Locative journalism: recommendations for journalists, news organizations and media companies

By Hilary Powell

Locative technologies are becoming more important to the future of journalism. Based on extensive research and experimentation with “locative journalism,” our team of master’s students at the Medill School of Journalism has completed a downloadable report (45 pages, plus appendices, in a single 3MB PDF file). From the report, here are our recommendations for journalists, news organizations and media companies:


1) Think geographically
News organizations should geotag their content. As location-based services and applications grow, the companies that have tagged their content from the beginning will have an advantage.


2) Capitalize on mobile technology for geo-content
The mobile technology already exists for news organizations to use location-based services to target consumers on mobile devices. One example is mobile phone messaging based on a recipient’s location. JotYou provides text messages that are only delivered when a recipient enters a previously specified geographic location. As an example, people could opt-in to get the latest score of a Cubs game as they drive by Wrigley Field. The technology exists for news organizations to start sending text messages of breaking news headlines that are geographically relevant.


3) The media should be experimenting now with mobile content
Now is the right time to explore and capitalize on the mobile content world. Smartphones are expected to continue to gain popularity, which would give media companies more opportunities to provide wireless content on portable devices. As people become “urban nomads” who aren’t tied to home or the office, there is a push for mobile content and Internet experiences on portable devices that are more similar to that of the desktop computers in terms of look and usability, such as the number of clicks required to access information. Google’s new Android open mobile operating system could help make this transition more seamless. Web pages are increasingly being optimized for the mobile devices through sites such as Skweezer.


4) Streamline content delivery
The process of getting content to portable devices is often cumbersome. The news media should capitalize on new technologies to streamline content delivery and thereby increase the number of users. Improvements in wireless, cellular and GPS technologies will allow for on-demand, wireless content delivery.


5) Target a young adult audience
Young adults are likely to be most receptive to location-based media at this point. Mobile social networking sites that are driven by location, such as Brightkite and Loopt, have immersed young adults into the world of location-based services. Young adults are also the most likely to have the smartphones that are best right now for location-based storytelling. But the audience will broaden as all mobile phones become more location-aware.


6) Maximize existing resources
News organizations should utilize their mobile journalists for locative storytelling. They can easily re-purpose audio, video and images from other kinds of stories. Also, news organizations should remember that locative storytelling does not have to require GPS-triggered stories. They can utilize audio recorders, which they most likely already have, for audio-only stories. Making audio tracks of locative stories available for download on the Web is cost-effective and easy.


7) Harness the power of audio
News organizations should begin to explore locative storytelling through audio tours. Not only are audio tours less costly to produce than GPS-driven content, but the audience is more likely to already have the MP3 players or even desktop computers needed to hear the stories. Start with audio tours and then eventually work up to location-triggered stories such as Mediascapes. News organizations should remember that walking tours often work best when they are mostly audio-based. Video is still very powerful, but should be reserved for the Web for location-based storytelling.


8 ) Treat locative stories differently, depending on the type of news
Breaking news is different from in-depth features and should be treated as such. It is ideal to know breaking news as it happens, so news organizations should capitalize on wireless alerts. However, immersive storytelling such as Mediascapes should be on-demand. Users may not have the time or patience for these types of stories on a daily basis, but this option should be readily available. Also, immersive storytelling that is dependent upon a user’s physical location should be tied closely to the geographic surroundings. News organizations may want to create GPS-driven stories on-site, so they can also provide precise orientation and directional cues, which are crucial.


9) Avoid “Google Maps fatigue”
News organizations need to better organize and differentiate information on interactive maps, to help avoid having content that looks repetitive. With Google Maps, there is not a lot you can do to change the look of the interface or to add more interactive features. However, Google Maps API gives authors some of these capabilities. News organizations should also explore other types of interactive maps.


10) Explore location-based advertising
Location-based advertising is one hope for media companies to generate revenue from location-based stories. It has great allure because consumers could conceivably be in locations near advertisers’ stores or products, and buy based upon impulse or convenience. Advertisements could play immediately before or after locative stories. However, news organizations should avoid ads embedded within locative stories, which would not only be intrusive, but also heavily blur the line between editorial and advertising content.


11) Encourage user feedback and community involvement
In offering locative content, news organizations should capitalize on the trendiness of sites that allow sharing, commenting and user-generated content. Also, following the lead of community storytelling initiatives, such as The Organic City, based in Oakland, Calif., newsrooms should engage community members in story development and promotion.


12) Just do it!!!
Locative journalism is relatively new, but holds a great deal of promise. We’re accustomed to using linear interfaces, such as alphabetized directories and timelines, to organize and access information. But our experiences in the real, physical and non-digitized world are usually not linear. They’re spatial, dynamic and intuitive. Locative technology has the power to capitalize on that instinct.