Study of engaging digital stories helps stations’ newsrooms set priorities

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A new vocabulary is emerging in public radio newsrooms to help journalists communicate and make decisions about online coverage that attracts and builds digital audiences.

Developed through the Local Stories Project, an NPR Digital Services initiative that began as a geotargeting experiment on Facebook, the vocabulary includes phrases like “topical buzzer” — a story that provides a unique take on a subject that everyone is talking about — or  “curiosity stimulator,” for a piece with a science or technology angle. The concepts are explained in this blog post, “9 Types of Local Stories that Cause Engagement.”

2a9Types1422As newsrooms around the country adjust to the demands of producing distinctive coverage within their local markets, reporters increasingly are required to serve two news platforms, each with a different audience, without spinning their wheels.

“It’s like growing a new arm, while your other arms are busy doing what you do. That’s a resource-challenging thing to do,” said Mike Marcotte, a former president of Public Radio News Directors Inc. who is developing a student-produced statewide news site at the University of New Mexico.

To be successful with multiplatform journalism, news directors need a strategy to narrow the range of story topics and possibilities and back away from the all-purpose broadcast newsroom model, Marcotte said.

Michigan Public Radio News Director Vince Duffy and his staff have made some progress on this. As participants in the Local Stories Project, members of the news team know the terminology and use it during editorial meetings.

The station is one of 36 that received Knight-funded intensive training with NPR Digital last year and has adopted the “9-types tool” in planning online coverage. The tool helps Duffy and his reporters figure out how to make the most of their limited resources when defining online story assignments.

Last year NPR Digital defined the story categories during a pilot testing how to adapt stations’ local coverage for the best possible digital treatment on Facebook. NPR Digital adapted local stories for online publication, posted them on the NPR Facebook page and tracked how its followers responded. Each of the posts was geotagged, so that only Facebook followers in Seattle, for example, saw Seattle stories.

“We defined success with level of engagement,” said Kim Perry, NPR’s director of coaching and development. “Where they are clicking on a story, where they are sharing a story, where they are commenting on it.”

By collecting data on the various reactions, NPR assigned a “virality” number to each post. By using that metric, Perry and her team came up with the list “9 Types of Local Stories that Cause Engagement.” Posts that achieved minimum virality of .7 percent — where at least .7 percent of all the people who saw the post did something with it — were used to create the categories.

At Michigan Radio, Digital Editor Mark Brush takes the lead in shaping reporters’ stories for online publication. As stories take shape, he evaluates their potential for online coverage by evaluating how they fit the “9 Stories” framework. “I think, ‘Oh, that would actually be a good news explainer,’” he said. Stories adapted for the station’s website often fall into more than one of the nine categories, Brush said.

Brush works with reporters to make their online stories more sharable, a craft that often centers on writing headlines and pulling together photography or other graphic elements.

With this focused approach Michigan Radio saw its pageviews jump by about a million — from 2.5 million to 3.5 million — over a six-month period last year. This year, the numbers are up by 500,000 over the same period last year.

Vermont Public Radio also uses the nine-story framework to shape its online coverage. When the state implemented a new law banning handheld use of cellphones in cars, the station produced an online-only “news explainer” about how to comply with the law. News Director John Dillon assigned the piece, knowing that it wasn’t “gonna be a brilliant broadcast story” but would “be a service to people,” he said.

For him, the “9 story types” have broadened the editorial perspective for evaluating news coverage.

“It’s nice to have these additional templates to think about rather than, you know, just sound-rich audio features,” Dillon said.

WNPR in Connecticut has also seen its web traffic increase since its newsroom began using the “9 stories” tool. News Director John Dankosky said it has changed the way journalists pitch stories in editorial meetings.

“We get our reporters and producers to think if their stories fit into one of these nine categories. That’s been a huge help,” Dankosky said.

“There is so much stuff that we have to get on both on air and online with our talk shows and news,” Dankosky said. “It’s almost like we have to have a whole new set of standards for how and why we tell stories.”

‘4 Tiers’ predecessor

Until NPR Digital unveiled the “9 stories” tool, the strongest editorial framework for managing the limited resources of local public radio newsrooms was the “4 Tiers of News,” written by former NPR programmer Jay Kernis. The document grew from the Public Radio Program Directors Association’s 2004 Core Values research. It still holds up for public radio’s on-air coverage decisions.

No matter the size of the newsroom, the “4 Tiers” tell reporters and news directors what types of stories would be worth pursuing to get the biggest impact.

Rather than spitting out 45-second spot reports generated from news conferences, the “4 Tiers” prioritize coverage of unique local stories and investigative features.

For online coverage planning, newsrooms of any size can use the “9 Stories” filter to avoid wasting time on “webifying” a broadcast story that doesn’t fit the criteria for building engagement or social media shares.

At Boise State Public Radio, a five-person newsroom in which most staff divide their workdays among reporting, hosting and other duties, Emilie Ritter Saunders splits her time between digital editing and reporting. She uses the “9 Types of Stories” tool to guide the station’s approach to digital storytelling.

“I’m always asking reporters, ‘Why is your web story pitch shareable? Who is your audience? Why would I share this on my social feeds?’” she said. “If the answers to those questions come easy, it’s typically going to be content I jump at.” And if the answers to those questions aren’t clear, reporters are encouraged to keep looking for that shareable element.

Among all the successfully shared stories produced by stations in the Local Stories Project, good “Place Explainers” stand out, according to Wells Dunbar, digital editor at KUT in Austin, Texas.

“One of our popular ‘Place Explainers’ was exclusively online. It was this blog post on what draws people to Austin and what pushes them away,” he said.

In Vermont, every beer-related story that VPR posts to its news site gets shared, said Dillon. His station also produced a successful “Place Explainer” about why young people stay in or leave Vermont. “That got a lot of traffic on Facebook,” he said. The station later expanded on that coverage for broadcast audiences.

Susanna Capelouto is a former public radio news director and editor at CNN-Radio.  She continues to report for public radio as a freelancer and works as a news editor at CNN Digital and CNN International.