Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Church Publications and NGO Communications: What do Editors Want? And Will Church Publications Survive?

What kind of stories do editors of church publications want about relief and development?

What advice would they give to NGO communicators?  

And what is the future of church publications, anyway?

Those are among the questions I posed to editors of ten Canadian church-related magazines and newspapers in fall, last year.

The publications represent Adventist, Mennonite, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Christian Reformed, United and Evangelical churches.

Between them, they print about 273,000 copies of their publications.

I started by asking them about their print circulation—is it growing or declining?

For five, it’s decreasing. Four said it is stable. One said it is increasing.

What about the age of readers—are they getting older or younger?

Six said the age of readers is increasing, two said it is stable, one said it is decreasing. One was uncertain.

Said one editor: “We estimate our print audience is aging and much our younger audience has gone online.”

Added another, perhaps a bit sadly (or cynically): “Our audience not likely to get much older. In part that’s because, at a certain age, we die.”

Do they think their publications will exist in print in 10 years?

Four said yes, four said no, two were uncertain. The four who said yes acknowledged that it would be a mix of print and online, as it is now.

One of the editors who thinks his print publication will continue admits that the number of people who want that format will be small, while digital grows.

“There will be a smaller audience that prefers print,” he said. “Our digital audience will become our core audience.”

Another thought print might stick around, but not weekly as it is now. “I’d like to think we’ll still be around, perhaps not in weekly newspaper form, but at least monthly.”

A third editor proposed what she thought was a more realistic timeframe for when her print publication disappears. “We’re not good for ten years, but maybe for five years,” she said.

A fourth said her publication will be out of business—print or digital—by that time.

I asked if they get too much, too little or enough information from church-related NGOs. 

Nine said they get enough; only one said too little.

I asked what kinds of stories they want from church-related NGO communicators. 

The overwhelming choice was stories—about people who provide to aid, or those who receive it.

That was followed by information that is timely or topical (in the news) and natural disasters.

Said the editors:

“Tell me how Canadian donors and volunteers are making a difference.”

“Don’t just tell story of beneficiaries, tell story of the people helping so people can connect with them more.”

“I want stories of people connecting with people, as well as personal experiences.”

“Give me stories about people, not programs.”

“Too often relief and development stories are about statistics, rather than people. Putting a human face on stories is very important.”

“Link us with people whose stories personify global development trends and issues.”

“Don’t talk in broad generalities about partners and projects. Give us people who live in the homes you are building in the Philippines, whose children are attending the school you built in Haiti, who are farming on the land you secured for them in Columbia.”

In addition to these things, all the editors emphasized that the stories need to have a Canadian angle, and should be about members, organizations or churches that are part of the denominations they cover.

Finally, I asked what advice they would give to communicators at church-related NGOs. 

Here’s what they said.

“Make sure stories include good quotes, some data and some high-resolution photos.”

 “The best approach is to stay in regular, direct contact with the media, provide them with story ideas, contacts, photos.”

“Make sure your stories connect with our readers.”

“Build a relationship with someone in the media.”
What does this mean for NGO (and other non-profit) communicators?

First, print is in trouble—but we already knew that.

Second, the age of readers of print is growing. But we knew that, too.

Third, ramping up our efforts to send editors more information isn’t necessary. They get enough now.

Fourth—and again no surprise—send stories of people. This includes stories of people doing the helping, as MCC discovered when it did an analysis of its most popular stories.

Fifth, if church media has a future, it will mostly be digital.

Finally, it would be easy to shrug our shoulders and move on. Declining circulations, aging readers, the end of print? That’s their problem.

Actually, these are all our problems, too. Our supporters are also aging. We need to find ways to capture the interest of younger people.

Plus, we need church media (and other media). An independent voice reporting about our organizations is an important way for people to know we are doing good work, and can be trusted.

People who work for church-related non-profits should want church media to survive, in other words. 

But if the church media has a future, I think it will take more than just editors getting together to figure out a way through the challenges.

