« Silha Center Events Tackle Tough Topics in Media Ethics and Law | Main | Kudos »

INMS research helps address newsroom challenges and media consumer engagement

inms09s.jpgby Nora Paul and Karen Kloser

INMS and SJMC to help retrain newsroom staff

Duluth News TribuneThis year, the daily print editions of the Rocky Mountain News, Christian Science Monitor and Seattle Post-Intelligencer went to the newsroom morgue-permanently. In newsrooms across the country, the 24/7 nature of Internet news and infotainment has upended both the editorial and advertising "business as usual" model. The SJMC, preparing students for different media careers than those of the past, is now applying its expertise to develop training programs for news industry editorial and advertising staff.

At the initiative of the Newspaper Guild in the Twin Cities and in Duluth, the SJMC prepared a proposal to seek funding for news and ad sales Guild members to get training while on the job. John Eighmey, Mithun chair of advertising, Kathleen Hansen, director of the Minnesota Journalism Center, and the Institute for New Media Studies, partnered with the Duluth News Tribune and the Pioneer Press. The collaboration resulted in a $228,000 Minnesota Job Skills Partnership program grant, supported through the state of Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The government funding to the School of Journalism & Mass Communication will be combined with $469,330 of in-kind funds from the news organizations, bringing the total project budget to approximately $700,000. The Minnesota Job Skills Partnership grant has supported the delivery of training to a wide variety of industry sectors, but this is the first time the money is going toward helping news organizations.

We are developing a training curriculum for the two newsrooms that will build on the foundation of the critical skills of writing, research and reporting to help journalists understand how to apply these skills to new story forms and new ways to reach the news audience. In order to succeed in this new media environment, reporters and editors need a new understanding of what covering a beat entails. They need to know how best to craft online headlines and to understand concepts such as search engine optimization and new forms of reader engagement.

On the business side of the newsroom, the new media environment has disrupted the very nature of conducting ad sales. In the past, the advertising staff relied on the personal sales pitch to sell well-defined advertising space in print. In today's online world, the ad sales staff needs to understand the entire media mix clients now have available to them and to shift their pitch from selling advertising space to delivering a well-defined audience of potential customers. They need to know who their news audience is and how that audience interacts with media. To guide their clients, the ad sales staff need to learn new forms and approaches advertising is taking.

The employees of the partnering news organizations will undergo training over the next six months to help their news organizations successfully evolve into new types of operations. Following an in-depth skills assessment, the editorial and advertising staffs will engage in a variety of training opportunities tailored to the needs of the individual employees and designed to address their organization's overall goals.

The state grant to the SJMC to help Minnesota's news industry employees develop new skills acknowledges the vital role media organizations play in community and state economic, social and political viability. As an additional benefit, the curriculum being developed will contribute to the future of the news industry through the University of Minnesota's course offerings. The SJMC will apply the materials and techniques being created for the training grant to teaching the next generation of journalists and advertising professionals.

Let the games begin

inms09_2.jpgThe Knight News Challenge grant project is in its second year. Over the past 18 months, we have brainstormed different "gamelike" approaches that could be used to test the idea that games might be a way to engage news audiences with issues that are complex and have a wide variety of perspectives. Our challenge has been to create different ways to design the information about a topic and then see if there is a definite advantage of one style over another.

The topic we chose to work with was the use of corn ethanol as a fuel-is it a boon or a bane? There is a wide variety of arguments for and against ethanol, and a wide range of interested parties with strong perspectives on the subject: environmental, transportation policy, energy efficiency, agribusiness and even world hunger. We've come up with two different game versions. One is a game-style virtual world environment, where one moves through a graphic space and interacts with different characters who deliver information about their perspective. The other is more of a board game approach-challenging the user to find the answers to different questions by moving to a perspective area on the board and then examining the facts presented.

In order to test how engaging or effective these different presentations are, we needed to compare this new style of information display with more traditional styles. To do this, we created a traditional news story, displayed on a Web page that has all the same information that can be found in the news games. We also created a version of a Web page that had well-organized links to information about ethanol, and another version that had the news story and then a long list of related stories about ethanol.

For the research project we created an online survey that has been sent out across the Internet. Those who go to the survey site are asked a few questions about their use of the Internet for news and some basic questions about their level of interest in the topic of ethanol as a fuel. Then they are "served" one of the versions and asked to look over the material for as long as they wish. Next they are sent back to the survey to complete a few more questions, largely relating to their engagement with the information and assessing their level of retention of information. With these results, we will be able to compare and contrast the ways the information design affects the audience's interest, information acquisition and other aspects of the user's experience that can help us determine whether interacting with information in nontraditional ways results in a more engaged and informed reader.