Back in December, I saw something on Google that made me remember one of my favorite all-time lessons in journalism. My mentor and good friend, Bill Snead, called it “the gift.”
And, yes, I saw at least the spirit of what Bill was talking about on Google.
I learned so much while working at the Lawrence Journal-World. And “the gift” was definitely one of the most-impactful things Bill taught me back in my J-W days.
Bill explained to me that newspaper readers — whether in print or online — knew exactly what to expect from us: breaking news, interesting photos, police news, government news, sports stories, a gallery of the new library and the great feature on the woman whose grandson now works at NASA.
He told me we had to meet those expectations. That was non-negotiable.
But more importantly, he explained that when we exceed those expectations, we begin to form a different sort of relationship with our audience.
That’s “the gift” — when you give your readers something they just aren’t expecting from you, something that moves them. Bill said the emotional reaction could range from laughter to sadness to anger to wonderment … but for “the gift” to work, it needed to affect them.
And be a surprise to them.
At the Las Vegas Sun, we’ve tried very hard to give our readers these sorts of gifts — things our audience wouldn’t normally expect from a newspaper.
The hard thing for some to understand is that “the gift” can manifest itself in many ways. At least for us at the Sun, there isn’t a checklist or a recipe. And the ideas for some of our best gifts often come from the editors and reporters who others might least expect those sorts of things from.
Sometimes, achieving this can be done in ways that at least appear fairly traditional, only with a twist of some sort. Think of that great water-cooler story or touching photo essay that no other media outlet has that goes way beyond what another news organization might even think of, let alone actually try.
But what if “the gift” isn’t a story at all? What it it’s tied to presentation? Or to delivery? Or what if it’s a special project that simply doesn’t feel like something another local news organization would dare do, yet your audience is completely in love with?
Here’s what I’m talking about:
* A huge history section. But this isn’t your father’s history book. It’s as colorful and interactive as Las Vegas’ history is.
Nearly everyone who helped build this wonderful section for the Sun’s site no longer works with us, but they all did such an amazing job that even though it’s almost four years old, I still look at it with a sense of awe. And so do our readers. We probably get an email or phone call thanking us for this section at least once a week.
* How to piece together a zoo in Las Vegas, when we don’t have a big accredited zoo in town.
* Making the header of our site’s homepage get stampeded by shoppers on Black Friday. (If video doesn’t load, click here.)
* Or answering the question if you really can give a gift certificate to a Nevada brothel. (Which is a whole other sort of gift altogether.)
* Taking the amazing images from the Sun’s photographers and making them free, downloadable wallpapers.
* Re-building the Sun’s homepage whenever the UNLV basketball team plays so that Rebel fans know that the Sun is their home.
* In the spirit of the holidays, building a section filled with practical guides, fun stories and wonderful photography to help get our readers in the spirit.
* Making it clear on Christmas morning that we understand this is a very different day.
* Or giving our homepage a little pop on New Year’s Eve. (If video doesn’t load, click here.)
“The gifts” don’t have to be big. They just have to be surprises. Even little ones.
Oftentimes, there is a playfulness with these sorts of things on the Sun’s website, but it’s more than just grins and giggles.
You do things like this when you actually feel a sort of affection toward your audience, and when it works well, it can even communicate that very point to your readers. They know you appreciate them. I don’t think there’s a real business purpose for doing things like this and I’m pretty sure there’s no “journalistic higher calling” in it.
The simple purpose behind gifts like these is to tell your readers that you adore them and appreciate it when they spend time with you. And because of all of that, we want to do something just to delight them.
For the editors at the Sun, it’s almost unsatisfying if we don’t deliver one of these gifts for certain projects. A project or a story doesn’t need to have 12 magic things. It just has to be one magic thing. Though 12 is nice.
But what if “the gifts” are actually important to the mission of building a sustainable local news operation that fundamentally focuses on digital delivery?
In some ways, at least when it comes to a web audience, people almost expect to be surprised.
More than ever, when readers are only one click away from leaving your site, the promise of a possible gift to keep them around, to get them to go to the next story, might actually be a part of the recipe for not only surviving, but thriving.
In that respect, the idea of “the gift” may be even more important online than in print.
When this concept is a part of your DNA, it changes your approach to serving your audience. It also makes it so that when you’re developing a story or package, you know when it feels like something that’s typical and when it feels like cashmere.
I once explained this idea of “the gift” to a group of friends who worked at other news organizations. I told them that delighting our readers is delightful for us, probably for the exact reason why giving is so much more fun than receiving during the holidays.
And that takes me back to the beginning of this blog post.
That’s exactly how I felt about something Google recently did. Go to Google right now, search for “let it snow” and watch what happens. (At the time I posted this blog, this was still working on Google.)
This is what you will see (and the video is only 30 seconds long, so I hope you can watch it all):
I’d first read about this on Mashable. Before I had even seen it in action, I smiled. I expect Google to help me find things on the web. I don’t expect a defrost button.
Thank you, Google.
This little gift from you was delightful and was a reminder just how much fun it is to give an audience an unexpected treasure.
And thank you, Bill, for teaching me that there is more to being a local news organization than just delivering the latest news.
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