Skip Navigation

UNL News Blog

News vs. microtargeting

The central tenet of placing a UNL story nationally is having and exercising solid news judgment in everything we see come across our desks. Basically, we try to think like reporters do — they get a lot of junk, and the goal is to stand out with a story idea that has all the classic elements of news in it.

Still, on some days, “news” can be a difficult thing to define. One man’s breaking news (This just in: Utah has joined the Pac-10) is another man’s yawner (Why do I care? I’m not from Utah and don’t follow college football. I’d rather know about this). Or, it can depend on your state of mind; listen to someone’s pitch long enough, and you might actually start thinking that yeah, you might just be able to get that news release about an associate dean being appointed to a bi-state academic consortium on left-handed student achievement into the New York Times.

When evaluating research, news and other happenings coming from our colleges, faculty, students and departments, it’s our job to evaluate if they are of broad, national interest to mainstream audiences, to research and frame the story as simply and clearly as possible, and then to identify and pitch it to several targets in the national media. Clearly, if you read this blog or have kept track of our placement list here, you know that that approach has been very successful over the years. Faculty, administrators and staff have landed in national media outlets ranging from USA TODAY to CNN to the New York Times to Fox News this way.

There’s a second tenet to our national news efforts, as well. We call it microtargeting. That is, we may be presented with a story that has a few strong news elements, but only for a specific, limited audience. Key word here is audience:  For example, long after bullying faded out of the headlines of the popular press, UNL bullying expert Susan Swearer was showing up in Education Week, a publication primarily read by K-12 educators and administrators, as an expert source in continuing coverage on the subject. In 2009, Shane Farritor’s research into developing a sensor that analyzes and predicts weak spots on railways made placements in magazines about trains, several weeks and months after we got it to go coast-to-coast via The Associated Press’ national wire. You get the idea.

Blogs, too, are a great place to microtarget and only stand to become better venues for the tactic. Many blogs are tightly focused on a single subject, like a vast, interactive digital magazine rack catering to even the most obscure interests. One could work 24/7/365 on microtargeting, given the ever-evolving, ever-emerging information outlets that create niches of interest online.

But in many ways, microtargeting runs counter to a communicator’s instincts when it comes to news judgment. A key element of news judgment is discrimination; if that’s removed from the equation, then all items are created equal and everything is potentially news. You can see the conundrum.

This is all on our mind because recently, a series of events led to UNL’s Digital Commons being prominently featured in the latest edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Nearly a year ago, we were approached about perhaps finding a way to promote the Digital Commons, which at that point was among the top three in size in the United States. After some preliminary research, we decided to pass on making a concerted round of pitches because it was difficult to determine if there was a lot of news involved. In short, at the time the Digital Commons story idea didn’t pass our “first-best-only” test, and until it created news of its own, it seemed that any pitch would have come from an institutional perspective, and in looking at the media landscape at the time, it seemed there were very few entry points for such a story. So, the potential Digital Commons pitch essentially died for a lack of a second.

Then, a few months ago, we learned that The Chronicle was planning to talk with Paul Royster, who oversees the Digital Commons at UNL, as part of a story on how institutional repositories are approached at universities across the United States. The reporter, Jennifer Howard, often focuses on information technology and used our university’s digital efforts as the centerpiece of her story. It appeared on page A12 of the current edition of The Chronicle. If you have a subscription, you can read it here.

The etymology of this story — how it came to grace the Chronicle’s pages — is a good example of how microtargeting for an enterprise as large as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln just can’t be done by one person. University Libraries fashioned a short press release and sent it to a pair of library/open access organizations — the Association of Research Libraries & SPARC — which eventually reached a blogger in that professional field by the name of Dorothea Salo. From there, it caught Jennifer Howard’s eye at the Chronicle. The microtarget worked.

It’s entirely likely that this could be seen as a miss on University Communications’ part to promote UNL’s Digital Commons. We don’t really see it that way, though. This placement reflects a clear reality in our ongoing efforts to promote and educate the nation about UNL: We can’t be everywhere all the time. And, if we must make a choice between news and microtargeting, we’ll probably choose news almost every time.

We can afford to make that decision, frankly, because it’s our good fortune at UNL to work with many competent communicators across different departments, who often suggest good stories and story ideas for us to investigate. Most importantly, they also can be effective and relentless microtargeters. In this case, the single-minded persistence of our communicators at University Libraries paid off well for the university.

Congratulations are in order to them, and we’ll be sure to keep an eye on our Digital Commons’ progress as it continues to grow and thrive.

Comments are closed.