Category Archives: TBD

Steve Buttry joins Journal Register Company

Steve Buttry, my former boss/mentor at TBD, has been kind enough to write send-offs to each of our community engagement team members as we found jobs elsewhere. Only fair I should return the favor as he begins his new job at the very-lucky Journal Register Company.

Steve always said his success was based on hiring smart people and getting out of their way, but the truth is it wasn’t that simple. He had a twofold excellence to his management: He gave us the freedom to march ahead with our ideas without having to wait for his approval, but his ideas were so valuable you’d be robbing yourself if you didn’t ask for his opinion. He consistently elevated my ideas while offering a steady hand of reason. It created the perfect environment for experimentation.

When I interviewed for my job, I asked him what would happen when I tried something crazy and failed. I wish I could remember the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of: “Well, we’ll probably make fun of you for it. ‘Remember when Dan did that thing? That was awful.’ And then when we’re done laughing about it, you’ll get to work on your next crazy idea.”

He trusted in action, not just words. Early on in our time there, my colleague Lisa Rowan had a mid-afternoon meeting in College Park, near where she lived. As any good employee would, she asked Steve if she could bring her laptop and simply work from home the rest of the day. He told her and the rest of us at a meeting: Next time, don’t bother asking. I trust that you know what works best and you’ll get your work done.

Those are the two stories I’d tell to all of my friends to make them jealous of my new job, and it always worked. I was lucky to work for him, and I know JRC is going to love him.

How TBD’s candy jar is a seamless metaphor for news site participation

Candy Jar

This is in no way a forced metaphor.

When I started at TBD, I intended to bribe my coworkers into getting to know me by buying them candy.

I bought a $10 candy jar and filled it with chocolate from the CVS. I had a nice spot for it at the end of my desk, and sure enough, colleagues were regularly stopping by to chat and get their sugar fix. I was enjoying their visits, so I continued to buy candy to refill the jar. It was a pleasant transaction for all.

But as they kept coming back for more, some of them realized they ought to pitch in or they wanted more variety, so they started buying their own candy to keep the jar full. Great for me – free candy! And it really was starting to get expensive, so I wasn’t sure if I had the financial resources to keep this great thing going. I couldn’t do it by myself, and my personal candy judgment didn’t always create the best product possible.

So my new mission was to create a sustainable, crowdsourced candy jar operation, beneficial to all but cumbersome to none. To do this, it’s not enough to simply rely on your reputation as the desk where everyone can find candy. Emotional appeals and guilt-pushing wouldn’t work, as that would simply turn people off. No, you have to give them non-financial incentives to participate.

Here were the keys to making that happen.

Give them public credit. When people buy candy, they get public credit for it. They get a nametag right in front of the jar, making clear who was kind enough to supply his or her coworkers with sugar. Whenever someone instinctively thanks me for the candy, I always remind them that it was Nathasha who brought in the Starburst, not me, and that she deserves the thanks.

Mandy Jenkins was the runaway winner.

Mandy Jenkins was the runaway winner.

Appeal to their competitive side. When someone brings candy, they tally a point on the Leaderboard, kept right above the candy jar on my cubicle wall. For large bags of candy, homemade baked goods or other special occasions, they can sometimes tally two or three points. I believe it was reporter Sarah Larimer who, upon discovering the Leaderboard, responded: “I didn’t know it was a competition! Now I have to buy more.”

Open communication. The candy jar has its own Twitter account that updates TBD, ABC7 and POLITICO staffers of when there is new candy available, and makes desperate pleas for help when it is empty. Employees always know the current status of the candy jar.

My point, clearly, is that news sites need to consider the incentives they’re offering readers to contribute, and that new hires should always buy a candy jar.

My true motivation behind a month-long series about dating

…it wasn’t getting dates. I swear it.

It really was about infusing reader contributions into the reporting process.

The idea started as a feature that would land on Valentine’s Day about single life in D.C, complete with bells and whistles and whosits and whatsits. I’d conduct a month’s worth of interviews, so this thing was really going to rock hard.

But if you’re going to spend a month reporting on something, limiting yourself to one big burst of content is a mistake in a lot of ways. I approached each element of the bigger story as a stand-alone piece, publishing one or two stories per week. When I interviewed a local dating blogger, I immediately wrote it up instead of sitting on it for the next month. I did the same as I interviewed online daters, speed daters and attended a conference of pickup artists (you’ve got to read that one if you haven’t). I ended up with six stand-alone pieces, including the final story that ran on Valentine’s Day.

All of this makes it sound like it was a reporting project. Yet my business card says I’m a “community host,” not a “reporter.” I wasn’t hired primarily to be a direct content producer; I was hired to bring our readers/users into the news process. So I like to think of it more as an engagement project, and an example of how the best springboard to engagement is – gasp – original reporting. Every bit of original reporting I did had a prompt for readers attached to it.

I always come back to this brilliantly simple graphic, originally conceived by The Guardian’s Meg Pickard and recreated by Joy Mayer:

meg-pickard-drawing

The traditional story structure says that the reporter does all of the work pre-publication, interviewing and gathering information, before bowing out upon publication. Then the readers take over, discussing amongst themselves to what extent the other readers are idiots. (Mostly joking.)

