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It's a jungle out there

The University of Minnesota's News Service is evolving with the new media landscape

By Adam Overland

Watchmen screenshot
A screen shot of the YouTube video created by the U's News Service.

March 4, 2009

Seventy years ago at the dawn of television, pundits prophesized (probably through a combination of print, TV, and radio) that radio was dead. Instead, what one sees today is like the wildlife landscape of the Serengeti: the lumbering elephant of print media, the rhino with a face made for radio, the buffalo of Facebook, constantly updating his status (Buffalo is...grazing again), and the fearsome lion of TV, vying with the Internet and its many tools for king of the jungle. Meanwhile, the deft hyena of Twitter waits in the shadows, devouring the scraps at every opportunity.

And then we have the Gopher

The University of Minnesota's News Service is well aware of the evolution of the media landscape. After all, it's not news that the audience and the method of news delivery are shifting. The Internet is now the number one or two method people use to get their news. Catering to different appetites is the only way to survive.

A media relations department or news service is a common feature among colleges and universities, and no school in the Big Ten would dare go without. You have to toot your own horn if you want people to listen to your music--and toot it well if you want people to join your band. The U wants the public to know about its research, discoveries, unique offerings, and events. The challenge is that there are a lot of different horns and so many ways to toot. And the landscape is constantly changing. Don't be surprised if months or years from now you hear of the media tool tooter--just remember, you heard it here first.

U tools

For some time, the U has been augmenting its tried-and-true tools like the news release, with new social media tools like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and blogs. While each tool has its niche, they are all, essentially, responding to the same problem, says Elizabeth Giorgi, head of social media. She says the question is: "If you put out a news release and it's on the evening news, it's going to reach a lot of people, but is it going to reach the right people?" While the U will continue to use the traditional media tools, the new formats can be likened to the wayward use of a magnifying glass--you have to focus the light to start the fire.

As a recent example, consider the curious case of a course in physics. If you remember one thing from your physics class, it's probably that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. But like news delivery, energy can and does change form. Had a teacher like James Kakalios taught you physics, you might now recall a lot more.

More social media at the U

Anne Mason, assistant director of communications at the Humphrey Institute, says the school uses a combination of tools, including blogs and Facebook. Eric Ostermeier's blog, Smart Politics, hones its focus for a policy maker audience, something extremely popular right now. "It's one of the only research-based nonpartisan blogs," says Mason. "The media use it a lot."

In addition, the Institute has found Facebook to be a beneficial tool. "In one central location we're able to reach out to all prospective students, and we have lots of alumni in D.C. we communicate with. In public affairs, people tend to switch jobs more, so Facebook is an easy way to keep track of each other all the time," says Mason. "It's also helpful in driving traffic to our events, from all over the place," she says.

The University of Minnesota, Crookston, sent its first "tweet" on Twitter on February 27. UMC is in the initial stages of using social media. They've posted videos to YouTube and have a presence on Facebook.

UMM has a YouTube site and will soon set up Flickr and Twitter pages, too. "Morris is investing time and resources in social networking outlets like YouTube and Facebook because that is where the masses are," says Christine Mahoney, Morris director of communications. "We are in an information age, in which you need to respond to the users. It's an exciting, yet complicated, time to be a communicator."

iTunes U
iTunes U showcases the U's exceptional faculty, staff, and students, and the exciting work, research, and events that occur systemwide. Users can download educational content from universities around the world and view it on their computer or portable media player (such as an iPod). All units and departments are invited to submit content to the U of M iTunes U public site. For more information, see iTunes U or read the story U of M on iTunes.

Superhero physics

It's rare that a college professor gets a call from a major Hollywood studio for advice, but when the National Academy of Sciences were asked by Warner Bros to find someone who could consult on the upcoming movie Watchmen, they found James Kakalios.

The U's News Service created a YouTube video of Kakalios, interspersing the rich and vivid visual elements of the movie itself with intriguing didactic monologue from the professor. On the eve of the movie's premiere (opens March 6), the video has been wildly successful, with more than 300,000 views. "Our professors want people to think passionately about their subjects," says Giorgi. "In the Kakalios video, you're getting a mini physics lesson, but you don't even know you're learning because you're entertained," she says. See the Watchmen video on the U's homepage or visit the U's main YouTube page.

Five years ago such a story may have failed to take flight, but video proved the perfect medium. The popular gadget blog Gizmodo even featured the video on their site, and that's part of the magic of new media--it's putting the information directly into the hands of the people who want it most. "There's a very specific audience for that blog," says Giorgi. "Not only are you reaching people interested in the U, but you're reaching people interested in technology, science, and physics," she says. It's kind of like TiVo cutting out commercials and taking the programming straight to the viewer.

U Tube

The University's News Service has a major presence on YouTube. U of M YouTube video number one came in July 2007, when a piece on the TCF Bank Stadium logo unveiling and ground-breaking ceremony broke ground of its own, says Justin Ware, assistant director of the News Service and the man behind the lens on most of the U's YouTube videos. Shortly thereafter, the U created its own YouTube channel, where it houses close to 100 videos that together have received nearly a half million views. "When compared to other higher-ed institutions, the U's News Service is ahead of the curve when it comes to new technology," says Ware.

Falling down the stairs

One key to the success of a YouTube video, as the Kakalios lesson illustrates, is entertainment. But that's not the only key and it's certainly not the U's mission. "People forget there is any level of strategy to this, and sometimes there isn't," says Giorgi. "Sometimes, you can put up a video of a cat falling down the stairs and people will go crazy over it, but just because a lot of people see it doesn't mean that's the best way to talk about it. There's a level of making sure you're still being positive. We operate in a client services model. We operate with our colleges to push their priorities," she says.

To that end, the News Service will not only take U news to traditional media, they'll put it on YouTube, they'll Twitter about it, they'll Digg it, and they'll contact bloggers interested in the topic who've written about it already, as in the case of Watchmen and the Kakalios video. "Suddenly you're able to find people who are interested and really target them," says Giorgi.

Still, there is no one, all-encompassing tool that works better than all the others when it comes to social and new media, says Ware. Which is why the U's News Service uses as many different platforms as the department can responsively maintain. Recently, the U began using Twitter, a tool that allows very short and quick messages to a limitless group of interested subscribers in real time. "Real-time communication with multiple reporters and other media members via sites like Twitter has been a very pleasant surprise," says Ware. On Twitter, a lot of people following the U work either in the news media or in higher education, so it's a great audience-focusing tool.

Information democratization

The bottom line is that the U is more than a knowledge generator--it's a knowledge disseminator. "When it gets right down to it, you'll find that most professors--most people--want the general public to know about the good that's happening at the U, and anyway you can make that happen is a good thing," says Giorgi. "If you can reach people who are extremely excited about [a topic], they're going to remember the U of M. They're going to remember that professor Kakalios has this unconventional way of teaching physics. If we can help our professors and promote what they do, then we're providing an even greater service," she says.

In essence, these tools simply amount to telling stories in different ways. By giving news organizations a different way of telling a story, more people are becoming engaged with the University of Minnesota. And of course, the beauty of these tools is that many of them are free--they cost nothing to sign up for, and they enable users to use them as they please, whether once a week or 10 times a day--it's the democratization of information. But of course, the ways to tell a story will continue to change.

"YouTube, Twitter, and the University of Minnesota Web site are some of our most commonly used tools at the moment. However, that list will certainly be added to six months from now," says Ware. Who knows? Seventy years from now, pundits may prophesy that the Internet is dead.