By Em Kuntze, smartocto
One day, shortly after the new year in 2021, a Dutch fisherman hauled in his catch somewhere off the coast of the Netherlands. Among the usual species of fish, he spotted an unfamiliar specimen. This being the era of Twitter, he posted a picture of it on his profile, asking the fishing community if they knew what it was.
It wasn’t long before an oceanic research centre responded, suggesting it might be a bream but that they’d need to check back.
When they eventually did, several hours later, they confirmed that it was a bream, but a Common Sea Bream, usually found in fisheries in the Canary Islands. Maybe, they suggested, he could offer it to the Dutch National History Museum?
And there ended the story.
But there start the questions…
This was a short news item (this retelling pretty much matches it for column inches) but it’s a great learning opportunity.
What this newsroom had done was orphan an article. This happens all the time, and newsrooms are missing out on a comparatively easy way to channel curiosity, boost engagement and nurture community.
What is orphan content syndrome?
What we’re talking about here are articles, stories and information that are reported and published – and then forgotten by newsrooms, even if the readers are left wanting more.
Why is it a problem?
There will always be some stories that are happy orphans: these articles do what they need to and share the information required. Further updates or follow ups would be a waste of everyone’s time.
That’s not usually the case, though – and there are several potential reasons for this:
- If it’s worth publishing, it’s worth monitoring
If something is fit to be printed, chances are there’s more to say than 200 words’ worth. If there isn’t, you have to ask yourself was it really worth publishing in the first place?
- An article like this one falls into the user needs category of ‘Update me’
This means the writer is dealing in facts, information and, yes, updates. It’s what gets published when further information is expected, or a story is incomplete – therefore, it’s just the start. There should be more.
- When readers respond, respond
This article was posted to the newsroom’s Facebook page, where it quickly racked up 184 comments. The average for this news brand is 93.
It’s worth looking more closely at any article generating above-average levels of engagement – and here they didn’t.
- The article invites questions… but doesn’t answer them
The fishy article shares information – but actually leaves the reader with more questions than answers:
- Why does the article mention the location of the catch so specifically when little more is said?
- Passing mention is made that the Common Sea Bream is more usually found in the Canary Islands. Even those with a paltry understanding of geography can probably tell you that this isn’t in the vicinity of the Netherlands.
- Is the purpose of the story that it took a long time to identify the fish?
- Isn’t it a bit weird that they suggested the fish be given to a museum?
When should you publish a follow up?
This article could have easily warranted several follow up articles, based on how readers interacted with it.
Take some of the comments posted in response to this article. They provide lots of prompts for creating more stories on the subject:
This conversation in the comments section speculated on the reason this fish may have ended up so far from its usual swimming ground:
“Gerben Poppe – Ever heard of the great currents running through the cables? Fish use magnetic forces and become disturbed.
John – I didn’t know this, but that would be a good explanation”
-> This calls for an article which educates or calls upon expert testimony to establish if there is any truth to these claims. Do fish really get disoriented from underwater cabling or from wind farms?
This user says all this talk is much ado about nothing: he caught four last week and threw them on the BBQ.
-> How about creating an article sharing the best bream recipes? Or contact the writer of this comment to find out how he prepared them?
Bream? Gurnard? Snapper? People also took to the comments to try and identify the fish themselves
-> How about a fish quiz?
- Ecomare advised the fisherman to offer the fish to the National History Museum in Rotterdam. But why?
Is it because there are a bunch of famous dead animals in the museum? It turns out there are: a sparrow that got killed because it inadvertently knocked over several thousand domino tiles during the 2005 Domino Day “world record”; a seagull that’s there because a goalkeeper once kicked it out of the air with a ball during a soccer game. Does the Common Sea Bream have the celebrity chops to join these hallowed specimens?
What kind of follow up approach is best?
There’s no single answer to this, of course. If news was this procedural and formulaic it would have been guided by AI for many years now.
What is true is that the standard “who, what, where, when” format of storytelling is often the least interesting approach.
For the past two years, data scientists at smartocto have been studying user needs for news.
One of their earliest findings echoed an assertion made by digital media consultant, Dmitry Shishkin, during his tenure at BBC World Service: that the amount of “Update me” stories produced is massively disproportionate to the amount of people actually reading them.
The BBC’s findings at BBC Russian reported that 70% of stories published were Update Me, but drove only 7% traffic. Smartocto’s own findings, while slightly less dramatic, reveal the same pattern: 70% of content drove only 20% of traffic – and that 70% was from the “Update me” section.
Read more about the finding illustrated here in this article.
What’s interesting right now is that in a kind of morphic resonance multiple news organisations are reaching similar conclusions. User needs models are helping drive content strategy and planning, at organisations from international titles like Vogue and The Wall Street Journal, to hardworking local outlets, like those featured in this research.
A universal planning framework
But back to orphan content.
The complete model, visualised above, shows very simply how follow ups might be conceived. The original story – arguably an “Update me” type – can be best enriched through stories and articles that address needs from elsewhere on this spectrum:
- Is there any truth to claims fish are susceptible to underwater magnetic interference? -> Give Me Perspective
- Best bream recipes -> Help me
- Identify this fish quiz -> Keep me engaged
- Why this fish might be destined for the Natural History Museum -> Educate me
If you were to publish these articles, the four primary needs (Know, Do, Understand and Feel) of readers would be met. Your net (excuse the pun) has been cast more widely, increasing the chance for better engagement and interest in your output.
User needs can really help guide the kind of follow up stories that might work – and help to keep a balanced and more complete coverage of any event. This isn’t to say that you should try to apply all these approaches simultaneously – of course not. But by viewing different approaches you can ensure that multiple needs are addressed, lengthening the life of a story and rewarding you for your effort in producing it.
It’s too late for the fish, but you’re just in time.
- Read about a newsroom implementing this approach in this case study
- Download the whitepaper on user needs for news
The author, Em Kuntze, is Content Editor for smartocto.