We engagement types like working in those empty two quadrants. I want to get readers involved in my story before it’s published, publicly soliciting information that would be useful for all to hear. Then I want to participate in the discussion after publication, seeing how I can aid that discussion with my prior reporting while looking for readers’ knowledge that could inform future stories on the subject.

Now let’s say we succeed in filling in those empty two quadrants. Our new graph looks like this:

meg-pickard-drawing-full

Now, that blue “publication” line becomes irrelevant, because you could put it anywhere in the graph and it’d look just the same. Then “publication” becomes merely the point when the journalist decides to tackle the topic. In a living story, there shouldn’t be a wall between pre- and post-publication.

So how’d I use that principle with this dating series? Well:

  • At the end of my first story about a dating blogger, I put out a call for online dating stories. Since that first story got solid traction, more people were exposed to that call than had I simply tweeted a few requests, e-mailed some friends or invaded OkCupid.
  • About a dozen people contacted me because of that, and they became the basis of my next story. At the end of that one, I renewed my call for more online dating stories.
  • Due to that request, I was overwhelmed with great anecdotes, so those anecdotes became a stand-alone story.
  • Since every story is mentioning that it’s one part of a longer series, momentum was building for the pickup artists story, which ended up getting significant viral attention (thanks Jezebel). And that continued to bring attention to my final stories about speed dating and lessons learned.

You also have to think of the more practical elements that’ll make anyone who likes page views happy. Consider:

  • The pickup artists story, which required just two days of reporting but ended up at about 3,600 words, got far more traffic than the end result on February 14. Had I condensed that reporting so it’d fit into that later story along with everything else, it surely wouldn’t have gotten as much traffic.
  • One of the pickup artists/dating coaches I featured had allowed the Washington Post to follow him around over several months for a story that would run Valentine’s Day weekend. That reporter couldn’t have been happy to know that I was able to post my story just three days after my reporting was complete – two weeks before her story was published. By not waiting until the end, I scooped the Post on a story they had gotten to long before I did.
  • Instead of one chance to collect pageviews, you now have five chances. Instead of one chance to go viral, you now have five chances.
  • Giving our readers original content was the nudge they needed to later contribute. Simply saying “gimme gimme gimme” isn’t enough to get people involved. I gave them something they’d enjoy, and then asked for help on the next one.

TBD Community Hosts: What we do, sort of

It’s difficult to explain that I’m not exactly a reporter anymore, but I am still a journalist. When I tell people I’m one of TBD‘s community hosts, the most common reaction is: “Oh…what’s that?” Fair question, and the four of us are aren’t great at answering it.

If I only have one sentence, I usually say that “we get real people involved in the news process.” It’s a wildly inadequate description, and people who are actually listening know it.

So instead of talking vaguely about engaging, crowdsourcing, blogging, recruiting and reporting, I thought I’d let you in one the last three days on the job. I can’t say these are standard days, because there really aren’t any standard days and weekends are unusual, but this’ll at least give you a cross-section of what we do.

SATURDAY

This is a strange day for me: I’ve got an actual reporting assignment during the Rally for Sanity and/or Fear. I wasn’t hired to be a traditional reporter, but on big days like this our job descriptions become irrelevant. No boxes here, and I used to be a newspaper reporter so I can still occasionally wield a notepad.

I polled 75 rally-goers and took a few hundred photos before going home. Had my Internet and/or phone connections worked, I would have been tweeting and twitpic-ing the hell out of the rally. I upload my photos to TBD’s Flickr gallery, post my story and I’m done. Our full-time reporters do way more interesting work than this.

SUNDAY

Shortly before noon, I create a CoverItLive event for a live chat during the Washington Redskins game. I had arranged for three bloggers in our TBD Community Network to lead the chat, and I got them set up to participate then promoted it on Twitter and on our homepage.

About 15 minutes before kickoff, I realize it’d be pretty awesome to curate tweets from Redskins fans during the game using Storify. I could show the emotional swings by capturing how fans were feeling minute-by-minute after every twist and turn in the game, I thought.

So during the game I constantly searched Twitter for the most interesting tweets and wrote a narrative to tie them together, all the while offering game analysis in the live chat while approving user comments. About 15 minutes after the game ended, I posted the result of that Storify effort.

For the rest of the night, I monitored our TBD Community Network blogs for new posts about the Redskins game. When I found one, I’d pitch them to our web producer so they’d land on TBD’s homepage. And I wrote a blog post inviting fans to weigh in on a pressing question for the Redskins.

MONDAY

Almost immediately after waking up, I again searched for new Redskins posts from our network, and promoted their latest posts on our sports page.

At 10 a.m., I appeared live on one of our television shows, NewsTalk with Bruce DuPuyt, to discuss my weekend coverage of the rally.

Immediately afterward I set up a CoverItLive chat with Mike Jones, our Redskins beat writer, and began promoting it on the site and Twitter. I moderate the chat, approving questions and asking follow-ups to reader questions.

