowing more about the issue when the piece has a constructive angle.”


9. From observers to activists.


Several news outlets are testing “whether they can create a new relevance to their readers, users, and viewers through activist campaigns or journalistic advocacy. This move is particularly controversial for many journalists.”



The researchers conclude that the media which are most successful at creating and maintaining ties with their readers, users, listeners and viewers “will increasingly be media that dare challenge some of the journalist dogmas of the last century: the dogma of arm’s length; the dogma of neutrality; the dogma of objectivity; the belief that journalists have a special ability to find and choose what is important for citizens.”

For journalism to be relevant for citizens in the future, they go on to say, “it will to a large extent need to challenge these deeply rooted professional dogmas, thus creating a media landscape that is more varied, more lively, more organically open to the citizens and much more diverse than the news industry we have seen for a hundred years.”

Challenging words. What do you think?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Canadians and Increased Foreign Aid: Do They Support It?

Do Canadians support an increase in the foreign aid budget?

That’s the question Angus Reid, in partnership with World Vision Canada, sought to answer in March.

They asked the question after the Federal Government increased the amount it was prodiving for foreign aid in the 2018 budget.

The survey concluded that Canadians have mixed feelings about an increase to the aid budget.

On the one hand, 64% of Canadians say Canada has a “moral obligation to help those in developing countries.”

Yet only 28% say Canada should spend more than it currently does. 27% say it should spend less, and 46% say it is about right.

This lack of support for an increase in aid persists even when Canadians are told that Canada’s aid spending is way below the internationally-accepted target of 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI).

Speaking of which, 48% of Canadians think Canada is spending more than 0.7%, or that it has already reached that target.

Only 26% know Canada is below the target for aid spending.

Why Should Canada Provide Aid?

When asked why Canada should provide aid, the top reason is to alleviate suffering (45%), followed by helping people become more self-sufficient (44%).

Other reasons, in order, are more global stability and peace (29%), reducing the threat of terrorism (14%), uniting different cultures and building bonds between people (10%), providing opportunities for Canadian business (8%).

13% said they could see no benefits of government aid.

Concerns About Aid

The main concern Canadians have about government aid is that it doesn’t reach those who need it most (50%).

39% are worried that it is being wasted or used inefficiently; 37% think it will divert funds away from needs at home; 16% think Canada can’t afford it; 11% think it is badly spent on poor projects; 8% don’t think we get enough bang for the buck.

As for who holds these concerns, older Canadians (55-plus) are most likely to worry about aid not reaching the needy, and waste.

Giving and Engagement

As for how many Canadians personally donate to Canadian aid groups, 21% say they make a donation.

When asked how they give, 56% say it is a spontaneous response, likely to a natural disaster or other crisis in the news.

44% say they plan their giving. Importantly for NGOs, those who say they plan their giving also give more.

The most common amount given by those who donate is between $101 and $250 a year, according to the pollster.

When it comes to engagement, 45% say they are engaged with an NGO by receiving mail or e-mail or following them on social media, or by donating.

55% say they have no involvement at all.

Of those who say they are most supported of Canadian aid—what the pollster calls the “true believers”—only 33% have made a donation and 40% say they have no connection to any NGO.

This show, the pollster says, that even among the top supporters of aid “there are still a great deal of people on the sidelines.”

In terms of what causes people personally want to support, the well-being of children is first, followed by health, humanitarian relief, alleviation of extreme poverty, human rights (including the rights of women), economic development and refugees.

As always, surveys like this are to be taken with a grain of salt. 

I'd guess that, for many respondents, the first time they thought about the subject of aid was when they were contacted by the pollster. And the answers people give are shaped by the questions they are asked.

But it is still good information, and corroborates what other surveys have discovered about Canadian attitudes towards aid. 

And if nothing else, they remind NGO professionals that we live in a bubble, and the way we see the world is not the way everyone sees it.

And that's always a good reminder.

Read the full report here.

Also see another report from Angus Reid about Canadian attitudes towards foreign aid.

Recent Survey on Canadian Attitudes to International Relief & Development

When it comes to international relief and development, the two issues Canadians care about most are the safety and well-being of children, followed by humanitarian relief .

That’s one conclusion from a recent survey of Canadian attitudes towards international relief and development.

The survey by Angus Reid, which was undertaken with support from World Vision Canada, was released on March 18. It has some interesting findings for Canadian NGOs.

According to the survey, 72% of Canadians say they are proud of the work being done by Canadian NGOs.

Yet trust in NGOs is perilous, with only 27% saying all or most NGOs can be trusted to use donor dollars effectively.

At the same time, 77% express frustration that no matter what is done, the situation in the developing world doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Despite that 75% say even helping just one family is worth the effort.

As for the main goal of development work by Canadian NGOs, 45% say it should be helping those in need.

Communicating About Development

When it comes to communications from NGOs, only 28% say international relief and development agencies clearly communicate what they are doing overseas.

Given today’s tough communications environment, it’s hard to fault NGO communicators for not being able to reach large numbers of Canadians.

Yet only 34% of those who say they are heavily involved say “the impact of their (NGO) work is very clear.”

Issues Canadians Care About

When it comes to issues Canadians care about, the safety and well-being of children in the developing world is first at 50%, followed by humanitarian relief following natural disasters (44%).

