Waves of change: From radio to the Web to radio again

Sunday, March 30, 2014
Draft of an essay requested by the editors of a forthcoming book, The World Wide Web: Reflections on Its Past, Present and Future, to be published by The Denovati Group. Your suggestions, corrections and other great thoughts welcome in the comments section below.

In 1998, after working more than 20 years in Chicago-area radio news, I found the field withering. Freed of historic regulation requiring news departments, radio stations were shedding reporters and anchors -- abandoning news altogether or outsourcing it to organizations that historically had provided just traffic reports.

I'd presided over dismantlement of an award-winning news team I'd assembled at a music-oriented station owned by a company that would eventually be subsumed into the giant Clear Channel empire, and the final act was my dismissal by a general manager who, to his credit, seemed sadder about it than I was. He graciously provided a severance that, along with union-funded health insurance, gave me time to ponder the future.

That pondering -- notably during a slow horseback ride the next week -- led me to the conclusion the Internet was the place to be; that a radio news mindset would be of value in the digital world I'd experienced in a new way earlier that year when our neighborhood gained broadband access.

Fortunately for me, a Chicago Tribune team assigned to figure out a new Internet strategy had come to the same conclusion. Three months later, I turned down a job as news director at one of those radio traffic services to join the new "breaking news" team at the Trib, confident news on the Internet would be a lot more like news on the radio than news on paper.

I was wrong. And I was right.

I was wrong in that "news on the Internet" demanded mastery of skills until that point largely irrelevant in broadcasting -- things like spelling, punctuation and typographical style.

And I was wrong, too, in that "news on the Internet" -- despite the exhilaration of being able to publish almost instantly -- unlike radio news didn't disappear instantly into the ether. It lingered. And mistakes lingered, too: Content could be cached -- in a user's browser, in search engines' archives, in email inboxes -- and so needed to adhere to newspaper-level demands for accuracy. Deciding when a developing story was complete enough to post was an early headache for the breaking news team at the Tribune. In traditional media, a story was ready when the tones chimed at the top of the hour and it was time for a newscast to begin, or when it was time for the presses to roll. That made things easier. On the Internet, deciding when to publish remains one of the most persistent challenges for modern journalism, right up to this era of instantaneous tweeting.

Another challenge emerged: On the Internet, a story needed to meet no arbitrary length requirement. How long was too long? How short was too short? An unlimited amount of space and a lack of metrics made such decisions complex.

I was right in that "news on the Internet" required a broadcast mindset of "this is what we know now; it's not a full story, but we'll get back to you on that."

And I was right in that one of the most valuable lessons I learned in radio news has proven relevant in every digital news job I've had: Journalists dare not take the audience's attention for granted.

Take a look at some of the earliest consumer radios and you'll see something we all now take for granted: Push-buttons, letting users change stations quickly. For radio, the competition's almost always been a click away. And the directive to radio news people -- especially those working on music radio stations -- was this: Don't be a tune-out; they're not here for you, so make sure you reward their time and keep them interested.

That hadn't been the case for newspapers. Unless readers were in a grocery store checkout lane, they probably had just one publication in front of them, and that was the one they read.

Now, whether you're selling shoes or news, your competition on the web is just a click away. Just like radio. And any content -- journalism, marketing, advertising, brochures -- that doesn't fight to gain and keep its audience's attention means much of the creative effort behind that content went to waste.

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That was the philosophy I brought to my primary role at the Tribune for almost 11 years: Creating the newspaper's daily email newsletter, Daywatch. As I proposed it before joining the newspaper, it was a sort of radio newscast by email: A series of conversationally written, broadcast-style news briefs, each sufficient to inform the audience enough that the dispatch itself would provide a satisfying experience, but each with enough of a twist to compel subscribers to click over to the Web for the full story.

Daywatch was, by any measure, a success. At its peak, it racked up a company-leading clickthrough rate: For every 100 recipients, 60 links clicked.

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What we learned from Daywatch metrics eventually came to inform programming of the entire chicagotribune.com Web site -- headlines, read-ins, photos and more. We found what worked in Daywatch -- based on what had worked in radio news -- also worked on the Web. And so, in January 2005, my assignment was to summarize all we'd learned about headlines. The result was a seminal report on "headlines that work."

Long before "search-engine optimization" became popular; and years before BuzzFeed and Upworthy built businesses on a certain style of headlines, readers were teaching the Chicago Tribune to "place the story's most interesting word or phrase as close as possible to the start of the headline" (coincidentally, an axiom of radio newswriting, and now more important than ever on tiny smartphone screens); to recognize the compelling nature of headlines that featured questions, ellipses, teases and pull quotes; and to weigh headline words for "point value."

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One of my roles in the early 2000s was that of Web evangelist, charged with finding ways to connect the growing Internet audience with the work of Tribune reporters and columnists. So I was the guy who left the Internet nest to explain to print journalists, department by department, what this weird Web stuff was about, why they might like to launch one of these things called "blogs," and what we were learning about audience behavior -- what stories people were clicking, what images seemed to connect, what headlines drove traffic.

It was a slog.

What I heard -- from features, from sports, from business, from metro -- was the same: "Newspaper readers aren't like that. That's just the twitchy Internet audience." Or: "No, I don't want to know how many people read my piece; it'll compromise my creative process."

My responses: They're the same readers, or at least they will be eventually. Don't you want to know how they behave? And: Knowing which of your stories is most popular doesn't mean you can't do other types of stories; it offers tools for getting people to read those other stories.

Some listened, some didn't.

But, eventually, management got it.

Those same metrics rejected by so many staffers came in the long run to become a part of the daily newspaper planning sessions; in fact, by 2009, they routinely had come to be the first point of discussion at those meetings.

But soon after, I was headed back to radio news, hoping to apply to broadcasting what I'd learned about audience behavior on the Web -- first as news director at the Tribune's radio station, WGN-AM, and then as Chicago bureau chief for an innovative (but ultimately unsuccessful) approach to all-news radio for the FM dial, Merlin Media's "FM News" initative.

When the FM News experiment ended abruptly after a year, I told a reporter, "In many cases, and I think so in my case, we are better positioned, with stronger, sharper skills than any of us had a year ago to go on and create something new again, somewhere else."

I didn't think then that "something new" would happen so soon, or in Chicago. But, once again, I had some time to brainstorm ways to synthesize what I'd learned on the Web with what I knew from radio. With a stretch of free time on my hands, I submitted a proposal to the Knight News Challenge for "Radio news, reinvented" -- a manifesto for creating and distributing radio news by smartphone.

The proposal eventually led me to a startup with similar aspirations -- an organization where, at this writing, I'm part of a team tying together all aspects of my career.

It brings together what I learned from my first career in radio news and from my second career in Internet news. It leverages headlines designed to catch the audience's attention and stories exactly as long as they need to be to keep the audience's attention.

Like the Internet itself, it frees the audience from the "tyranny of the clock." As the Internet did for text-based news -- making it freshly available any time of day, not just whenever a newspaper would plunk onto the front porch or driveway -- smartphone-delivered radio provides a "top of the hour" experience whenever you turn on the app. The latest news awaits you. Because the phone knows where you are, it can give you just the news -- notably, traffic and weather forecasts -- relevant to you. And because the app "knows" when you've heard a story, this service doesn't need to repeat anything. (How many times an hour do you really need to hear a weather forecast?)

Is this the future of radio news? This project's a startup, so it's too soon to say. But I'm confident the principles we've embraced -- ideas forged in the fires of broadcasting and honed on the whetstone of the Web -- will shape the news experience of the next 20 years.

Stay tuned.