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Media create viral content, but not often enough

The question in an earlier post hit a nerve: Why do certain reports go viral, and why can’t media catch on?

To explore this topic further, I connected with Thom Fladung, a former colleague at the Akron Beacon Journal who is now editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Thom kicked the topic around his newsroom. In our emaill interview below, Thom raises some interesting points about what media should strive to produce, and how media impact what goes “viral.” 

Q. When you hear of an item going viral, it almost always comes from a source other than mainstream media. Why is that?

A. In part, I agree with one of the respondents to your original blog posting on this. Much of what we consider “viral” seems to originate in and then be fueled by social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The media are only now recognizing the importance of these networks and delving into them. In the case of the Pioneer Press, we’re currently conducting an extensive training session led by University of Minnesota journalism school professors. Our initial training sessions have focused heavily on social networking media, how to use it to report and how to use it to build awareness of our content.

Q. Is creating viral content something the media should aspire to? Why?

A. Yes, absolutely. Viral content is, in many ways, simply a new term for what you refer to as the “Hey, Martha” story. Northwestern’s Readership Institute study from several years ago demonstrated that one of the driving forces that will bring people back to a publication is if they feel that publication “gives me something to talk about.” In other words, they are motivated to tell others about information they’ve read in that publication. That, in essence, is viral content. As we used to talk about when we were together in Akron, one of the best measures of a story’s effectiveness is when someone says to a friend or relative, “Hey, did you see in the Beacon Journal this morning…”

The Internet, as is the case with so many other examples, takes that back-fence conversation and amplifies it by a thousand. Or 100,000.

Why do we tell stories? So that people will be better informed and better citizens. So that we can serve as watchdogs on public institutions. But also because we want people to read and listen to our stories. Is it more fun—and effective—to have a handful of people listen? Or to have 500,000 people listen? Now, as never before, newspapers like the Pioneer Press can get hundreds of thousands of people to listen to our stories.

Q.. Do the media create viral content? Does it go viral and it’s just not called that?

A. Yes, I think we do. And, yes, I think you’re correct in saying our stories go “viral” and nobody calls it that. But first, let’s consider—let’s acknowledge—that the mainstream media have a role in helping stories go viral. The now-famed wedding video on YouTube got more attention and more viewers when the Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Star Tribune picked up on it and featured it first on our Web sites and then in print. At that same time, the Twin Cities television stations picked up on it and put it on their Web sites. And we all did follow-up stories, driving more people to those and to the original video. And on and on.

Yes, most definitely that wedding video went viral on its own on YouTube. But also most definitely, these mainstream media outlets drove thousands of more people to it.

Q. Want to provide some examples of what you see as viral content from the media?

A. Usually, it’s simply interesting stories. Let’s talk first, though, about what “going viral” means. In our world, editor Chris Clonts would define our material as going viral if it’s getting more than 20,000 hits in less than 24 hours and much of that traffic is coming from other sources, particularly Facebook.

What’s kinds of stories are those for us? Well, it’s usually not what we would call traditional hard news stories from local coverage.

Last year, we broke the story of two people from Iowa who came to the Metrodome for the Iowa-Minnesota college football game, left their spouses or significant others in the stands and progressed to some extra-curricular activities in a men’s bathroom while onlookers cheered them on. Whereupon they were arrested. And escorted back to their spouse or significant other. Can you say, viral? Driven by links from other sites, that story zoomed way past 100,000 views in a short time. Other media outlets picked up on it, of course. And the viral merry-go-round spun on.

It is not, though, just sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Several of the stories the Pioneer Press did about the never-ending U.S. Senate election between Al Franken and Norm Coleman “went viral.”

Let me give you another hard-news example that again goes back to our time together at the Beacon Journal. If social networking media had existed back then as it does today, how long do you think it would have taken the stories we did in Akron on the woman who was kidnapped and killed for her baby to go viral?

Viral content, in the end, is stuff you feel moved to share and tell others about.

Q. What is preventing the media from creating viral content? Or creating more of it?

A. Well, I’d like to say nothing. But I do think there are some natural inhibitors—some that we need to get over and some that are simply part of our DNA. And probably should remain part of our DNA. There are interesting stories from every beat, of course. And every beat probably should be able to produce content at some point that goes viral. But let’s face it. A fair amount of necessary local news is not going to go viral. But our readers are still going to want it and need it.

At least right now, it seems a fair amount of news that goes viral also has a heavy pop culture quotient. Well, we cover pop culture in the Twin Cities with some very fine reporters. And get our share of buzz when we break a story about Prince, for example. But I’m not going to transfer any of my local news reporters to pop culture beats in an effort to pump up the viral content quotient.

That said, we need to get a lot better at using social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook, Ning and more in our day-to-day jobs. We’re working at that. Hard.

But here’s a conversation I had with several editors with whom I brought up your viral content question. Let’s say the folks throwing the wedding in the now-famous YouTube video had called our newsroom ahead of time and said, “Hey, we’re going to dance down the aisle for our wedding to a Chris Brown song. And we think it would be really cool if you’d send out a videographer, cover it and put it on”

Would we have done it? Would any newspaper have taken on that assignment? I think we know the answer to that. But I do also think that the Pioneer Press (and the Star Tribune, for that matter) are at least now savvy enough to recognize when something involving local folks has gone viral—and, therefore, merits coverage. We put that story about the St. Paul wedding and the resulting Internet phenomenon it became on the front page, by the way. And no reader called me to ask what it was doing there.

Q. Anything else you wish to say on the topic?

A. What do you think about all of this?

I think this is a great discussion and sits at the heart of a piece of what ails the mass media. Thanks, Thom.

So, after reading Thom’s comments, should the media strive to produce viral content? In all things or just entertainment and pop culture?

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