Home > Uncategorized > From Grumpy Cat to Game of Thrones: Keeping News on the Consumers’ Agendas

From Grumpy Cat to Game of Thrones: Keeping News on the Consumers’ Agendas

-first posted at RJIonline.org on March 9, 2014

Whether it was a disinterested cat trying to get some sleep on an oversized pillow, or a college girl in a too-blonde wig, people stepped on feet and threw elbows this weekend at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, all in an attempt to be in a picture with these two icons of media culture. Now, I cannot attest to the authenticity of Grumpy Cat (though he sure did look like the real thing), but I can guarantee that was not the real Khaleesi in that wig—and I saw no dragons around, either.

images_thrones_0Fans impersonate characters from HBO’s Game of Thrones at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas

The lure of an in-person encounter with even a weak facsimile of these pop culture stars is phenomenal. And it speaks volumes to the efforts journalists must take to carve out a niche for folks to spend some time consuming something that’s good for them, namely solid reporting efforts on important topics. To that end, here are five ideas culled from SXSW that might help make news part of the daily media menu for most.

1. Build the content to fit the form factor of the users’ devices. Ben Huh, CEO of The Cheezburger Network and the purveyor of more than a few cat pictures to hit the Internet, told an audience at SXSW that we are often stuck using content for other form factors on our phones and other devices. Huh asked the audience why the iPhone screen bears a 16:9 aspect ratio. It does, he points out, because that is the format of movies and TV shows—produced for movie and TV screens, not phones. But since we do use these phones for video, the device’s form factor has been altered to fit the content, rather than the other way around. News producers can learn from this lesson, building content to fit on the device on which it will be consumed. For instance, rather than using existing TV and Web content to post news for the phone, we could forgo some of that content and build an interactive map that geolocates to the user’s position in relation to the story. Sure, there are additional costs. But those who figure out a way to make this work will also be a long way toward making the next idea work.

images_grumpy_0A poster advertises dueling Internet cats at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas

2. Nail the consumer experience.
 Every year, I attend a few big trade shows or conventions. Some take place with massive show floors of hopeful companies looking for the next big idea. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention takes place next month. I’m going, and once again I’ll stand above acres and acres of exhibitors and ask myself the same question I do every year—how many of these companies will still be in business next year? The reason so many can’t make it is that they don’t develop an experience for the user that gives him or her a lot for the effort. Those who make it have a certain “it” that users will come back for again and again. The touch part is figuring out what “it” is. It might be the usability of the interface, the amount of content or the ease of acquisition. I can’t possibly give you the secret of “it” here. But I can tell you that traditional journalism relied for the last 100 years or so on being the only place to get content, so it didn’t matter what “it” was, we didn’t need it. That has to change.

3. Give people a reason to keep coming back. Closely tied to the above notion is that you have to give people more than one reason to come to get your content. Journalism geniuses Nate Silver and Bill Simmons made that point to a big crowd assembled to hear about building a personal brand. While each man has a considerable one, Simmons was quick to point out that his name being associated with the Grantland.com project meant people who knew of him would come to the site exactly once. After that, the site itself has to bring people back. Traditional media often count on their brands to carry them to the top of the competition because of familiarity and trust. But users who don’t find the content and ease of use they want in their news experience won’t be back just because of the brand name. They have to find repeated visits worth their time.

4. Deliver moments. Huh emphasized the need to reach audiences in a different way than before. He made the comparison by using pizzas to illustrate his point. He described the old media world as a thick, Chicago-style pizza, where one slice is a whole meal. Old media gave heavy, thick content to those with a lot of time to consume it. But Huh contends today, our media now have a thin crust. We take quick bites of this thin crust pie, quickly moving through a lot of different helpings. To make sure people remember what they just consumed, Huh says we have to create moments—small magic bits of understanding that stick with a person. The news media do that best with memorable characters, strong pictures, good sound—all quality tools we have used for a long time to tell our stories. But now—at a time when staff members are stretched as thin as they will go—is the time not to turn away from good storytelling techniques that create moments.

A popular Tom Hanks meme

5. Add context where possible.
 Finally, keeping that thin crust pizza in mind, we now know there’s not much room to squeeze context into our content. Huh used the popular meme posted here to make his point. He said that, if you go in and ask your grandfather to tell you a joke, he’ll sit you down and go through a long story that sets the joke up by giving all the context you need to understand it—often trying your patience while you wait for him to get to the punch line. But the meme illustrates a truism of modern life—we get the punch line all at once with the rest of the joke. Why is it still funny? That approach wouldn’t have worked with your grandfather’s joke because the punch line wouldn’t make sense without the rest of the information he gave you. But the Tom Hanks meme works because we already have the context of both the movies Cast Away and Twilight, so our brains can laugh as soon as we see the punch line—the text written on the picture. The challenge to us as journalists is to get our audiences to be patient enough for us to give them the context so that the whole story makes sense. And the best path to making that happen is to use the four previous suggestions to make that connection and buy that time.

The convention so far has been a positive and optimistic outlook from my perspective. The talk is not about the death of the old media in a way that means everything from before goes away forever. Instead, people want to take the good work we’ve done and keep it alive and relevant to new audiences by changing our old-time approaches to fit the new age. And that’s an idea that could even please the grumpiest of cats.

avatar_646Stacey Woelfel is a 2013-2014 Donald W. Reynolds Fellow and the news director of KOMU-TV, the NBC affiliate at the University of Missouri. As a Reynolds Fellow, Woelfel is wanting to add a richer experience to traditional linear television news consumption by developing and exploring second-screen engagement opportunities at KOMU. Second-screen viewing means audience members are using a mobile device to view content while watching news broadcasts. Click here to learn more. 

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