With the Missouri Tigers joining the Southeastern Conference, we knew the 2012 football season was going to be big.

Probably the first question that many Tigers fans had was: Could Missouri compete against big-name SEC teams such as the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Georgia Bulldogs and the Florida Gators?

Sadly, the answer was no.

Missouri falls behind early, can't recover against Alabama

Photo gallery: In SEC debut, Tigers fall to Bulldogs, 41-20

Commentary: With loss to Florida, Missouri's bowl chances dwindle

At the Columbia Missourian, every department in the newsroom — Greg Bowers' sports department and our football beat reporters, Brian Kratzer and the photo desk, the city desk and Joy Mayer’s community outreach team — geared up to cover Tigers football like never before. Could we pull it off?

Happily, the answer was yes.

Missouri fans prepare for the worst before Alabama game

Photo gallery: Missouri Tigers face Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama RV convoy stakes claim near MU

Missouri, Alabama fans share passion, spirit before game

On the Missourian's interactive copy editing (ICE) desk, we knew we would have to gear up to handle all of these extra stories, especially on game Saturdays. But we weren’t willing to stop there. The Missourian had become a Web-first newsroom with the ICE desk at its hub. We wanted to take what we had learned about online presentation, social media and aggregated news content and apply it to one of the biggest stories of the fall semester. Could the ICE desk update our coverage in real time and use social media and news aggregation to enhance our readers' fan experience?

Quarterback James Franklin helps Missouri football team in first SEC win

Columbia Missourian Facebook page

Fortunately, we had the help of five independent study students who were ICE desk veterans:

Zach Miller, who wrote a weekly aggregated game preview.

Tigers report: Could Missouri pull off upset against Alabama?

Justin Brisson, who helped us bring game-day social media commentary to our website.

Missouri Homecoming: Live game-day Twitter conversation

Jim Ayello, who hosted live game-day conversation on our @CoMoSports Twitter account.

Columbia Missourian Sports Twitter page

Laura Oberle, who experimented with using social-media as a storytelling tool.

Pinterest tailgating food

And Nick Sullivan, who managed our new Missourian Tigers Report Facebook page.

Columbia Missourian Sports Facebook page

The project was based to a large extent on what we have learned so far about social media and online presentation at the Missourian—and what I learned in my first year as the Missourians Knight visiting editor and as a graduate student in the Center for the Digital Globe certificate program based at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

When I talk to students about writing and editing for the Web, I ask them to consider the differences and the strengths of the various kinds of news media. The Web is unique in that it allows a combination of detailed text, still images, audio and video—everything that’s good about print, radio and television.

Internet as a medium

Like radio and TV, the Web can be immediate, although we in the newspaper industry haven’t always taken advantage of that. Unlike print, TV and radio, the Web is interactive. We can use hyperlinks to get from one place to another online. That’s a strength, but researchers at the Missouri School of Journalism and elsewhere also have found that it’s a weakness, because the Web can be harder to use than other kinds of news media.

The Missourian has been a leader in the industry’s transition from print-first to digital-first. For at least the first decade of the Web as a news medium, most newspapers merely repurposed their print content online.

Missourian transition

About five to 10 years ago, more newspapers began posting breaking news stories on their websites, but often without the benefit of copy editing them first. At the Missourian, with the help of my predecessor, Nick Jungmann, we established a digital-first newsroom with the ICE desk at its hub. We reinvented the role of the copy editor as a producer and curator of Web content who promoted the newsroom’s work on social media.

I believe we’re at a unique point in the history of the Internet as a news medium. Like the transition to radio, or from radio to TV, we’re discovering that the Web is at its best when we emphasize its strengths. Like radio changed after TV became the dominant source of news, print is now changing to emphasize art, design and packaging—context, in short. We’ve started down this path at the Missourian.

Next-step model

Aggregated news content is uniquely suited for the Web. Researchers at the Missouri School of Journalism’s PRIME Lab and elsewhere have found that the Web is a short-attention-span medium. The Internet audience is active and usually engaged in our content, often because readers have sought out stories on specific topics. However, this audience isn’t always fully engaged. The online reader is a multi-tasker, watching TV or listening to Spotify while writing a paper on his laptop and checking Twitter on his iPhone. At its best, aggregated news content helps sort out an array of confusing choices on the Web—or it’s interesting by itself, even if a reader never clicks on a link.

There are three kinds of aggregated content. We think of the first kind—cut and paste—as the most common. The next level, though, is more of a public service: providing links to useful information and letting the reader know what to expect when she clicks on any of those links. But for a good writer, aggregation also can be a tool for storytelling. In this case, the writer uses online information as sources for an original story.

