Aim For the Heart is on target

ESPN.com’s home page.

By Mark Godi

Aim for the Heart by Al Tompkins has hit its bullseye.

I read Chapter 13: Tell the Story Online, put the book down, and was flooded with ideas. The first thought was to go look at some of my favorite news web sites and see how they apply Tompkins’ principles.

The top web site for me is ESPN.com. I have known for long time that it is an amazingly engaging site. But I took it for granted. It wasn’t until reading Tell the Story Online that I really understood why this site is so successful. I feel now like it should have been common sense.

ESPN.com is all about what Tompkins’ preaches:  interaction. The experience starts with reporting news. After that, it is up to the user to decide how they want to expand.

One example Tompkins uses is The Washington Post. Their web site tracked fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan and gave readers the option how they wanted to categorize the statistics. This tool offered a new perspective and gave users some control.

Also talked about in the book is how print limits journalist to giving a fraction of information. Say an article prints two quotes during an interview with a subject in a 15-inch story. Online, if a reader wants more of the interview, why not give it to them? A reporter can post an entire audio interview.  This means, happy audience, and in turn more user time spent on your web site.

An example on ESPN.com is today’s story about Jeremy Lin not resigning with the New York Knicks. Lin was not highly sought by NBA teams out of Harvard. He seldom saw playing time as a rookie before breaking out as a star last year with the Knicks. Now Lin is highly sought after and the Knicks opted not to pay him what the Rockets will.

Clicking on the story, there is text, explaining the news. Surrounding the text is a smorgasbord of options. On the top left corner is a menu explaining how the story can be shared. Don’t know who is being talked about when a name is mentioned? No problem, the names are clickable, taking users to short biographies. Not sure how you feel about the issue? Click one of the links that offers pundit opinions. Want to have your say? Leave a comment at the bottom or vote in the user poll on the right.

I grew up with a newspaper mentality so it is hard for me to grasp some online principals. I tend to read the story, weather online or in print, and then move on. All the visuals I write off as noise. This “noise” is stuff that others take seriously.

The other part of the chapter that stuck with me was the analytics part. This relates to last week’s reading about user testing. When I cover something, I intuitively guide myself by asking what I would want to know. I assume I know what people want. In fact, like Tompkins says, looking at page views, visitors, unique visitors and time spent on site is a must.

Staring at ESPN.com’s breaking news window, it dawned on me that a lot of time probably went into that tiny box. It’s not simply a guy sitting at a desk randomly picking what he thinks is important to tease. Instead, I bet a team of people are studying analytics rigorously to find out what is getting hits.

Again, this seems common sense to me now. But it took really thinking about Tompkins’ words on trending before understanding.

Finally, the section I absolutely loved was the Ethics and Social Networks. Tompkins touches on some guidelines to publishing social network content. I am friends on Facebook and Twitter with some of the subjects that I cover for my local newspaper. Social network “friending” is a good way to get information and now I have a reference for processing that information.

As a print journalist, it is so easy to get comfortable. You gather information, type the story, file it and move on. As we transition to a new kind of medium, that kind of thinking doesn’t work. This is where Tompkins’ writing comes in handy.

I plan to read the rest of Aim for the Heart.

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