It's going to take all of our collective ideas, efforts and imaginations.

But how to do that? 

Your thoughts are welcome. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Alexa: What Does the Rise of Voice Activated Internet Mean for the Media and Non-Profits?

For Brodie Fenlon, Senior Director for Daily News at the CBC, it’s a “game changer.”

“It” is Alexa, Amazon’s digital voice assistance, which is played over its Echo Voice Activated Internet (VAI) device.

Just like how the iPhone changed and disrupted the way people access information, Alexa, and other voice-activated search engines, are poised to disrupt things again.

“It is listening all the time,” he says. All people will need to do in the future is say: “Alexa, give me the news.”

But where will it, and other VAI technologies, get their news from?

That’s the big question for the media.

If they want to be found on Alexa, and other VAI devices, they are going to have to develop new platforms for those devices.

Right now, Alexa plays pre-recorded headline updates from broadcasters such as NPR, BBC News, the Economist and the Associated Press.

If other media want to get on board, they will need to team up with Amazon to develop a new “skill” for the device.

In England, for example, the BBC has created its own skill to allow listeners to ask for local stations and podcasts.

Here in Canada, the Toronto Star has developed a skill so users can ask for top headlines from that newspaper.

What’s involved in making a skill?

Any company can create an Alexa skill and submit it to Amazon for approval.

There is no charge for the skill itself, but companies have to pay to host the skill on Amazon Web Services.

The cost to host a skill varies depending on how popular and how complicated the skill is. The average cost is $100 a month.

Of course, Amazon is making the entry so inexpensive to corner the market on VAI technology (over rivals Google, Microsoft and Apple).

Later, it could charge companies and brands more to have their skills feature more prominently on the devices.

Rapid Rise of Voice Activated Internet

So far, Amazon’s strategy seems to be working.

In December, it said it sold “tens of millions” of the devices.

Already, over 35 million Americans use it monthly. Most of them are younger (of course).

By 2020, it is estimated there will be 128 million Amazon Echo devices in use—alone.

How are People Using Alexa?

As for their use, a survey by NPR in October found that the top two most popular reasons for having a VAI device was to listen to music and ask questions without typing.

Getting news and information was number four.

They also use them for shopping, weather, traffic, audio books, cooking and ordering food.

42% of VAI device owners already say they are “essential to their lives.”

65% say they wouldn’t want to go back to life before they had one.

What Does This Mean for Non-Profits?

So—what does this mean for non-profit communicators?

If VAI technology is anything like the iPhone, it means we need to start thinking about how to get into this game.

Just as the rapid rise of mobile forced groups to make their websites mobile-friendly, VAI technology will require us to start creating ways to share our information by voice.

What can that mean in practice?

Say there’s a natural disaster in the developing world. I ask: “Alexa, which Canadian NGOs are responding to the disaster?”

How will it find them?

Right now I don’t know, but I think I better find out.

What if, after Alexa finds which NGOs are responding, I want to make a donation?

“Alexa,” I will ask, “which of those NGOs accept voice-activated donations?”

What if the answer is none?

Giving by voice—sounds far-fetched, right?

Not that far-fetched; according to that same NPR Report, 57% of smart speaker owners have bought something with their voice.

How long before what’s called v-commerce leads to v-fundraising? (Voice-fundraising.)

I have no idea. But I’m sure it’s coming.

And non-profits will need to get ready.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A (Very) Unscientific Survey About Young Adults and the News

Every now and then I get a chance to speak to university students about communications and my work at an international NGO.

I like to use those occasions to learn more about their information-gathering habits. Where do they get their news?

This fall I spoke to a group of students taking an International Development Studies (IDS) course at the University of Winnipeg.

Before speaking, I had them fill out a short (and very unscientific) survey.

Demographically, they were between the ages of 18-25. 21 were female, 4 were male.

Here's what I asked.

What do they think are the most trustworthy sources of information?

