How the Anchorage Daily News used the Iditarod sled dog race to rethink how it covers eventsVicky Ho, Kyle Hopkins and David Hulen, Anchorage Daily News,
This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole.
This “win” comes from Vicky Ho, deputy editor/online; Kyle Hopkins, special projects editor; and David Hulen, editor.
Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
Answer: Like a lot of newsrooms, we deal with coverage of certain events every year. A challenge is how to find a fresh way to do so. How do we cover these annual events in ways that are useful, relevant and interesting?
For us at the Anchorage Daily News, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is one of those events – and challenges. It’s a 1,000-mile race across Alaska each winter that gets a lot of attention. It always has had high reader interest for us – in Alaska and outside the state – but we’ve seen changes in recent years that have caused us to rethink our approach: Our competitors are more aggressive (particularly those with a strong digital and video presence) and the race itself has been hit by a string of controversies (dog-abuse allegations, loss of sponsors, a doping scandal, etc.) It was time for a fresh approach.
The Iditarod is important, but we also felt like it was a good vehicle to experiment with some coverage concepts that could ultimately have a more strategic payoff. The stakes were much lower than, say, an election. We’re heavily focused on growing digital audience and looking closely at what content resonates with readers and what doesn’t — especially with a staff that is significantly smaller than a year ago (we have an overall newsroom staff of fewer than 40 people). The race was a perfect time for experimentation.
Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?
A: Our coverage strategy involved each of the first four Table Stakes: “serve targeted content to targeted audiences; publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences; produce and publish continuously to match your audiences’ lives; and funnel occasional users into habitual, valuable and paying loyalists. It also fit our broader goals to stop doing certain things that may not be effective in order to allow us to pack a stronger punch in other new areas, to focus on what we’re best at (and serve the audiences we own), and to find new ways to engage readers, especially those who aren’t reading us now.
Q: How did you go about solving the problem?
A: The first thing we did was review analytics from the previous year’s coverage. We found what worked (enterprise and features that tended to be unique to us; anything with some staff voice or personality; important incremental stories; in-the-weeds analysis from a former Iditarod musher who wrote a daily column for us) and what didn’t (less important incremental stories and updates, conventional photo galleries).
- We devoted fewer people to the race than in previous years. In total we had four people devoted full-time to the effort: an editor overseeing coverage in the office who started early to optimize efforts during peak traffic periods, a reporter and multimedia journalist out on the trail in a chartered plane, and another editor/reporter to wrangle late content and print.
- The coverage was primarily conceived online; print would be a compilation of some of that content each day, with extra attention to late developments or content that especially worked for print. But most of the energy was aimed online.
- We acknowledged the controversies: At the start of the race, we did a serious, solutions-driven piece about how to fix the Iditarod.
- We pulled back on incremental coverage. The goal was minimal effort on incremental stories that were likely to be reported widely elsewhere to allow more unique-to-us enterprise of all kinds. We didn’t ignore news, but we tried to find ways to deal with many of those developments quickly.
- Given the content, we wanted to experiment with more transparent reporting from our team: Talking to the audience directly in videos, occasionally giving them a behind-the-scenes look at what we were up to, answering their questions.
- We stopped doing conventional photo galleries, and instead crafted more focused photo stories using photos inline on article pages with text connecting them. The test was whether the page had a headline that told a story instead of what had been our standard, “Photos from the Iditarod, Day 3” and the like. When we had a batch of unrelated photos, we curated them into galleries labeled “Our favorite photos from the Iditarod so far,” or a similar format.
- We wanted to step up use of some new (to us) social media platforms, especially Instagram Stories (we have more than 60,000 IG followers) and Facebook Live videos. In both cases, the goal was to deliver content native to those platforms but also try to drive those readers to our main efforts at adn.com.
- We used a drone for the first time in the race.
Our overall mantra, beyond the Table Stakes principles, was “No boring shit.” This actually was written on a whiteboard. It wasn’t so much a directive as permission to everyone involved to pursue what was interesting to readers rather than doing stories out of obligation.
Q: What worked?
A: We attracted readers. Pageviews, engaged users and digital subscription starts were all up vs. the previous period. “An awesome week,” according to our head of circulation.
Pulling back on incremental coverage of the race to focus on more unique-to-us enterprise content gave us confidence to continue doing that in our other coverage. We discovered we could connect more with readers by strategically putting more voice into our reports and talking directly to and with readers. We also found that offering deeper coverage on race developments, strategy etc. from a former musher writing a daily on a freelance basis was a way to give readers a deeper level of coverage with thin staff resources.
In terms of tools, we were especially pleased with Instagram Stories, Facebook Live videos and the drone photos and videos. The IG and FB efforts reached new audiences using those platforms. We’ve since begun using IG Stories regularly on other subject areas.
We found we could quickly pull an ad hoc team together and we’re exploring the idea of using these teams in other areas; we’re working on applying it to crime coverage.
Q: What didn’t work?
A: We needed to plan better promotion from the newsroom — on social channels and elsewhere — and from the marketing side to give readers a better idea of what we were up to. We probably could have leveraged advertising more had we planned sooner. And we needed to build a better main landing page.
Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?
A: Facebook Live videos (which typically featured the reporter talking directly to readers or talking to someone) especially elicited an audience response that was wildly different from what we’d see on typical posts with story links. Viewers would chime in with greetings — “Watching from Saskatchewan,” or “Hello from Mobile, Alabama!” — and thank us for bringing them live footage, or answering their questions. Facebook comments can be volatile, but these were in a completely different vein from the standard fare. For us, it reflected the value of giving our audience more contact with a reporter or editor who was talking to them directly, rather than offering only one-way communication from the broader voice of the organization. We’ve since applied this in other contexts with positive results.
Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?
A: Start planning sooner. Invest in some inexpensive tools to upgrade our live-streaming capabilities. One thing we learned is that we could absolutely compete in the live-stream space — it’s not just the realm of TV stations or other competitors.
Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?
A: Make clear everyone’s role and, specifically, who owns the project. Don’t be afraid to fail, and if you fail, fail quickly. If something doesn’t work, move on. Test different approaches on social media or try A/B testing on your site to find what works.