By LaReeca Rucker, University of Mississippi
For 20 years, NewsLab.org has been helping make journalism better, and that’s almost entirely due to the woman behind it. Now the site is getting a new home, but its key mission, determined in 1998 by former CBS and CNN network correspondent Deborah Potter, will remain.
“Originally, it was a one-year experiment to see what a project could look like that focuses on improving local television,” Potter said. “I hired a very small staff, and we talked to a lot of people in television news and determined the kinds of things we thought would be most important to them.”
One focus was providing information about how to tell television stories in an interesting way. Potter said TV stations often cover accidents, fires and crimes, but sometimes fail to air information that could improve the community and the lives of its citizens.
In the beginning, NewsLab received funding from the Park Foundation. “We collaborated on research at the University of Indiana and various other places to look at how researchers could find out how people comprehend and remember television news,” Potter said.
NewsLab completed a number of research projects. One of her favorites was “Seven habits of highly effective storytellers.” NewsLab looked at how stories could be told a little differently so people better understood and remembered what they heard.
Another successful project was “Before and After.”
“We told TV stations we’d like to take a look at stories they thought had potential that fell flat and weren’t successful,” she said. “We looked at them, picked them apart, and put them back together again. We wondered how [they] could have been told more effectively.”
Potter said NewsLab dissected the stories and brought in an outsider to re-voice both. “That was a long time ago, and it’s still in circulation,” she said. “I still get requests for the videos.”
Take a look at NewsLab today, and you’ll find many tips, suggestions and strategies about digital storytelling and social media.
“It’s added another layer of work and requirements to everyone’s job,” Potter said. “You can no longer focus on that one newscast of the day. You have to be on social media whenever you’re on the clock, or whenever you’re awake. We try to help journalists do it more efficiently. We find people who are good at it. We pick their brains.”
Some of the latest NewsLab stories include tips for multimedia journalists, how TV news networks want to renew trust in viewers, how storytelling has changed over the years, tips on using drones for news, fake news and how to stop it, podcasting tips, and SEO for journalists.
Potter, a former executive director of the RTDNF, said she believes writing still counts, and simple writing is better. “There’s an awful lot of bad writing on television today,” she said. It has been her mission to change that.
As of Oct. 2, the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media will be leading that mission when the NewsLab that many journalists know will become the university’s project.
The move comes in part due to Potter’s relationship with Debora Wenger, assistant dean for innovation and external partnerships and associate professor of journalism at the Meek School. Potter partnered with Wenger years ago to write a textbook called Advancing the Story: Broadcast Journalism in a Multimedia World. They are now working on the fourth edition of the textbook.
Potter said she was approached by Wenger about bringing NewsLab to the Meek School. “We had a series of discussions that will transfer NewsLab to the Meek School where they have pledged to keep all the content online for at least the next five years and to take NewsLab back to its roots.”
Potter said there is great research being conducted in the journalism industry, but much is presented in ways only academics understand. One of NewsLab’s early goals was to build a bridge between academics and professionals.
“I’ve always thought of NewsLab as the glue that can bring the academic side of journalism and the professional side of journalism together,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for additional research to be done that will be helpful and could benefit from being placed in a site that’s well known already where a lot of people turn for that information.”
Wenger shares that hope for NewsLab’s future. Today, NewsLab is full of strategies, resources and articles for journalists, but the new site will operate at the intersection of journalism and integrated marketing communication (IMC) because the Meek School is also educating future brand managers, public relations practitioners and marketers.
“We see a tremendous opportunity to build on the foundation Deborah has provided to expand the types of research we sponsor and to report on innovation and tools affecting those working in IMC as well,” Wenger said.
Scott Fiene, assistant dean for curriculum and assessment, and assistant professor of integrated marketing communications, thinks NewsLab will help expand the reach of the Meek School’s expertise into the professional community.
“The addition of marketing communications content is new, and is evidence of how journalism and marketing are becoming more closely aligned,” Fiene said. “For example, both require an understanding of the audience, and involve storytelling, branding and many other similar things. We're excited to be leveraging our knowledge into both arenas.”
The site previously focused exclusively on journalism. Once the Meek School takes over, NewsLab’s mission will expand to cover integrated marketing communications topics, including branding, public relations, marketing and more.
“We have a strong journalism program that's been around for decades,” Wenger said, “and we have one of the newest and biggest integrated marketing communications programs in the country, but we need to expand the reach of our own brand. We hope this site will help us communicate to a much wider audience.
“The site has the potential to help us not only grow our brand, but also to help keep our program innovative and forward-looking. The more people we have focused on studying the industries we support and on sharing best practices around those topics, the better we can shape our curriculum and help our students.”
Potter said the site has remained relevant over the last 20 years, as many things about journalism have changed.
“If I have any pride, it’s that it has managed to be useful over a very disruptive period in the history of journalism in the United States,” she said. “I’ve been able to train a lot of journalists, so using NewsLab was kind of my umbrella organization. I’m personally a trainer of journalists. I don’t see that changing any time soon.”
Potter said NewsLab has been her identity for 20 years. She’s proud of its longevity and that she’ll always be known as the founder.
“I think it’s time for NewsLab to move in a new way, whatever that might be, and that will be up to Ole Miss to determine it,” she said.