When news broke that Randy Moss had been waived by the Minnesota Vikings, it couldn’t have been more than five to 10 minutes before I had a blog post up asking whether the Redskins should try to pick him up. I added a twtpoll to the post, then tweeted the link from @bydanielvictor, @tbdscrum and @tbd.

While keeping an eye on that conversation, I took my aggregation shift. This largely consists of reading through posts from our 196 network members, looking to see if I can geotag the posts with a specific neighborhood, town or zip code, writing or editing a teaser, making sure the headline is in proper style, and posting it to the site.

During that shift, I also sent out e-mails to two blogs that cover the Washington Capitals, introducing myself to folks I’d like to join the network.

…The point of this all is to say: We do a lot of different things, and every day is different. Today, for example, we’ll be plotting user reports about polling problems on a Crowdmap, and monitoring a Foursquare experiment spearheaded by our social media editor Mandy Jenkins. On Saturday, fellow community host Nathasha Lim monitored a Twitter account for out-of-towners to ask questions about DC, while community host Lisa Rowan led a Halloween costume contest. Most days are filled with a lot more recruiting new blogs for the network, and responding to questions or comments from our existing members – especially senior community host Jeff Sonderman, who is blessed/cursed with the coding skills to field the more technical questions. (And it’s all under the guidance of Steve Buttry, our community engagement team’s fearless leader.)

So if you have any ideas how to better condense that all into a sentence, I’d really love to hear it. It’d be great to see fewer confused looks.

Why leading on the Washington Nationals can be as valuable as catching up on the Redskins

nationalsI’ve got a crazy-sounding theory, and it very well may be crazy, but I challenge you to talk me out of it.

In the long run, I think the lowly Washington Nationals will prove to be as valuable to TBD as the much-more-popular Washington Redskins. For real.

This is despite the rabid fan base for the Redskins compared to a barely-there fan base for the Nationals. This slaps the face of quite a bit of common sense.

But I have my reasons. And when it happens, it’ll be a living example of why leading is always better than playing catch-up.

My first task as a community host at TBD — a yet-to-be-launched website that’ll cover local news and sports in DC in a very new way — has been to reach out to sports bloggers in an effort to create a mutually beneficial network. I’ve slogged through blogrolls, opened hundreds of tabs, and built what I believe is the definitive list of currently active blogs that cover the Nationals and Redskins. (Capitals, Wizards, high school and college teams will follow later.)

Conventional wisdom — and possibly correct wisdom — says the Redskins are the online goldmine. The fan base is huge, the fan base is rabid, and there’s a massive hunger to grapple with the minutiae of the season.

So it seemed counterintuitive that my list of active bloggers included 18 blogs and sites exclusively covering the Redskins, and 28 exclusively covering the Nationals. Most of those Redskins blogs were established blogging powerhouses, while the Nats blogs mostly had smaller followings. Though I haven’t seen their metrics, I have little doubt the Redskins blogs attract far more traffic.

I asked Twitter why there are so many more Nats bloggers, and three Nats fans responded in lock-step.

doubleuefwhy: Would not surprise me. #Redskins never lacked 4 coverage

johnmtaylor: @bydanielvictor I think you’ll find there are fewer NFL blogs out there than MLB, NHL, NBA. Less need for them b/c of coverage saturation

doubleuefwhy: Sports talk radio has been basically Redskins all the time around here too since its inception @bydanielvictor @johnmtaylor

loudoun: @bydanielvictor Nats blogs are fewer…cuz they’re new, they lose, too many looking for answers, too many with bad ones…skins r settled in

So the blogging scene may be livelier for the Nationals because there’s less mainstream attention, which is also the reason those blogs don’t have many readers.

You can either see that as evidence that the Nationals aren’t worth the effort — or you can choose to see the Nationals as a growth area.

There isn’t as much room for growth in the Redskins tubesphere — the bloggers are well-established, and if anything their fans might say there’s an over-saturation of coverage. Getting a seat at that table requires strong elbows and a creative playbook. We plan to utilize both, but we’re long behind in that race.

Contrast that with the Nationals, whose fans want to see the team grow and could use all the help they can get. In creating a network of Nationals bloggers and providing them exposure (and revenue) they haven’t seen elsewhere, TBD can position itself at the center of the Nationals online universe.

This is almost certainly our only chance to do that.

Since the Nationals came to DC in 2005, they’ve been a lousy team with few fans. But I wouldn’t bet on it staying that way forever. I don’t think they’ll ever develop a Redskins-like fandom, but there will be a lot of website visits to be had when they finally put together a pennant run one of these years.

If we take them lightly now based on current site stats, all those future Nationals fans will instead go to whatever site took the opportunity that we slept on. Or, we can establish ourselves now before it’s needed, and enjoy our long-standing reputation when it really matters someday.

After tweeting about this crazy theory, I got these responses:

ryansholin I like it. Let’s put it this way: I recently moved to the area and know *nothing* about the Nats. Where do I start?

doubleuefwhy @bydanielvictor You could potentially be a leader if you give #Nats fans something they can’t already get and the team gets really good.

Well, we’ll work on our part.