Own your story! It’s a common refrain of modern publishing. With so many great content tools at our disposal, we need not outsource the telling of our story to third-party media.
One of my all-time favorite quotes, by former King’s College communicator Kyle Christie, sums it up nicely:
Universities have an opportunity to leapfrog the mainstream media and explain our research, teaching and wider contributions to society in forms beyond the text-based press release. Whether it’s video, audio, slideshows or hosting debates, events and using social media to engage with different stakeholders, it seems like an inevitable direction. We have websites, and access to the tools needed to reach the public.
But there are ways to tell our story without necessarily owning the platform on which it exists. What about faculty members or administrators who blog, either on their own websites, a media outlet, or via LinkedIn—or who run their own Twitter accounts, for that matter?
It creates a conundrum for higher ed news offices, to be sure, as the embodiments of institutional knowledge no longer need them in order to communicate their expertise—and in some cases, they may arguably do better than they would if the news office took the lead, having cultivated their own followings and published content directly into the stream of conversation around a given topic.
A Fresh Approach to Research Coverage
At Marquette University, however, they are striking a balance. Social media director Tim Cigelske is spearheading the publication of Research at Marquette, a collection of longform news articles about faculty research at the Wisconsin institution, via what may seem an unlikely source: Medium, a slick, social blogging platform that has played host to some exceptional journalism and personal narrative, but not much higher ed news.
I spoke to Cigelske about his experiment with Medium so far:
How did research emerge as a communications priority for you?
Marquette’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs came to our office and asked how they could be more active in social media. So I discussed options with them, as I do with every department or college who would like guidance with social media.
It also doesn’t hurt that our new president comes from an engineering background and emphasizes the importance of research. My advice for our research office was to first do a good job of telling our research stories through longform writing, and then we could share that content in social media.
What sparked your interest in publishing via Medium? What are some features of Medium that appealed to you?
I was immediately impressed with the quality of writing on Medium when I started reading articles. It seems to be a corner of the Internet that hasn’t (yet) been overrun by gimmicks, promotions and click bait. It’s a place where writing can breathe and find a receptive audience. That’s refreshing. This inspired me to think about applications for Marquette, and I thought showcasing our academic and intellectual capital would be a good fit for the culture of Medium.
What are your goals for Research at Marquette? Who is your key audience?
We designed this as a summer pilot program, so the goal is largely to try new something new, assess the results and then decide what we want to do next. That’s my approach to most social media — experiment, measure, make adjustments, repeat.
We currently communicate some research stories through magazines that are targeted to alumni and university thought leaders, and my view is these Medium stories have the same goal but through using social media.
How do you determine which topics you cover? How do you source content?
We get story ideas from a variety of places. We had a nearly office-wide research story brainstorming session to kick off the summer, and that generated enough story ideas to last us all year, quite honestly. We also write about award winners and those who have received grants. Overall, we’re really looking for research and people that have a good story. You approach any potential article with a journalist’s discerning eye.
How did you decide to assign this work to student writers? How do you recruit and train them? How is it working out so far?
Quite simply, the timing worked out. Students are looking for internships in the summer, and I can pull back from the day-to-day bustle of the semesters to work directly with them. A summer program also made it possible to hire a quality candidate who might otherwise be working a student media job during the school year.
We ended up hiring two highly qualified candidates and I couldn’t be happier working with them. One has a background in research and writing-intensive English, and the other was a copy editor for our student newspaper. They each bring strong reporting, writing and storytelling skills.
What has your experience publishing through Medium been like so far? Both in terms of production/workflow, internal/external reaction, and outcomes?
Medium is the most intuitive word processing tool I’ve tried. My interns quickly picked up the logistics on the first day. They write their first draft in our Medium account, then send me the unpublished version. I make my edits and suggestions, then send back the unpublished updates to them for their approval and a final fact check from faculty. Easy as 1-2-3.
Medium shows us statistics, and in just over a month we’ve picked up 6,500 hits after writing 20 stories. Soon, one of our articles is going to be featured on the site Useful Science. I’m impressed with those numbers and outcomes especially because these aren’t just lighthearted Buzzfeed-style articles (though I’m a fan of that format, too). This is helping get the word out about important topics like spinal cord research, gender inequality in distance running, the housing market, autism treatment and much more.
How do you promote this content? Is it repurposed or republished in any other ways?
I promote via the normal social media outlets — predominantly Facebook and Twitter. There’s simply less to talk about on campus over the summer, so this gives us fresh new content to populate social media.
Another motivation for this project was to create stories that are fairly evergreen so we can continue to re-post them over time from our main university account as well as through college accounts when appropriate.
Finally, we’re also working on embedding our collection and linking to individual stories from our website and homepage.
We talk about universities being their own publishers and not relying on the media to get the word out about their news. But we often think of that in the context of publishing via our own websites, not third-party platforms. What does an initiative like Research at Marquette mean (if anything) for the value of our websites as news/content distribution channels?
I think we should keep in mind that our ultimate goal is to tell our stories, no matter if that’s through the media, social media, our own websites or whatever else is next. Websites are certainly an important owned property, but it’s only one way to tell our stories. Increasingly people are getting content in the form of links from social media. Who types in a URL anymore? So if that’s the case it doesn’t matter as much where the stories originate, as long as they get to your audience.
The advantage to Medium is it’s easy to launch an account, start writing and get your content in front of people through social media or even Medium’s own ecosystem.
What have you learned from this project? What might you try next as a result of this?
On a personal level, I feel like this project gets me back to my roots as a journalist and reminds me how much I love to write and edit. It’s been very fun working with students and seeing their progress. And it’s especially heartening to see a successful place for longform writing in today’s social media world.