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UNL News Blog

Archive for October, 2010

What’s new this week

Friday, October 29th, 2010

Plenty of UNL experts making the national (and international) rounds lately …

– As a national expert on bullying, Susan Swearer has been in demand in recent weeks. Last week, she spent time with CBS Sunday Morning as part of a story on Irving Middle School’s program to curb bullying at school. This coincided nicely with the Obama administration’s new guidelines on bullying and anti-bullying legislation moving forward in New Jersey. We’ll catch up with her next week and hopefully have something more from our eminent scholar on the topic.

– This piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education is an example of what we call the “London, Paris, Rome, Lincoln” story. For better or for worse, to get the attention of East Coast writers, we sometimes have to raise (obliquely or otherwise) the counterintuitive notion that interesting, cultural things happen here in the middle of the North American landmass. The writer of this story didn’t need any convincing, really — he thought the story stood on its merits — but his article does follow that “London, Paris, Rome, Lincoln” pattern. It’s bothersome to some people, but in the end, it’s a win for the university.

– As the 2010 election (finally) arrives, political scientist Mike Wagner explains the myths and realities of this election cycle at The Hill. In sum, it’s still the economy, stupid. At any rate, Wagner — as always — does a great job of bringing clarity and stripping away all of the white noise in our overheated political realm.

– Management assistant professor Peter Harms continues his march across the ancient continent. The Telegraph of London picked up on his “dark side” leadership study, which led to a series of aftershocks across Europe and other places around the globe. At last count, Harms had talked with reporters from Portugal, Russia, Germany, the UK and, closer to our time zone, Chile. One of his more interesting interviews was with British radio personality Ian Collins, who might be best described as the UK’s answer to Jim Rome (with a little Howard Stern thrown in, perhaps).

As always, all national news placements and appearances are logged at the UNL Newsroom. If we’re missing anything, be sure to let us know.

7 simple skills every campus communicator should have

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

I remember sitting down as a college sophomore for my very first interview for a newspaper internship — for the Grand Island Independent, natch — and responding to the very first question from the interviewer (“So, why are you studying journalism?”)  thusly: “Well, I like to write and I really like people.”

That day held mixed results for me. Bad news was, I didn’t get the internship. But on the bright side, I did succeed in not making my interviewer throw up all over the table after hearing that shallow, naive first response.

Why bring this up? Because in many ways, despite the narrowness of my answer, I learned over many of my years as a newspaperman that many longtime professional journalists would probably answer that question in a similar fashion, years and years into their professional careers. For years, the job was you finds the people, you talks to the nice people, you goes back and writes a nice story about the nice people. Many news reporters and content-gatherers made a living for decades on this simple job pattern.

Of course, that singular sentiment has been hammered by the breathless march of newsroom technology in recent years, and the accompanying demands upon reporters and editors to provide content on a number of different platforms — nearly all of them digital. Campus communicators are in the same boat; as more and more media outlets ramp up their digital offerings, pressure builds for university PR shops to provide quality content to local, regional and national media on multiple platforms (remember this post a few months ago about becoming a direct content provider? Yeah, that again).

For example, here’s a recent news release from my office about UNL researcher Ross Secord’s new finding, published in Nature, that could alter how climate change is viewed. In addition to a traditional narrative news release, we offer a high-resolution photo of Secord, plus audio clips of him discussing his work for use by our radio colleagues. Last, we’ve included a series of short high-definition video clips of Secord talking about his findings, plus some b-roll for our friends in the television news business, and for newspaper websites. To top it off, we did an N the Know for the UNL home page.

Basically, every communicator on campus should be thinking about how to serve multiple platforms. Do you need to be masters of every skill involving multimedia? Of course not. But every communicator should have —  or at least be aware of — these skills in our digital era of news.

1. How to write for the web. This isn’t like learning another language. It’s more about format and approach — and remembering that most web readers don’t read in a linear format as they would a book or a printed pamphlet. Their nonlinear nature requires information to be presented in short, easily scannable, quickly digestible bites. Use subheads, short declarative sentences and bullet points to transfer information effectively. For more, check out Gerry McGovern’s excellent guidelines to writing for the web.

2. How to operate a video camera and microphone properly. There are a number of do-it-yourself tutorials on this skill. It doesn’t matter if you’re using your cell phone video camera or one of these badboys — you need to understand the basic rules of composition, lighting and, most of all, sound. In the web’s short history, it’s pretty clear  that of all the things that irk users, bad audio is at or near the top.

3. How to compose and shoot a proper photograph. See No. 2. It’s great that you consider yourself a “word person,” but consumers of digital content want to use a visual medium to actually see the things you’re writing about. Don’t take offense; take a minute to learn how to shoot a decent photograph.

