A great conversation with Mashable’s Jim Roberts on digital journalism

Very enjoyable Q&A with Jim Roberts, executive editor of Mashable, at a Canadian Journalism Foundation event Monday night.

If you’ve been in digital media for awhile,  you’ve heard the points he makes.  But you can’t hear them enough.  There is so much re-learning that has to happen in this industry, it’s important to immerse yourself into this conversation.

That’s why I’m disappointed that the archive video of the conversation doesn’t appear to have audio alongside it.  There were audio problems at the beginning of the live stream but they were able to fix it.  Hope they have a complete video available at some point.

As I had the conversation on in the background, I didn’t get a chance to hear the whole thing.  But through the use of Twitter, we can look back at some of Jim’s most interesting points.

Mashable is big

First, about Mashable itself.  It’s a powerhouse.  Only a staff of 55 yet they generate 40 million uniques a month.  That’s awesome.  They know how to bring readers to their site.  And Roberts revealed that Facebook refers about 25-30% of their traffic monthly.  Impressive.

We all are seeing increases in social media.  But when nearly one-third of your readers might come from one referring source, that tells you that it’s working.

Roberts understands that people don’t go to home pages anymore.  They don’t.  People don’t like to hear it.  They think they have a captive audience like the newspaper audience.  But metrics show that the homepage is getting weaker and weaker.  And you don’t have that captive audience anymore.

So, you gotta fish where the fish are.  And Roberts said that tonight.  You have to participate where the readers are.  Don’t wait for them to come to you.  Because they aren’t.  You have to be out there in the conversation.  Sounds like they are doing very well with that.

Niche

He mentioned that Mashable’s advantage was they had the freedom to be a boutique.  They don’t need to be a department store of news.

Yet, they have over 40 million uniques.  That’s huge.  So, they take their relatively small staff and point them in one direction and their audience gives them feedback.  And they listen to it.  It’s a two-way affair.  No longer is it “we’re going to tell you the news.”  It’s “are you reading us?  And if not, we need to change things up.”

What’s the takeaway?  Easy.  Find your niche and be better than anyone else at it.  Even if you are more of a department store of news, you can still trim down your focus to what’s essential.  And then kill at it.  And then build the reputation for that niche.  If you spread yourself too thin, you won’t grow because there will always be smaller niche sites that are more focused — that just do that one thing really, really well.

It really is about defining what you do.  And then focus, focus, focus.  Build the reputation for that coverage.

Content creators

He doesn’t call reporters “reporters,” by the way.  And he purposely mentioned that he doesn’t.  Instead he calls them ‘content creators.’  He said he doesn’t necessarily like the phrase but it encapsulates what a digital journalist really does.

“I view their role as much more than a reporter.  It’s more than just gathering information.  It’s about presenting it, ” he said.  Many journalists would get offended at this.  But I don’t know if too many digital journalists would.  They’re too busy thinking about all the different ways to present their news story.  “Content creator” is ok.

Have some dessert

On the lighter side of news.  He said he was proud of all the content on his site.  And that includes the lighter fare.

There was a story about a pit bull puppy who is afraid of doorways so he enters backside first.  Hard news?  No.  Entertaining?  Yes.

“I’m not embarrassed that content was on our site,” he said.

He then asked the moderator, “Did you enjoy it?  Nothing wrong with entertainment.”

He said both of these elements have always been in newspapers.  The oft-used example of comic strips came up.

“We must entertain as well as inform.  These are not opposing poles.  Nothing wrong with entertaining an audience.”

Could not agree more.  There can be plenty of spinach.  And spinach is good.  But dessert is good too.  It’s a balance.

As Jim said, they want to do serious journalism but also want to entertain people.  That’s a tough balance to strike.

But, they pull it off.  Look at Mashable now.  Top story is about the Uber VP who wanted to dig up dirt on journalists.  Right under that story if the pit bull puppy.  Hard news story and fun entertaining story right next to each other.  They pull it off.

Digital video

When discussing video, he mentioned that, of course, advertising in video is much more lucrative than most other forms of advertising on the web.

But the key is how you do it.  TV on the web doesn’t work.  It’s gotta be different.

“We have to use video to relate to people more.  Quickly digested.  A little on the entertainment side,” he said.

Then he mentioned that the mobile experience is the screen we should concentrate on.

When discussing the iPhone 6 launch, he said they didn’t need to make a news video.  People already knew the news.  It has to be more personal.  Too many news organizations just create TV on the Internet and that doesn’t work.  That goes back to doing radio on TV. Different mediums.  Different ways of approaching.

Money

Couple other things.  About money.  When asked if Mashable was profitable, he replied, “Oh, it’s very profitable.”

How do they make money?  He brought up branded content.

That’s interesting.  It can work.  It’s gotta be good though and fit with the brand.

Design

When he spoke about navigating the site, he said, he felt like the navigation was used generally more by journalists than by the audience.

I couldn’t agree more with this.  The problem is that we think our audience pays as much attention to the site as we do.  And they don’t.  They come in (through whatever means) get their story and leave.  If we can get them to stick around, great.  But they don’t read the site like we do.

But that’s a big fallacy.  We project our personal experiences on our visitors.  This is why metrics are so important.  They tell us exactly what readers are doing.  Exactly how far readers are reading the article.  When they peel off.

It’s the whole ‘section-front conversation.”  Most readers don’t go to a section front.  But sometimes people treat them like they do.  Again, this is the importance of metrics.

Really, good design is just getting yourself out of the way.  Just making it simple for readers to read.  Simplicity is key.  An overly designed site will kill you.  Make it simple.  Make it responsive.  And get out of the way.

Sharing

I love how up front Mashable is with how much their content is shared.  As Craig Saila recounted Roberts saying, “Journalists are sometimes painfully aware of how their stories are performing thanks to the share bar counts.”

This is great.  People should know if their stories were read and if their stories were shared.  Because we can take a look at the ones that went viral and learn something from on it.  Then we can look at the ones that didn’t take off and do an autopsy.  Figure out why it didn’t work.

And then use these positive techniques down the road to get more and more content read.

Twitter

He’s great on Twitter as most people know.  He’s got a huge following.  More than 150k followers.

How to do it?  He tweets a lot.  He was bit of advice?  Make sure your tweets don’t read like headlines.

Good enough.  Hope they have a version of the video with sound.  It’s worth the watch (and listen).

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