Lessons Learnt From The Evolution Of Journalism: Creating Content In The Digital Age - Part 2

Open, frequent and real - taking lessons from The Guardian

In my last blog I talked about my recent attendance at a Guardian Masterclass with senior feature writer Jon Henley. I shared the parallels I’d drawn between the evolution of journalism and elearning and how we might learn from the way journalists are responding to the opportunities posed by the digital realm in which they now operate. In this blog I look at three techniques that Jon Henley’s applies and suggest ways in which we might adapt them to produce digital content in a learning setting.

1. Let’s get down from our ivory towers

If journalists no longer have a monopoly on the truth, they can no longer write like they do. They need to be more open and participative. This was the approach Jon took when creating his series ‘Greece on the breadline’ in 2012. Investigating the true impact of the financial crisis there, he used Twitter as a newsgathering or ‘crowdsourcing’ tool to find people who were fighting back against the tales of abject misery that were being reported in the media.

It was a tremendous success, generating extraordinary stories of innovation and resourcefulness he would otherwise not have heard of. Whilst it was hard work responding to all the tweets, verifying the information and writing up to three blogs a day, the end result was worth it: a story about the Greek people, essentially by the Greek people. And they felt extremely grateful: Jon said that there was “real feeling throughout the whole thing that people were incredibly pleased to have their say and put [across] their side of the story”.

Essentially the principle behind open journalism at The Guardian is to ask the readers what they should be writing about. They’re like an extra army of reporters working with them to get to the truth about a subject. And I’m wondering why, if we have that in journalism, we can’t have it in learning?

CG Kineo has always recommended talking to as much of the intended audience as possible. The more individuals we consult, the more likely we are to produce authentic, relevant learning. Also, involving them early in the creative process will help to establish trust and subsequent buy-in when the material is made available. But of course, up until fairly recently it hasn’t been viable for many organisations to reach out to every learner and give them a voice: social media changes that.

So let’s really make the most of the technology and allow learners to truly shape their content:

  • Give them a hashtag to tweet suggestions to: What do they think the learning should cover? Who would they name as the experts?
  • Use forums to encourage debate about the established ‘best practice’: who agrees, who doesn’t? New joiners are often closer to the truth than employees who’ve been there for years (the ones who typically define content).
  • Use Facebook to gather comments, measure the number of ‘likes’ on proposed treatment ideas and keep learners up-to-date on what you’re planning to deliver for them.

Sure, there’s some effort involved with these techniques but I think the benefits of increasing your sample size by this scale are worthy of serious consideration. Let’s shift the role of the instructional designer so they’re less like inventors of stories and more like storytellers.

As Jon said about his ‘Tweet-trip’ approach to the Greek series, this isn’t just about being responsive: it’s about being responsible.

2. Update little and often

By frequently blogging the stories he’d uncovered in Greece (two or three every day he was there), Jon was able to get them out quickly and cover a lot of ground. Each one was short and focused:

‘The children of Athens too hungry to do PE’. ‘HIV and Malaria making a comeback’. ‘Cashless currency takes off’…

Readers were hooked and waiting for more.

The idea of delivering bite sized learning has been with us for some time. But so often these are still wrapped up in one course or all delivered at the same time via a portal, missing a trick to keep learners engaged through the dispersed delivery of content (it must be good content to keep them tuned in – but I’ll come to that in my next blog).

Releasing content over a period of time makes a lot of sense when you consider that retention is improved through multiple, distributed study sessions instead of one single session.It also allows you to correct things that aren’t right or don’t land well first time round. You can include polls and surveys and seek out feedback, allowing it to shape future deliveries. If there are clear differences in opinion, tell these stories in the final analysis. We’re all adults and we have different views on things – let’s embrace it and create drama from it.

Delivering content as blogs or via a portal allows learners to share them with peers, leave comments and upload their own content (text, photos, videos) to demonstrate and support their views. Even save articles for future reference or reading at a later date, just as we do with articles online. CG Kineo are currently exploring developing an app which would allow just that.

Of course this approach works best the first time it is delivered. What do you do when someone new joins and needs the same content? People won’t sign up for the regular release of blog ‘re-runs’ – it just won’t feel current or candid. But everything can be pulled together in one piece which stands the test of time. And if you’ve sought feedback on earlier deliverables, now’s your chance to improve it during the collation process. It’s also cost effective as you’re reusing material you’ve created before.

Even when Jon takes a blogging approach to journalism, it can still ultimately lead to a much longer, beautifully written feature article based on the research he’s gathered during this earlier phase. It serves a different purpose. This is slower, well crafted, more investigative and insightful, whereas the blogs imparted information (facts) quickly.

Perhaps just as in journalism, there is a clear division ahead in learning. Short and fast (breaking news and important updates; blogs delivered as part of a campaign) vs. long and slow (which are more detailed, more compelling, more immersive, more interactive).

3. Keep it real

Jon’s a big advocate of keeping it real: seeking the story at the heart of a subject. This has been a mantra at CG Kineo for a number of years, but are we using social media as much as we can to generate real content? We can:

  • Use Twitter externally to identify people from outside of an organisation who are willing to talk about our subject matter from the heart – real victims of bribery, for example, or harassment in the workplace. Film them and feature them in the learning for maximum impact.
  • Use Twitter internally to gather stories, case studies, links to relevant articles or introductions to people who can help.
  • Set up YouTube channels which allow staff to upload their own videos showcasing best practice (these can be used to inform the learning but some may also feature in it).
  • Use forums after ‘go live’ to generate peer to peer debate not only to encourage social learning but to gather intelligence about where we can do better next time.

Of course crowdsourcing for the series ‘Greece on the Breadline’ took off because the contributors really cared about the subject matter. For less emotive subject areas we’d need to find ways of generating enough interest and engagement to inspire our potential contributions to take action: targeted campaigns, competitions and reward, recognition and enhanced public status amongst peers.

Some organisations have a more open culture than others. So we need to create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their own stories and anecdotes, particularly those that don’t always have a good ending or reflect them in a positive light.

Again there are overheads associated with sourcing real content – starting debates, curating content, recognising contributions – but if it also produces a buzz around the learning and encourages greater take up, it’s time and effort well spent. Why not embed it as best practice, as part of the content gathering process? As Jon put it, “we react to stories – not facts”.

In my next and final blog, I’ll share Jon’s tips about what makes good storytelling and explain why it’s important that we in the learning industry take note.

Want to read the full evolution of journalism story? Then read the first instalment of this three part feature.

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