4. How to upload and download files from both campus and outside sources. It’s just mean to attach giant files to e-mails, which can wreak havoc on slower computers if they reach their intended target at all. At UNL, we have a number of ways to push out and receive large files. Learn how to upload and download photos, graphics, documents and other content quickly so it can be used to supplement your news release content.

5. How to post links, video and audio in Facebook. The other day a newspaper writer friend of mine complained how his wife didn’t have time to read his work in the newspaper, but she seemed to have all this free time for Facebook. To which I replied: “Sounds like you need to post links to your work on Facebook.” It’s the old Sell Umbrellas Where It’s Raining theory. To do so effectively, spend time learning how to present all of your content appropriately on the social-media platform. It’s not hard, really.

6. How to write an effective Tweet. Actually, 140 characters is plenty of space to be clever and get your message across. If you’re posting a link, be sure to use a link-shortening service like go.unl.edu or tinyurl.com to give yourself more room for your message. Here are a couple of examples of Tweets that pique readers’ interest and get them to click through.

The best Tweets usually read like headlines, which leads us to …

7. How to write a headline that is Search Engine Optimized. In general, cleverness should be sacrificed for clarity when it comes to SEO-effective headlines. Sure, a headline saying “ARMED AND DANGEROUS” would be fun above a story about Taylor Martinez throwing for three touchdowns in a win over Oklahoma State this weekend, but it wouldn’t mean much to Yahoo! or Google or Bing. A nice, direct, subject-verb headline like “Husker QB Martinez throws for three touchdowns in win over Oklahoma State” may lack poetry, but it’s got a lot more keywords in it and is going to play nicer with search engines. More on SEO and headlines here.

These seven skills may rise and fall in importance, depending on the nature of the news and size of your shop. Though communicators are being told they have to be a multimedia know-it-all these days, in actuality many shops have entire divisions decided to video, online, social media and other tasks to serve multiple platforms. The key thing is to familiarize yourself with the existing (and emerging) technologies used in newsgathering, and to be at the ready both in terms of skill and attitude when called on to use them.

If only you knew the power of the Dark Side … you could be an effective leader

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

Outgoing. Assertive. Calm. Practical. Decisive. These are obvious qualities that one would want in their leaders. But what about, say, arrogant, hesitant, overly dramatic, inflexible, or being a “yes-man”? A new UNL study has found that when it comes to leading, some of those negative personality traits aren’t such a bad thing, either.

The work, by the College of Business Administration’s Peter Harms and Seth Spain, studied the development of leaders over a three-year period. Prior research had established that clearly positive personality qualities – such as extraversion, emotional stability and conscientiousness – had helpful effects on both the performance and the development of leaders. Little attention has been paid, though, to negative, or “dark side,” personality traits and whether they are really so bad.

“Mae West told us that when she’s good, she’s good. But when she’s bad, she’s even better. We chose to investigate so-called subclinical or ‘dark side’ traits because we really didn’t know much about how and to what degree they affected performance or development,” said Harms, assistant professor of management and the study’s lead author. “Was it possible that they might be beneficial in some contexts? For some of them, it turns out that the answer was yes.”

The study tracked more than 900 officer cadets in their second, third and fourth years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It used the Hogan Development Survey, a comprehensive measure of subclinical traits, to predict changes in a variety of leadership areas that were regularly assessed in developmental reviews at the Academy.

Several of the 12 “dark side” traits – such as those associated with narcissism, being overly dramatic, being critical of others and being extremely focused on complying with rules – actually had a positive effect on a number of facets of the cadets’ leadership development over time. On Tuesday, Harms’ and Spain’s study was CNN’s 10th most-read story, with nearly 230,000 pageviews.

“By themselves, these subclinical traits had fairly small effects, but when aggregated, they played a substantial role in determining which cadets developed leadership skills,” Harms said. “Assumptions about how these traits affected performance and development were mistaken … it appears that even negative characteristics can be adaptive in particular settings or job roles.”

That’s not to say that large doses of these traits will make someone a great leader. “Dark side” traits have always been considered to be adaptive up to point, Harms said. Even moderate amounts can be dismissed as personality quirks by co-workers and subordinates. But at extremely high levels, the characteristics become pathological and can lead to career derailment, Harms said. Leaders must be sensitive to their situation to understand when exactly they are going too far.

For example, narcissists perform exceptionally well in job interviews, where self-enhancement and self-confidence is expected, but their tendency to put themselves ahead of others and take too much credit can lead to friction among co-workers. Workers who are very precise and rule-adhering may be considered noxious in sales or marketing divisions but may be considered normal or even high-functioning in accounting or legal departments.

The authors cautioned that the study’s results might be unique to the military context for which the cadets were training. But the findings do prove that it isn’t necessarily bad to be “bad,” and that more research is needed to fully understand the role of subclinical traits in the workplace.

