More than anything else, successful content is about audience.
Timely news coverage, expert analysis, inspiring interviews—none of it matters unless your content is laser-focused on who will read it.
I believe that serving a specific audience entails not only providing outstanding content but also using technology to get that content to the right people in the right place.
Journalism in the 21st century: Adapt or die
Interactive elements have featured prominently in our award-winning, cross-platform storytelling packages.
For instance, the heat map I made for Meatingplace’s “Dry Age Beef” microsite succinctly demonstrates the geographic shift in beef processing plants as the climate changes. I assisted in the creation of a more narrative map, this one of butchers across America, that shows the widespread influence of a single pioneer in whole-animal butchery.
More recently, I adapted a government data viz to show how hourly rainfall from Hurricane Harvey corresponded with the locations of USDA-inspected meat plants in the Houston area. This was quite a challenge: The code was in a language with which I had never worked before, and we had only a few days before the site went live. I’m grateful to have had one of our developers on hand for that project!
I also kick-started social media operations at MTG Media Group. It’s been seven years since I, as the enthusiastic intern fresh from j-school, suggested that perhaps we should start tweeting headlines from our newsletters. We now have a robust social media operation, leading most recently to some very promising Meatingplace experiments in real-time storytelling. For these events, Technical Editor Michael Fielding prepared a story to be published in a series of threaded tweets, culminating in a live chat with some of the sources mentioned in the story. The experiments paid off with quantifiable results—chief among them, doubled organic impressions and a four-fold increase in retweets over our monthly averages.
Metrics or it didn’t happen.
I am constantly looking for new ways to illustrate KPIs to all stakeholders—and I always make sure to interpret the data in plain English so everyone, regardless of department or base knowledge, can understand how we’re doing. Something as simple as a glossary of terms at the top of a report can go a long way.
Information-sharing starts at home.
To that end, I’ve created two internal wikis. The first one, which is intended for and written in the language of an editorial audience, serves as a thorough and evolving guide to our CMS and other systems used at MTG. The other is a secure repository of information about MTG’s technical systems.
I researched, lobbied for, and ultimately executed a plan to bring a 21st-century video-conferencing system to MTG. That tool has completely changed how our staff communicates within teams spread across the country and in some cases across the world.
Smaller projects have included designing and implementing cloud-based document shares within each editorial team to streamline daily news operations, building an automated system that manages and communicates employees’ whereabouts, and developing the company’s first onboarding materials and procedures so new hires can hit the ground running.
One of the best parts of my job is bringing cutting-edge ideas back to my colleagues in the editorial department. Each year, I attend the Online News Association conference and distill those few days of intense, exciting innovation into a single presentation that highlights both broad trends in the industry and specific tools that our team can implement right now.
After the 2016 ONA conference, I was able to show the editorial team what happens when you train a chat bot to talk about the most recent issue of Plate. For hands-on playtime, I brought back a homemade water conductivity sensor and told the story of how $8 in wires and circuitry did the reporting legwork on a story about water pollution. (As you can see in the video, I found the whole thing very exciting!)
— Dana Branham (@danabranham) September 16, 2016
I speak the languages of editors and software developers.
Both parties have a shared goal: We all want to share great storytelling with the right audience.
As both a trained journalist and a lifelong techie, I take pride in my ability to translate and facilitate the partnership between these two fields. In practice, that means that it is my job to make sure that the tools we have best serve our editors’ needs and also that the editors know how to make the most of the tools at their disposal to get their stories out there.
Here’s what that looks like:
Meatingplace.com went down quite frequently in June of this year, and the DevOps team was at a loss to explain the unpredictable spikes in traffic. They had no way to know the importance of an ongoing court case to that audience, but I had worked extensively with the editors during the incident in question in 2012 and am extremely familiar with the particulars of the so-called “pink slime” story. I made the connection for them so they could have some warning on high-traffic stories.
When I heard the editors buzzing about a settlement in the case, I knew the site was about to take an onslaught. I alerted the DevOps team and we worked together for the rest of the day to keep Meatingplace.com online as that single story generated 273% more impressions than the best-performing story from the previous day.