The others, in order, are refugees and human rights (both at 38%), health (34%), economic development (30%) and extreme poverty (22%).

When asked which of these issues Canada should take a leadership role in, the safety and well-being of children was first, followed by human rights, health, economic development, natural disasters, refugees and extreme poverty.

Based on an average of all seven issues, the pollster says 30% of Canadians believe Canada take a leadership role in international development.

58% say Canada has a role to play, but no more than other rich countries.

Only 12% say Canada should play no role in development.

Millennials and Development

Since the future of Canadian NGOs will be determined by younger people, what do they think about aid?

The pollster found that millennials don’t have much money to give, but the want to help.

They are also the most optimistic about aid, believing aid from Canada can have a positive impact in the developing world.

They are also more likely to say Canada should take a leadership role in development,

Notably, the pollster says, “they are no more likely than other generations to say NGOs . . . can be trusted to deliver effective aid.”

Religion and Development

The survey underscores the importance of religiosity when it comes to supporting efforts to help the world’s poorest people.

According the survey, 71% of religious Canadians say they are “heavily involved” in development issues.

This compares to 29% of non-religious people who say the same.
According to the pollster, “the activities of the church have played a foundational role in Canadian society, especially at the community level . . . in the NGO community, religious affiliation has been common as well.”

As always, surveys like this are to be taken with a grain of salt. 

I'd guess that, for many respondents, the first time they thought about the subject of aid was when they were contacted by the pollster. And the answers people give are shaped by the questions they are asked.

But it is still good information, and corroborates what other surveys have discovered about Canadian attitudes towards aid. 

And if nothing else, they remind NGO professionals that we live in a bubble, and the way we see the world is not the way everyone sees it.

And that's always a good reminder.

Read the full survey report here.

Also see another recent report from Angus Reid about whether Canadians support an increase in Canada's aid budget. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

First it was Unbundled. Now is it Time for the Media to be Unscaled?

Are you ready for a magazine called "Me"?

In a previous post, I wrote about how the media had become unbundled.

That process is pretty much complete.

As I wrote earlier, the media became bundled as a way to most efficiently and effectively serve its customers. 

It was not profitable, or even possible, to deliver each article the moment it was finished.

So publishers collected articles into daily, weekly and monthly bundles called newspapers and magazines.

They then delivered these bundles of information to readers.

This bundling had the positive, and perhaps unintended, effect of being attractive to advertisers, who wanted to reach the most people.

Then the Internet came along and disrupted this practice of bundling.

Now that the barrier of cost and efficiency was eliminated; single articles could now be shared immediately and inexpensively.

There was no need to bundle them together anymore.

Since the media's business model was built on bundling, and with it the ability to attract advertisers, this was devastating.

Since the early 2000s, advertising revenues have been falling. In the U.S., newspaper advertising fell from $49 billion in 2006 to $18 billion in 2017.

But if unbundling was the cause of the problem, can it also be a solution—from an advertising point of view?

Yes, say authors Hemant Taneja and Kevin Maney in their new book Unscaled: How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts Are Creating the Economy of the Future.

In it, they say the main idea behind business in the 20th century was to get bigger—to scale up.

The reason was simple: By being bigger, they could take advantages of economies of scale.

For the media, this meant newspaper chains buying more titles, and broadcast companies buying more stations.

That way, they could attract more eyeballs, making them more attractive to advertisers (especially national advertisers).

But this traditional idea of “scaling up” in business has been disrupted.

Today, most advertisers aren’t interested in reaching the masses. They are more interested in reaching individuals who are interested in their products—micro-targeting.

And so they have fled things like traditional newspapers, TV and radio for platforms like Google and Facebook where they can put their ads in front of people who want to see them.

For the media, this is a huge loss. But, the authors say, it may also be an opportunity.

It means moving from a mass market—larger circulations or listeners or viewers—to an audience of one.

Here’s how it might work.

Through AI, the media can now learn exactly what I am interested in reading, seeing or listening to.

It can then create special editions or channels for each reader, viewer or listener—a product geared just to me.

This now becomes attractive to advertisers, who can target their ads to me and what I am interested in.

In an article on Nieman Reports, Taneja and Maney write:

“AI holds the key to media profits. The most valuable advertising online today is the most targeted. Advertisers will pay more to a Facebook or Google because it can learn about you from your activity and fire ads at you that you’ll likely want to see.

“AI-driven media platforms will take that to the next level. If you opt in and let your media access data from your online and offline activity you’ll only see ads for products you’re likely to desire—and only see the kinds of ads that are effective on you.”

Of course, this raises other concerns: Won’t people become even more isolated inside their individual political, racial, religious and other silos?

That is a big issue. Maybe it can be countered by ensuring that no matter what is in my special feed, there is always an option to catch other important news.

Of course, it’s already happening at a user level; we pre-select the websites we will visit, the news sources we follow, the friends we accept on Facebook.

But what Taneja and Maney are suggesting will take it to a different level. 

Back in the selfish and self-absorbed 1980s, the old joke was that magazines had gone from Life to People to Us.

Soon, it was said, someone will create a magazine called Me.

That wasn’t possible back then. Soon it may be literally true.