General purpose news portal tells UK’s story, every day.
By Keith Hautala
UKNow, the official news web site for the University of Kentucky, was launched in the fall of 2009 by the university’s department of public relations and marketing. Since more and more people receive their news from online sources, its immediate purpose was to replace UK News (the print newspaper distributed to UK employees and mailed to UK retirees).
But from the beginning, UKNow was more than just a digital version of UK News. Whereas that publication focused on stories primarily of interest to UK employee s, UKNow was envisioned as a general-purpose news portal for the university. It would serve not just an internal audience, but all of the university’s publics, including the news media. And where UK News came out periodically — first biweekly, then monthly — UKNow would be continuously updated, with
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fresh content every day.
Becoming its Own Messenger
The site’s core function of “telling the UK story,” took on increased importance as local news coverage became scarcer and harder to attract. The university needed to become its own messenger, communicating directly to its public rather than counting on coverage by the mainstream media. The emphasis of the public relations department shifted accordingly, from producing news releases to producing full-fledged news stories, complete with photos and often video, as well.
Finally, UKNow would also take some weight off of the university’s home page. The home page had long served as the all-purpose information portal for current and prospective students, as well as faculty and staff, the news media and the general public. With its already crowded layout, it had limited space to display news headlines. When it came time to redesign the home page, a decision was made to establish a division of labor: UKNow would serve as the university’s daily newspaper, thus freeing up the home page to become its glossy magazine.
Organization and Structure
Like a newspaper, UKNow is organized in sections according to subject matter: campus news, research, student life, employee news, etc. A user-customizable “front page” displays headlines from each section in different boxes, which users can arrange to suit their preferences. Each day a new story is highlighted as that day’s featured story, with a prominent headline and photo as the dominant element on the front page.
A daily email containing the day’s headlines, along with summaries and links to the full stories online, is distributed to the entire campus community, as well as to media contacts statewide. Various RSS feeds syndicate content from UKNow to various college and department web pages as well as to external web sites. UKNow content is also propagated through a variety of social media channels, most commonly Facebook and Twitter. And starting in September, the online publication will be offered as a free subscription to anyone interested.
In the four years since its launch, UKNow has expanded tremendously. The number of stories produced by the department has grown, first doubling and then tripling the number produced before the site was launched. Multimedia content has become increasingly important, with video playing an exceptionally significant role in “attracting eyeballs” to the site. Traffic has grown as well, with more than 500,000 visitors to the site in 2012. The site has been through two major redesigns, with many minor tweaks and fixes along the way.
Mixing it Up
UK public relations has a separate team of writers dedicated to creating and promoting stories from the academic medical center, which includes the college of medicine and the colleges of dentistry, health sciences, nursing, pharmacy and public health, in addition to the clinical enterprise. There is a “UK HealthCare” section for these stories.
The writers work closely with the UK HealthCare marketing team to produce a good mix of content that includes patient success stories, research spotlights, faculty profiles, academic highlights and general health advice columns. This content is then syndicated across the UK HealthCare web sites as well. For example, news headlines about the Markey Cancer Center will appear on the Markey home page. Targeting content to consumers based on their specific areas of interest helps to ensure maximum reach.
Maintaining an Audience
The biggest challenge in running the site has been trying to maintain a good mix of different types of stories. Like a newspaper, UKNow needs to appeal to a variety of different interests in order to maintain a regular audience. On particularly heavy news days, some less time sensitive stories may be held over until the next day. Conversely, on particularly slow news days, the creativity of the public relations and marketing staff may be challenged to come up with a suitable feature story.
The university has viewed UKNow as a tremendous success. For the public relations and marketing department, the key to that success is the ability to remain flexible, to adapt to changing needs and capabilities and to have patience. Building a daily news site is an ongoing project involving many sets of busy hands. It takes consistent effort over months, and years, one story at a time.
Keith Hautala is public relations specialist for the University of Kentucky.
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