The Wichita Eagle: Storytelling To The Max

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When you tell a story right

Kellie and Kathie Henderson were sexually abused most of their lives by their father and brothers. Their nightmare ended in 2005, when a neighbor finally discovered their secret and made the rescue call to 911. This month, the Hendersons’ full story appeared on Kansas.com as part of a three-part series telling the sisters’ story in detail.After reading and fully appreciating the story and the grotesque picture it formed for readers, I observed a few things.

First, and most obvious, is the shocking and basic rawness of the article. Written by Roy Wenzl, this three-part series titled Promise Not To Tell illustrates the mess of a life these girls endured, the ray of light they felt when they were rescued, and the many pebbles they’ll stumble on in years to come because of their irreversible past. The research and writing process must not have been easy, emotionally or practically. So for that, I applaud those involved in creating this final piece.

Second, I realized, “whoa hoe, what I just did was anything but read a feature story.” As I kept absorbing the copy, looking through the photo gallery, watching the short videos of Kellie Henderson retelling parts of the story, and going through some of the comments posted, I became aware of what The Wichita Eagle had done to me. They had pulled me in not only by writing a true and captivating story, but also through their effective use of video, photo galleries and plain text. It was an example of engaging news at its best.

This is precisely the one thing The Eagle is getting good at. Really good. More than tell a story, they engage the reader. They aim for a conversation. They take it to a new level and make you a part of the community rather than just giving you news. I could see that when I experienced the story. Not to mention you’re also given the option to comment on the page, email the story, print it, AIM it, Digg it, del.icio.us it or Facebook it. Engaging? You could say so.

Multiplatform: that’s the goal

When discussing their recent efforts to go digital, Editor Sherry Chisenhall from The Eagle admits that the last 3 to 5 years have been their most transitional in a long time. From printed papers, to online versions of the paper, to entirely engaging news experiences (like the Promise Not To Tell series), Chisenhall says The Eagle is a multimedia company that is constantly undergoing a transformation process to keep up with new media and that all their efforts have been pleasantly successful thus far.

Why make the news multiplatform? Simply, it’s because people want to experience news in different ways at different times. Chisenhall knows just how important becoming the platform people want at any given time is to the success of the company.

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It is no news to those at The Eagle that mobile is where it’s going. Jason Schlitz, who works with Chisenhall, observes that print is not dying, digital is rising, but mobile is exploding. He states that mobile growth has quadrupled for them in the last four months; with about 200-250 iPhone downloads a week. That’s more than enough incentives to aim for a multiplatform delivery of news.

Other news sources are following in the same direction. CNN’s iReport is a user-generated section of CNN.com that lets anyone report a news story. The new iPhone 4 even offers journalist tools that anyone with an iPhone can easily access. These mobile innovations not only demonstrate the change in news consumption, but they also point to Damon Kiesow’s notion that mobile is transforming journalism from a monopolized institution to a community of professional reporters, bloggers and ‘everyday people.’ Mobile has furthered the democratization of news production and distribution.

Progress is doable, perfection’s near impossible

While the team at The Eagle has done a near-exemplary job at keeping up with the needs of its readers, it’s unfair to say they’ve reached perfection. But this has little to do with their skills and abilities, and everything to do with the complex and transforming nature of the industry. The following are concepts they’ve implemented and will certainly need to continue to follow in order to stay on top.

  • Follow Consumer Needs___You can’t figure out the essence of a caterpillar because before you know it, it becomes a butterfly and all you thought you knew about it is proven wrong. The same can be said for news media: don’t think you’ve mastered it because the needs of your consumers are constantly changing.

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This idea can be generalized to the entire technology industry. Blogger Mark Suster sees the same dilemma, for example, with television. As consumers continue to enjoy and expect increasing interactivity and engagement with TV/video experience, the industry will respond to those needs by developing technologies that create experiences far different from standard TV viewing. Suster discusses the possibilities of a virtual, social viewing experience that lets you connect to your social networks and hints at a future with customizable viewing choices, where content “bundles” become a thing of the past.

This consumer demand creates a competition amongst the industries wanting to please consumers and wanting to make the most profit. Eventually, the more successful ones will be those who not only can create the product that meets consumers’ needs, but also has the fluidity to adapt to the constantly changing needs of those consumers.In terms of local news media, The Eagle meets news consumers’ evolving needs the best. Their multiplatform set-up lets users get their news when and how they want it.

  • Become a Platform Strategist___Chisenhall herself admits there’s no such thing as perfection in this industry, and because this is so, their roles are constantly changing and they have to have the ability to continuously learn. People here know there’s much more to being a #1 news source than just telling a story in a timely and accurate manner.

People at The Eagle realize they haven’t yet crossed the digital divide in terms of mobile success with news. In order to stay on top, they go beyond the everyday reporting and look for opportunities to always get better. For them this especially means excelling with platform strategies.

As one of the competencies of the next generation news organization compiled by Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, being a platform strategist means understanding the different platforms, knowing consumers and spotting their unmet needs, and leveraging your strengths in a way that meets their needs. Looks like The Eagle has a pretty good handle on this one.

  • Know Your Metrics___One of the biggest changes in recent years for many news sources has been a transformation from specialist, segmented workers that cover one topic to multiplatform users that use all tools available, in print and offline, to give consumers the best experience. One of these tools is the implementation and understanding of metrics.

It is now crucial that reporters know the impact and effect of their stories in real time so they can better understand their readers. Although a little time consuming, knowing things like where your people come from, what they are viewing and what stories are doing well should be one of the main things shaping your strategy and tactics.

  • Know You May be Wrong___Chisenhall believes the industry will continue to be fast-paced and ever-changing. She views it as an ongoing process that leaves her asking lots of questions about the future direction of news media. In the 1980s and before, Chisenhall says it was easier to “foresee what this business would look like. Not anymore.” When Chisenhall retires, she says she really can’t imagine what the industry will be like.

But she’s got the tools to keep her moving. She hits the nail in the head when she says that to grow, you have to “be willing to change your mind and say, ‘this is what I think I know today’ and realize that your strategies and philosophies change.” From there, you figure out what worked, what didn’t, and strive to do better next time. People at The Eagle definitely live by this. And it’s so important to remember it, especially when you feel business isn’t doing so hot. Get off your high horse and realize you may not know everything, and you might have to change how you do things to keep up with consumers.

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As a consumer, that’s really all I could ask for. I don’t want news sources that feed me information. I want a media group that validates my needs. I want a symbiotic relationship in which the media and we, the people, mutually feed and learn from each other while becoming a closer community at the same time. What a great idea.

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