Creating a shared journalistic universe, Avengers-style

Journalists … assemble!

After the credits rolled in 2008’s “Iron Man,” Tony Stark returns home to find a mysterious man waiting for him.

“You’re part of a bigger universe,” the man says. “You just don’t know it yet.”

The man reveals himself to be Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.

“I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative.”

And with that, Marvel studios made a statement: these movies weren’t self-contained anymore. They were building a shared universe.

From there, each movie told a story, then kept viewers moving forward to the next thing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After Iron Man defeated the bad guys in his sequel, the end of the movie tantalized viewers with a shot of a mystical hammer, setting up 2011’s “Thor.” The end of “Thor” set up “Captain America,” which then set up “The Avengers.”

Each movie told its complete story, then told viewers that there was more to come. With the exception of a couple of stumbles (I’m looking at you, “Iron Man 2”) the movies never forfeited the plot of the current movie for the sake of setting up the next one – the movies told their story and teased what was to come.

And it’s worked. Not only are the movies really fun, the 11 films have grossed nearly $8 billion since 2008.

Like most geek-centric things, I saw the journalism connection in that.

There are two major questions every news outlet asks – how do we attract viewers, and how do we keep them? For the former, in the simplest terms, you attract viewers by giving them something they want to see. I’ve always been a firm believer in the idea that if the quality is good, people will flock to it. Yes, there is much more to it than that (you’ve got to market it and distribute it in the right way), but the quality will always be major factor. Iron Man was an unknown property in 2008, but the movie was good, and people saw it.

As for the question about how to keep viewers, we again need to look at the Avengers model – keep giving your audience a reason to come back.

Stories don’t just begin and end. They’re not episodes of a TV show where everything is back to normal at the end. Stories are living things – they evolve, change, and update. So should your coverage. Update with the changing story, then promise your audience something new to come as you follow it.

When you work on a story, you should always be asking yourself – “what’s next?” That does two things – it helps you develop follow up stories to explore the topic fully, and it helps you find ways to keep the viewers sticking around to find out more. Tell your story fully, then make sure your audience knows there will be more in time.

I had an example of this during the summer of 2014. Several vacant buildings and warehouses had been intentionally set on fire by an arsonist, causing major damage. If we had just done the initial story on the fires themselves, our coverage would be over in a day, and viewers would have no reason to come back. But we found ways to forward the story. We did a story on the owners of the buildings and how the fire impacted them. We did a story on the increased police patrols to catch the arsonist. We did a story on the community response, and found a non-profit that removed their newspaper recycling bin out of fear it would be a target. As the arsons continued off-and-on for weeks, we presented maps of all the places that were targeted, and looked at patterns. We examined the psychology of an arsonist.

We drove viewers to our Twitter and Facebook pages for real-time info, then sent those readers back to the newscast and web site when we had in-depth stories ready. When a press conference was set to announce the arsonist’s arrest, we covered it live, live-tweeted it, then promised and delivered more in-depth stories for the newscast and web site.

In short, we kept the story moving forward. We promised something more, then when we delivered it, we promised something else, and so on.

There’s always a balance to it, though. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been criticized at times for trying to shoehorn too much into movies to set up future installments. Same goes for journalism, if you do too many angles on a story, some viewers may get burned out. Don’t force an angle of a story when it’s not there. Follow the story as it naturally develops, and continually push your audience to the right spot to receive it.

Even if it seems like your garden-variety, day-turn story, find ways to keep your audience with you. Follow the story live on Twitter, then push those viewers to your newspaper for a richer experience. Once they are there, push them back to social media to continue following the evolving story. It’s a cycle.

Just like superhero movies, newspapers can’t exist on their own anymore. If you want to keep your viewers around, you need to give them a reason to keep coming in. Journalists are part of a bigger universe. It’s time we knew that.

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