90%: NGOs
63%: Activist organizations
47%: Mainstream media
5%: Social media
0%: Political parties or religious groups

I was surprised to find NGOs and activist organizations higher than the mainstream media. But maybe that's because they are IDS students. 

I wasn't surprised to see that politicians and religious groups were poorly regarded—but zero percent?

What news do they want the most?

60%: National
56%: Foreign
37%: Local
30% Sports
16% Health
13% Arts
0% Business

Again, given they are taking an IDS course, it follows that foreign news would rank high. 

The poor showing for business surprises me, since business impacts international development in many ways.

What is your main source of news?

69%: Social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube)
66%: Mainstream media (79% online)
32%: Radio
32%: TV

In this, they are like other Canadian young adults; social media is the primary source of information.

At the same time, when you consider how little trust they put in social media, it’s surprising to see that as #1. 

I’m guessing they see it as a way find and access information from other news sources—that's how many people use Facebook and Twitter today to learn what’s happening in the world.

As for how they access news, it's mostly online. 96% said they get it through their phone. Laptops trail far behind at 18%, with desktop computers at 3%.

As for what media they get like to get news from, they listed the New York Times, Globe and Mail, Winnipeg Free Press, Al Jazeera, CNN, the BBC and the Guardian.

What to make of this? 

Not too much, except to confirm what we already know: Younger people get their information online, and via social media.

As for politicians, these young adults are not alone; a recent survey found that politicians are the least respected profession in Canada for all ages.

In retrospect, I should have asked if they would pay to get news. With media trying to find a new business model, that would be interesting information.

What other questions would you ask? 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Ideal Length for Online Stories, or How to Avoid the Dead Zone

The Quartz Curve

What’s the ideal length for online stories? 

That’s a question that has challenged writers since the advent of the Internet.

The mantra for some time has been shorter is better, considering that Canadians today have the attention spans of goldfish.

But is that true?

The answer is yes—and no.

Research indicates that while people like shorter stories, they also read longer ones.

That’s what the business news website Quartz discovered in 2013.

Based on its experience with its website, it found the best user engagement was with stories below 500 words, or more than 800.

In between, said editor Kevin Delaney, “is the place you don’t want to be.”

"People read short, fast content on the web,” he said, but also long-form analytical pieces.

And why is that?

Articles of between 500 and 800 words are too long to be sharable, he said, but too short to be in-depth.

What catches attention, he suggested, was short, sharp takes on news stories that are creative and say something new, or long in-depth articles providing strong detailed narrative or insightful analysis.

The stuff in between is the dead zone—articles that provide detail but no insight.

This finding was so popular, it became known as the “Quartz Curve.”

But that was in 2013—a million years ago in Internet time.

What about today?

In fall Emily Loewen, Digital Content Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee Canada, did research to find what stories were most popular on that organization’s website.

She found that the best-read stories were about what MCC’s supporters were doing to help, humanitarian disasters, and the agency’s observations about events in the news.

She also found some interesting information about reader engagement and story length.

Of stories under 500 words, 60% were read all the way to the end.

For stories between 501-1,000 words, 30% were read all the way.

1,000 to 1,501? 18% were read to the end.

32% of stories 1,500 to 2,001 words were read all the way.

What about 2,001 or higher? 0% were read all the way.

Loewen’s research seems to confirm the “Quartz curve”—although MCC’s maximum seems to be on the higher end.

It also indicates that no story should be longer than 2,000 words.

Her research also shows what we intuitively know: Lots of people never make it to the end of our stories, whether they are short or long.

Which makes it all the more important to use the pyramid style of writing—making sure the most important information is near the top of every story.

As a matter of interest, this post is 444 words long—which means I’ve avoided the dreaded dead zone.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

When Choosing Stories to Read About International Relief and Development, People Look for the Helpers

Canadian Foodgrains Bank supporters at a harvest.

For a long time, relief and development organizations (and other non-profits) have known the best way to engage people is to tell stories.

