Blog: The Educated Reporter

Turning Research Into Headlines

Today’s post features guest blogger Jennifer Donovan of Michigan Technological University, who attended EWA’s National Seminar at Vanderbilt University in Nashville earlier this month. 

As more people get their news from the Internet and social media — more and more of them accessing these information outlets by mobile devices — universities can’t rely solely on people coming to their home pages to get news about these institutions.

“The home page is still our front door, but we need to serve up our news centrally and push it out to many different places,” said Melanie Moran, executive director of integrated marketing at Vanderbilt University, in a community members workshop during the 67th EWA National Seminar in May in Nashville.  She laid the groundwork for an animated discussion of the ways that photos, infographics, illustrations and videos can help bring research news to the attention of a broad range of people on a wide variety of platforms.

People’s news-consuming habits have changed “from a meal to a snack,” Moran explained. “They grab bits and pieces from here and there.”

She said the objectives of Vanderbilt’s University News and Communications Office have not changed. They are: to strengthen the perception of Vanderbilt; to enable people to understand its research; and to demonstrate that the university has changed from a regional institution to a national research university.

But the strategies for accomplishing those objectives have acquired a brand new look.

“Our goal is to make the stories stand on their own, wherever they appear, and to make content as portable as possible,” said Moran.

Using a content management system (CMS) based on WordPress, the news office posts stories online with “tags” that will feed these articles automatically to a research news site, a faculty and staff news site, and web sites for the various schools and departments within the university.

Vanderbilt’s news, like that at many universities, used to be “siloed,” “but separate stories are not as compelling as aggregated research news,” Moran pointed out.  

Vanderbilt still issues news releases, but they are always repurposed online. They also do tip sheets and sound bites of university experts commenting on the news of the day. Moran calls that “mining our experts.”

Moran said the approach can be expressed as an equation: Strategy = story + platform + audience + voice. Using this formula, stories that answer the question: “Why Vanderbilt?” are placed on the university’s home page. Stories that focus on the human side of the university, “the heart,” are featured on Facebook, while breaking news and “attaboys” move on the institution’s Twitter feed.

Among the tools Vanderbilt uses or has tried are Omniupdate, WordPress, HootSuite, Sysomos, Flickr, Disqus, Storify, Exact Target and Feedburner.

Video also is a key component of the university’s news operation. Emily Pearce, director of the video unit, talked about the importance of multipurposing videos. Video news releases (VNRs) by themselves are useless, she said; they only work to augment other news components. Pearce, the unit’s writer-producer, working with three full-time and two part-time videographers, produce sound bites, video packages with B-roll, web-based newscasts and a video experts network, as well as video to augment news releases.

Pearce showed a video package about a humanoid robot designed and built by the university’s mechanical engineering department for use in autism research conducted by Peabody College of Education and Human Development and Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s pediatrics and psychiatry departments. Watching a cute little boy interact with the robot, demonstrating that this is a tool that can help the attention span of autistic children, proves once again that a picture can be worth 1,000 words.

Vanderbilt used that video to pitch the research story nationally. They also were able to offer broadcast quality B-roll.

“You have to make it so easy for them that they have no excuse not to do the story,” said Pearce, “particularly if you aren’t in a city with TV networks”  National news outlets are not only using the B-roll that the university provides; they are starting to use video clips they see somewhere else, she noted.

Vanderbilt has also had success in pitching interviews in advance, on an embargoed basis. All reputable news outlets respect embargoes. In fact, in one case, the researcher was scheduled to be out of the country when his research was published, but the university was able to get him interviewed by offering him under embargo in advance.

The video unit at Vanderbilt also provides video media training and videotaping, using their own  studio and video cameras. They pitch video news stories and coordinate interviews. More  Vanderbilt researchers are seeking out video media training and production, as they hear their colleagues say that this coverage helps them get research funding, Pearce remarked.

“We’re also trying to do more and more pitching to the dot coms,” she said.  “They drive traffic to your own site.

“Video is just a tool, but it’s an important tool,” she added.

In a question session after the talks, audience members questions ranged broadly:

How expensive it is to build a working video studio?  “It can be done reasonably,” she said. “You don’t have to spend six figures.” You do need a dedicated room with professional lights. The technical equipment costs about $15,000, if you’re going to offer high definition video in any format—and you need to do that—and Vanderbilt pays a monthly fiber optic charge of about $900. “An HD (high definition) camera is not that expensive, but it has to have a professional quality microphone output,” Pearce said. “All in all, it’s an incredible value for what you get.  

Should a subject look directly into the camera?   “The networks will tell you what they want,” Pearce replied. “You want to do the most natural thing possible. If you have someone looking directly at the camera, you’d better have a teleprompter.”

Do you find that social science research is picked up by the news media? Vanderbilt has good luck with social sciences stories, said Liz Latt, assistant vice chancellor for news and communications.  Use a search engine to see who is writing about the subject and pitch to them, Moran suggested. “It can be frustrating when a great video story isn’t picked up by the networks,” Pearce said, “but we just bypass them and do it ourselves. Sometimes then they pick it up.” 

What kind of lead time do you have? “We’ve done it in two days,” said Pearce. “A week is better. Two weeks is plenty of time. The longer, the better.”

How do you prioritize stories? “That is the hardest thing in the world to do,” said Pearce. Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes it’s necessary for an institutional reason.”

What performance measures do you use? Vanderbilt looks at where stories appear and the numbers of viewers, said Latt. “But there’s something more qualitative that is harder to measure.”  Pearce agreed. “I hate that people put a quantitative measure on it. There are things you just can’t measure.”






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