Friday, September 5, 2008

We have more to work with than we might think

Sarah Palin had barely finished her landmark speech at the Republican National Convention Wednesday before Yahoo! Buzz posted a whole page detailing answers to the burning questions the speech had generated.

The article, written by one of Yahoo!'s editors, explained what a hockey mom is, whether Palin really sold the Alaska guv's jet on eBay, and which race had made her hubby such a snowmobile stud.

Sure, these aren't heavy-hitting policy questions. But they were some of the things voters most wanted to know--as revealed by the terms they were entering into Yahoo!'s search engine.

The page was noteworthy for those of us trying to figure out the future of journalism. By turning to its search logs, Yahoo! was able to home in with laser-like precision on what the public most wanted to know--and whip out the answer almost instantaneously. In its own small way, the article sent convention coverage to a whole new level.

Think about it for a minute. The traditional approach to covering a convention speech goes like this:

  • Report on what the speaker said
  • Ask talking heads what they think and report that too
  • Get a few man-on-the-street quotes (whether at the convention or on some actual street in your hometown) and report those too
  • Done

In the pre-digital world, that might have been enough--even though it makes for a pretty bland story, and rarely a particularly revealing one. Who among us, after all, hasn't been able to predict what the talking heads and men-on-the-street were going to say before we asked them (as reporters) or picked up the newspaper (as readers).

In the old world, however, that might have been enough. With the resources at our disposal, we couldn't really have been expected to do more than that. And since no reader was getting better than that elsewhere, they were quite happy to eat what we fed them.

No more.

There are new tools in town, and the news organizations that figure out how to use them will be the ones generating more compelling coverage--and attracting more readers.

That's great for Yahoo!, with its search logs, you might be saying at this point, but what does it have to do with newspapers?

The larger point I'm aiming at is that in the digital era, anyone with a website has more resources at their disposal to identify news leads and generate compelling stories than the average journalist usually thinks of.

When we think about finding and reporting news, we follow the traditional m.o.: Get wind of something (through press release, phone call, or back-of-the-bar chitchat). Pick up the phone and track it down. Write it up. And publish.

But today, thanks to the Web, we actually have another possible starting point for identifying potential stories: the data that our servers gather and tabulate every day. What do your server logs tell you about the kind of information your readers are interested in and looking for? Looking at those logs on a regular basis can give you insights into potentially compelling--exciting--stories that readers will gobble up and pass on.

The gloom-and-doom mindset over the future of news comes when we think about journalism in terms of how we've done it in the past and think about how much harder it is to do--and to reap readers with--in the future.

But it's a lot easier to get optimistic when we turn away from thinking about how much we've lost from the old world and start thinking about how much we're gaining from the new one. The new world doesn't look like the old one--but it does give us a slew of new resources to accomplish the same task we've always aimed for: Generate compelling and meaningful information about--and for--our communities.

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