The findings also could be used to tailor executive training programs and leadership intervention programs to employees’ unique, individual needs.  “Organizations should take these ‘dark side’ traits into account when making decisions concerning training and promotion,” Harms said.

Digital history, chalk projects, religious code & stink bugs

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Leaves are starting to litter the ground in growing numbers. There’s been a similar flurry of national media placements and appearances. A few late September and early October placements involving our folks:

– UNL’s efforts in the Sustaining Digital History project, which is trying to make it easier for history scholars to publish digitally in well-established forums, got some play in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week. Assistant Professor of History Doug Seefeldt, who is one of the program’s directors, said he believes that digital scholarship delves into history in ways that works on paper can’t: “The complexities of the past, it seems to me, are a perfect match for the capabilities of some of these digital tools,” he told The Chronicle.

– UNL’s participation in the “You Are Loved” chalk message project at more than 100 campuses around the country was highlighted by USA TODAY. It’s the second year that gay, lesbian and transgender campus support groups sought to raise awareness about the high rate of attempted suicide in their community. Writer Laura Bruno quoted UNL student Jason Lucht of Gretna, who said: “When I was having problems, I tended to look down, so if I’d seen chalking on the ground, I would have seen that someone cared.”

– Political scientist Mike Wagner was quoted by The Associated Press on the gubernatorial campaign in Hawaii, in which Republican Duke Aiona’s surrogates seem to be using religious messages to persuade social conservatives to vote for him. “The advertisements seem to be signaling Duke Aiona’s religious conservatism without having to actually discuss his religious conservatism,”  Wagner said. “For people in Hawaii who are religious traditionalists, regardless of denomination, they might recognize the phrase and take that as a symbol that Aiona shares their conservative social values.” The story, which added to already robust election-year media coverage, circulated across dozens of media outlets nationwide.

– Aagh! STINK BUGS! UNL entomologist Brett Ratcliffe was quoted in a LiveScience.com story about the annoying little critters, who are starting their yearly exodus into homes around the country this month. This story benefited from LiveScience.com’s excellent media partners, including Yahoo! News and a host of NBC News platforms.

‘Newspaper companies that will survive won’t consider themselves newspaper companies’

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Publisher Jim Moroney of the Dallas Morning News wrote an interesting memo to his staff recently that has made its way to Jim Romanesko’s blog at Poynter.org. It’s about the future of the newspaper business … or, as he might call it, the local media business. If you have a few minutes, give it a read. It’s excellent. Brought back members of quite a few mid-decade discussions at the Lincoln Journal Star between we futurists and the eyebrow-raising skeptics.

If you’d like the Cliffs’ Notes version, here ’tis:

– Newspapers, more than any other media, play a vital watchdog role in their community. If they go away, so does watchdog journalism at any significant scale. TV, radio and non-profit operations don’t have the journalistic heft or format to do it, or do it for very long, anyways.

The newspaper companies that will survive will not consider themselves newspaper companies. They will recognize that they are local media companies, distributing content on paper, through the internet, via the mobile web, through applications and any other way technology lets consumers access news and information.

To last, local media companies have to provide something so unique, so local and so exclusive that consumers can’t get it anywhere else. This is the tricky part — “the who, what when and where are table stakes. They don’t provide a winning hand. Everyone has them; they are commodities.” The path forward is to use the scale of the newspaper’s newsroom to give news consumers perspective, interpretation, context and analysis. That will drive value, not “City Council passes budget.”

The future business model will minimize display ads. It’ll mean a more expensive print edition, smartly priced local content for desktop users, smart phone users and iPad users, and downloadable apps that are for purchase. In other words, click-through advertising can’t carry the load at the local level.

Expect more attention on mobile, and more of an effort to get it right. Newspapers whiffed badly in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it came to the web, and it (and a few other things) brought the industry to its knees. It can’t afford to swing and miss again as news consumers abandon their desktops for their smartphones. They’ve got to get it right this time.

Good stuff. I’m still leery of paywalls, but that’s only because of my singular experience at the Journal Star, where the news reporting was short on enterprise and investigative content and long on public meeting / public safety / administrative content — the commodity stuff. If local media outlets are serious and thoughtful about how they put together a paywall model for their digital content, then the so-called “interchangeable news” — wire reports, general-interest articles, etc. — will simply have to fade away, with more of the newsroom’s reporting girth focused on the unique, exclusive content that can draw paying customers.

In a media environment that continues to be pieced out and chopped up, the news operations that will be successful with a pay model will be those that adjust their coverage to fulfill niche audiences’ needs, and give them unique content that no other site can muster.

From a national news and public-relations standpoint, these scenarios are good for our institution. National reporters will be ever be looking for smarter, more nuanced, more enterprising takes on the day’s news, and looking for the one source, study, program or story that will separate his or her coverage from the “standard” stuff, and that’s where universities like UNL — and her campus full of topic experts — will be able to step in.