3 kinds of aggregation

I came to the Missourian from the San Jose Mercury News in Silicon Valley, where the biggest story was the tech industry. The Merc was a pioneer in using news aggregation to supplement its technology coverage on SiliconValley.com with the popular Good Morning Silicon Valley blog. I wrote an aggregated daily newsletter, the 60-Second Business Break, which was mostly about Apple, Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley tech companies.

At the Missourian, the biggest story is probably Mizzou sports. We developed a weekly aggregated column, The Week in Missouri Football, which later became The Week in Missouri Sports. We also started The Week’s Most-Read Stories, which often was dominated by football and basketball, and sometimes was even itself one of the week’s most-read stories.

The week in Missouri football: Tigers celebrate Homecoming win before facing No. 6 Oklahoma State

The week's most-read stories: ‘We are Mizzou’ and DGB

We also used aggregation for individual news topics. One of the stories I’m most proud of is a collaboration with the community outreach team. Last fall, the city of Columbia was considering deep cuts in the transit budget, and the people most affected were probably not big readers of newspapers or news websites. So Joy’s team put together a flyer summarizing the issue to be passed out before a City Council meeting. That flyer included a QR code to this aggregated story by ICE desk editor Victoria Guida which provided more background and links to Missourian reporting.

Guide: Understanding the Columbia Transit debate

We’ve also produced aggregated news content based on special events such as the Republican and Democratic national conventions ...

Convention highlights: For Romney, a focus on economic disappointment

... and the Summer Olympics.

Olympic highlights: Phelps makes history, U.S. takes gold in women's gymnastics

The Missourian also is a leader in the use of social media. It’s important to consider, though, that different social media platforms have different purposes, and that there’s a reason why.

The two most popular social media platforms for disseminating news are Facebook and Twitter. If you’ve seen the movie "The Social Network," you know that Facebook was founded by Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook started as an exclusive club for college students at Ivy League and other elite schools, opened next to students at top research schools such as Mizzou, then everyone who had a dot-edu email address could join. This elite, college-age audience had established the norms for using Facebook when the rest of us could join in 2007.

By contrast, Twitter was founded by techies in the Bay Area to solve a problem. A customer of one wireless service couldn’t easily exchange text messages with customers of another wireless company, and Twitter was a way around this. Twitter was first used by other techies in the Bay Area startup world, who established conventions such as #hashtags, retweets and @mentions.

At the Missourian, we have two teams that use social media frequently. On the ICE desk, we promote stories on our @CoMissourian and @CoMoSports Twitter accounts and on our Columbia Missourian and Missourian Tigers Report Facebook pages. The community outreach team works with the rest of the newsroom to use social media as both reporting and community engagement tools.

The “four C’s” we teach our journalism students still apply to social media. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of academic research about how the news industry can most effectively use Facebook and Twitter. We have some evidence that a conversational tone works better than merely broadcasting headlines. One of our graduate students, Haoyun Su, did a study for us over the summer about our @CoMissourian account and concluded that was probably true, but her sample size was too small to determine that at a level of statistical significance. Strategic-communications and marketing researchers have found a lot of evidence that because social media is a conversation, it’s important to be genuine. I suspect that’s probably true on the news side, too.

Social media formula

So what did we do for Missouri’s first SEC football season?

Joy and I created a new Facebook page to promote the Missourian’s college football coverage. The Missourian Tigers Report page was largely Nick Sullivan’s project, although the ICE desk and Joy's teams contribued significantly to the content. In just the first month, the page had than 350 likes and resulted in more than 1,500 Missourian page views, 148 likes for our posts and 16 posts shared.

Justin Brisson wrote the Tigers Report Archive, a player-by-player aggregation with links to coverage by our football beat reporters.

Tigers report: Coverage of Missouri football players‘ tough inaugural SEC season

Zach Miller, who often wrote The Week in Missouri Football when he was on the ICE desk, was responsible for the weekly Tigers Report column, which was a preview of the game based on commentary from other online sites. Zach also incorporated video highlights we subscribe to from the SEC Digital Network.

Tiger report: Could Missouri pull off upset against Alabama?

Justin also compiled a live game-day feed of Twitter conversation. He curated lists of Twitter accounts relevant to each week’s game, then built the feeds using Twitter’s developer widgets. He also found a “Tweet to CoMoSports” button that we used here and elsewhere on the site.