We've known that articles about programs and numbers and official statements don't seem to elicit the same responses. 

But it was all gut reaction. We didn't have the data. Which stories received more attention? And why?

Until the web came along, it was mostly guesswork. 

There was no easy way to know what stories were read, and which ones were ignored.

But now the clicks tell the tale. We can know exactly which stories connect with people, and which ones don’t.

(And if we have sophisticated analytics, we can even tell for how long.)

And what are those stories that connect? 

That’s what Emily Loewen, digital content coordinator at Mennonite Central Committee Canada, wanted to find out.

She looked at 215 stories produced by the organization. Of that total, only 19 accounted for 50% of the traffic for stories on their website.

And what made those stories stand out?  

Ten of the stories were about what MCC supporters were doing to help people in need around the world.

Six were about humanitarian disasters around the world, and how MCC was responding to help.

Three were official statements from the agency about positions it was taking on events in the news, or just saying “thanks” to donors.

From her analysis, Loewen concluded that the top stories had the following similarities.

First, they had high news value. They were relevant to things happening in the world at that time.

Second, they were about humanitarian disasters, and what people could do.

Third, they focused on people who were responding to those disasters and other needs around the world—inspirational stories about donors and what they were doing to help.

Fourth, they promoted a sense of hope: Something could be done.

Fifth, they didn’t mention MCC too much. They were about what people were doing to help through MCC, not just about what the organization was doing.

Sixth, they weren't very much about partners on the ground—and they weren't about development programs.

For Loewen and her colleagues at MCC, this information was a “painful realization.”

Despite sending writers overseas four times a year to write about the agency's important development work, “not a single one of those stories made the top of the list,” she says.

“It makes us ask ourselves that if that’s what are people are reading, why are we spending so much time and money on those stories?”

The analysis has prompted prompted MCC to rethink how they choose which stories to tell.

Questions they are asking include: Should we write fewer stories? Or just fewer stories about development?   

For Loewen, the analysis shows “we need to tell more personal stories about our supporters and what they do to help others.”

MCC’s findings mirror what we see at my agency, Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

Our major source of funds are our growing projects, where farmers come together to grow and harvest a crop, donating the proceeds to the Foodgrains Bank.

When we post photos and stories about these projects on Facebook and Twitter, we get lots of engagement—lots of likes, shares and re-tweets.

When we post something about our work in the developing world, we get much less engagement.

And why is that?

It’s no mystery. People like reading about people who are like them. 

It’s much easier to identify with someone like ourselves who is doing something to help others, than with a poor person in the developing world.

When a friend involved in overseas programming heard about this analysis, she was saddened.

She asked: "What’s wrong with Canadians? Don’t they care about people in the developing world?"

Yes, they do care. It’s just that they find it hard to put themselves in their shoes. 

But a story about someone in Canada who is doing something to help others is different. We can be like that person!

It gives us hope.

Of course, this is something the media has known for a long time. It's called the local angle.

As Brodie Fenlon, director of news for the CBC said about what prompts people to pay attention to a story: “Is it relevant to me? Is it close to me—geographically, or do I know someone involved in the story, or is it in my country or province?”

“The further away the story is, the less interested people are.”

To be clear, this doesn't mean we shouldn't tell stories about partners overseas. We should.

As Fenlon noted, there are things people should know, and that the media should report them.

That's why the CBC sent a reporter to South Sudan earlier this year to report about the famine in that country, even though they knew interest in the story was low.

For NGOs, that's also important. We need to tell stories about development, and about partners and beneficiaries.

But, as Loewen observed, it could be the best way to tell those stories is through the eyes of Canadians.

“It’s a way of connecting the dots between the people helping and the impact that’s making," she says. 

"You can use the stories of donors to also share about the development work overseas.”

Thinking about Loewen's findings, I'm reminded of what Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood fame, used to say.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers," he said. "You will always find people who are helping.”
It appears that it's not only children who feel that way. Adults like to look for the helpers, too.