Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Seven lessons for journalists from tech entrepreneurs

May 11, 2011, 11:02 a.m., Posted by Elise Hu

The marriage of journalism and tech is expected to last, and the union has created opportunities for each industry to share important lessons. Last week, Knight Foundation gathered a dozen leaders of non-profit news organizations with some of the most innovative minds in tech entrepreneurism to share ideas for user engagement that transcend industry.

Reed and Adler

For the entrepreneurs, who ranged from the former CTO of the online T-shirt giant Threadless, to one of the earliest user interface designers for YouTube, the overriding message was simple: leverage new technology to empower your user communities. Seven lessons they shared in Miami on Friday:

Just as Knight facilitated with Friday’s meeting, hearing from people with tech backgrounds outside news — especially those who don’t even own button-up shirts — can be worthwhile.

Elise Hu is the digital editor of the Impact of Government project at NPR. She wrote this post as a freelance writer for Knight Foundation.

  1. Your platform is a product. Thinking of your news organization as a product provides a compelling incentive to build a strong platform and have more personal relationships with your users. “You’re a product for engagement, instead of a news organization,” said Charles Adler, who co-founded Kickstarter.com, a site that helps find community funding for creative projects. “Content is a conduit to get people to come back. But then you need platform to keep them engaged and tools to keep them engaged,” Adler said.
  2. Build the small things to test your premise. To iterate quickly and test quickly, slice up the development of major news products into small pieces. In the software development world, this is known as “agile” or “iterative” development. As Threadless’ former Chief Technology Officer Harper Reed explained, imagine if you’re selling cars online and you create a simple form to sell those cars. And every time someone filled out a form you called a dealer for a car, first, just to see if this idea worked. Do that part instead of building out a massive online car sales system with complicated front ends and back ends that could be a failure. “Build out the smallest piece of functionality you can, and then do it over and over again [for each piece],” Reed said.
  3. Free your content by letting people share it. The YouTube community grew around an action that allowed users to spread the YouTube brand: an embeddable video. Hong Qu, former user interface designer at YouTube and now a graduate student at the CUNY school of journalism, says you can easily translate that YouTube type of engagement to the news ecosystem by creating news widgets that are easily embeddable for your audience. It's a way of freeing your content and letting it go. However, those embed "stickers" can still be tracked to measure what's happening as your widget is spread across the web and boost search engine ranking. “How can they embed your message in a small package? That will draw passive readers into fans. And when a donor and advertisers see these real life, in the physical world presence of your brand, then they’ll possibly see how your product matters in the community,” Qu said.
  4. Seek feedback simply. Get feedback quickly from your users the way Cloudkick.com does. The server company includes a box at the bottom of every one of their pages that allows users to complete the sentence “I wish this page would…” Users can enter whatever they want, and the company responds quickly. Harper Reed suggests this for news sites, so long as someone can respond to the messages. If the user wished for something and someone could respond and say “We’re working on it, it’s coming in two weeks” or “thank you do you want to test our new functionality,” you’ve won over a member of the community and/or found a new source. “If you give the users you use to moderate your content, they will use it and do your job for you,” Reed said. “Give them the tools to be the cops … the tools to help make the community to go. Who watches the watchmen? You watch the watchmen.”
  5. Re-engage users every time they come back. What does Amazon do so well? It recommends products that you might like based on your viewing and buying habits. If you’re reading the Kindle, it tells you where you were in your reading when you got distracted. For long-form journalism, that kind of guide could work well. Or, suggests Reed, it would be great to add community and see what your friends were reading, where their mouses hovered or how they annotated a story. Adding an additional functionality to reveal what posts were written by outside bloggers based on a news organization’s original article can be a powerful tool to get people caring and sharing. “That shouldn’t be the focus of your site, it should be the accidental background feature,” Reed said. But in today’s social web, part of your communities will likely find those tools quite useful.
  6. Be authentic to your community. Be similar to the community you build. You have to live it, believe it and be part of it; otherwise your attempts to harness it come across as false. In the T-shirt universe, people in the company who wore suits or button-up shirts had to adapt to wear tees, or go elsewhere. In the news universe, avoid a situation where you’re looking up or looking down to your users.  “Give the users a place that they can trust. They need to trust you and trust their fellow users,” Reed said.
  7. Get close to the natives. Reach out to other folks who are building online communities, even if they don’t seem close to your core product. “There are groups of people who are very good at building online communities… Even if they don’t do news, grab those people and keep ‘em close,” said Reed. Problems with trolls, bad content or poisonous participants in internet forums, for example, have been addressed creatively by people who aren’t part of the news universe, like engineers at Google, who explained how they keep their open source communities clear of poisonous people in this video.

Just as Knight facilitated with Friday’s meeting, hearing from people with tech backgrounds outside news — especially those who don’t even own button-up shirts — can be worthwhile.

Elise Hu is the digital editor of the Impact of Government project at NPR. She wrote this post as a freelance writer for Knight Foundation.