Missouri homecoming: Live game-day Twitter conversation

Jim Ayello hosted our live conversation during each week’s game on @CoMoSports. This sounds like fun, but it wasn’t easy. At first, we tried to be objective by retweeting authoritative sources on Twitter. But we found that was actually angering some of our audience, because they were already following those accounts. We decided we should offer more original commentary, but it’s also difficult to balance being interesting and upholding the standards we teach our sports reporters. Pretty soon, though, Jim found the right formula of engaging our followers with questions that would bring interesting responses. And we ended the season with more @CoMoSports followers than when we started.

Columbia Missouri Sports Twitter page

On the home page, we built a centerpiece with score updates and new links whenever we posted new stories or photo galleries. We also included links to the Tigers Report Facebook page, the MU Tiger Challenge game and previous coverage that was only available to our digital subscribers.

My intention was to put to use some of the lessons of Missouri School of Journalism Associate Professor Paul Bolls' research from his 2011-2012 RJI fellowship. He found that the brain interacts better with websites that are well-designed and that group related information together. With all of our game-weekend coverage, it would have been easy to overwhelm readers. In our home page centerpiece, we tried to build a well-organized table of contents to everything on our site related to that week's game.

This page was a collaboration of the ICE desk. I built the page initially, and an ICE desk editor kept the banner up to date. After a few weeks, Missourian news editor Elizabeth Conner and her Friday crew were building the early version of the page, which we updated Saturday. Later in the season, Justin was in charge of producing the centerpiece during away games.

Photo gallery: Missouri defeats Kentucky at homecoming game

The banner at the top of the page linked to this story, which updated the score in the lead and headline, included a Twitter feed from a list from Justin and links to Missourian stories. Garrett Evans, our Saturday ICE desk assistant news editor, helped me keep this up to date.

Missouri football: Tigers 17, Kentucky Wildcats 10 at halftimes

One of the biggest challenges we gave ourselves was getting photo galleries posted earlier. It’s very time-consuming to build photo galleries in our Django content management system, so Elizabeth Conner developed a method of building galleries by embedding photos that are posted on Flickr. That allowed us to set a goal of posting a tailgating and pre-game gallery before each game started and a game action gallery before the game ended. Thanks to Elizabeth’s ingenuity and hard work by the photo and ICE desks, we met that goal most of the time.

Photo gallery: Fans line up early for MU homecoming parade

Photo gallery: Missouri defeats Kentucky at homecoming game

Laura Oberle experimented with some creative ways of using social media as a storytelling tool. For example, she took photos of food and interviewed fans about their tailgating recipes, posted those photos on Facebook ...

Missouri football tailgating food

... produced a story for our website with the actual recipes ...

Missouri football fans cooking up tasty tailgating recipes

... then pinned the photos on Pinterest with links directly to the spot in the story where that recipe starts.

For the Alabama game, she collaborated with a city desk general assignment reporter to interview and take photos of visiting Crimson Tide fans, posted that album on Facebook ...

Alabama fans around Columbia

... then brought the story in vignette style to our website.

Alabama fans take over downtown Columbia

Finally, we also posted updates whenever the score changed on the Missourian Tigers Report page and at the end of each quarter on our main @CoMissourian and @CoMoSports accounts.

So did our experiment work? Although the Missourian is an experimental newspaper, it’s impossible to conduct a true experiment in a newsroom, because there’s no way to control outside influences on our results. You could argue that news is defined as variables that cannot be controlled. There’s also the question of how we measure success. Although there were several options, I chose page views.

The number of game-day page views varied considerably depending on the opponent. Alabama was the best game day, at more than 31,000. Texas A&M was a disappointment, suffering in comparison with the last Big 12 game the year before with our border-state rival, Kansas.

Did it work?

That was overall page views. Our college football page views were up pretty much across the board. Traffic more than doubled, with variations for conference or non-conference and home or away games. We had more interest last year, though, in the 100th MU Homecoming and the game against Iowa State in 2011 than in the 2012 Homecoming and game against Kentucky. These charts show total college football page views for the season, based on Google Analytics data. The figures for conference, non-conference, home and away are per-game averages.

Did it work?

Although game day was our focus, our team and the rest of the newsroom also put more effort into coverage throughout the Friday-to-Sunday football weekend. Our college football page views also increased substantially by this measure, although not as strongly as just game days.

Did it work?

Finally, our college football page views throughout the week were up more than 7 percent.

Our team’s aggregation projects brought in more than 50,000 of those total season page views, which was responsible for part of the increase in game-day and three-day traffic.

Did it work?

However, we also had more readers for our football beat reporters’ stories, photo galleries and coverage from the city desk and community outreach teams. In almost every sense, our newsroom effort was a success.

Frank Russell is the Knight visiting editor and visiting assistant professor at the Columbia Missourian and Missouri School of Journalism.


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