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How the Bay Area News Group built content guides and checklists to train staff and reach new audiences

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The Bay Area News Group had moved to a digital first publishing platform but quickly realized some writers and editors were finding an audience for their content better than others. They realized they needed to get everyone on the same page -- with a suite of digital content guides.

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 Ann Tatko-Peterson, assistant managing editor of audience, and Bert Robinson, managing editor of content, for the Bay Area News Group, who led a newsroom transformation committee designed to bring together their regional newsrooms.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: As our name suggests, the Bay Area News Group is not one centralized metropolitan newspaper. Our organization stretches over a hundred miles, with newsrooms and bureaus scattered throughout the Bay Area and more than one website delivering to a global audience. We had a vast potential audience, one we could reach even more easily starting in September 2016 when we moved to a digital front-end publishing system, WordPress.

We trained our entire staff to use the new system, and discovered within just a few months that some reporters and editors were using it better than others. Not surprisingly, these same reporters were achieving better metrics by reaching a larger audience. We wanted to grow this online audience and become a stronger digital brand, but we couldn’t do it with this fractured approach to content creation and delivery. We needed a guide that looked at the digital strategies for success for each type of content we created, and we needed to bridge our dispersed newsrooms by sharing these strategies with the entire staff.  

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: We now had a better platform for delivering our content digitally but, as a whole, the staff still had a print-centric mentality. We assumed we knew what readers wanted, but we weren’t focused enough on our digital audience. Clearly, we could serve targeted audiences with targeted content (Table Stake #1) since some of our reporters were accomplishing that. And a select number of people on staff knew how to use platforms to reach our targeted audiences (Table Stake #2). Our failure was in sharing knowledge of how to accomplish those two essentials with everyone on staff.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We formed a small team of representatives from different departments, including our online team, photo staff and graphics department, to discuss best practices and common mistakes for the 20 different types of content we create. That content included breaking news stories, enterprise articles, columns, sports stories, even Facebook posts. We developed comprehensive guides for each content bucket that outlines what reporters, editors, photographers and graphic artists needed to do to achieve optimal audience reach for their content.

Each type of content had its own guide, outlining everything from the best posting times, recommendations for tags and featured images, suggestions for headlines and tips for communicating with the various departments. The guides also provided practical how-to instructions for cropping photos and headline writing. And at the end of each guide, a one-page checklist provided reporters and editors with a condensed version they could literally check off before publishing.

We then took our content guides on a roadshow, visiting our different newsrooms to lead hands-on workshops during the next three months. We walked the entire staff through them, illustrating how to put best practices to use. We tailored the presentations by various departments so we could help them see best how the guide applied to the content they created each day.

Here’s a sample of the breaking news content strategy: BANG-Content-Strategy-Guide-Breaking-News

Here’s a sample of the presentation for our metro/regional teams: BANG Content Strategy Presentation

Q: What worked? 

A: About 85 percent of the staff attended the workshops, a participation level that gave us our best chance at success. It helped that the managing editor of content was one of the training leaders; no one wants to look disinterested in front of the boss. The hands-on approach with the workshops also was a smart move, because it highlighted some basic deficiencies with some individuals that allowed us to make the training even more beneficial.

To test the success of the guides and workshops, we spent three months tracking 12 writers who we identified as missing key content approaches prior to the training. We wanted to see if we could raise the percentage of stories that “checked all the boxes” from 30 percent to 80 percent by the end of the three-month monitoring period. Only two of the 12 writers monitored fell short of achieving 90 percent — and both of their editors made up for the shortfall. One writer who consistently missed with headlines, tagging and overall communication saw her traffic climb 825 percent in one month. Year-over-year, the traffic for the entire staff grew 15 percent during the month after the conclusion of the final workshop. After six months, year-over-year traffic had grown 22 percent.

Beyond statistical metrics, the anecdotal evidence of success was also encouraging. For example, The New York Times sent out a news alert at 10:31 p.m. about Uber’s CEO resigning. Our night reporter published a two-paragraph story at 10:36 p.m. and then followed up with a more comprehensive update 20 minutes later. Before content strategy, our night cops reporter would never have written a breaking business story without being told to do it — and even then, it would have taken the reporter a half hour to post something.

We also saw more reporters owning their own stories. Reporters reached out to producers to ask about suggested headline changes or ideal posting times. Editors asked for better homepage or Facebook play. Photographers recommended better featured images. Fewer stories posted without all of the bells and whistles being attached.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: Follow-through is crucial, and we became lax in that area. Eight months later, we saw some reporters forgetting what they had been taught. Rather than reinforce best practices and good habits, producers and editors started changing headlines and photos without asking reporters to do it for themselves. It was easier to do it themselves, but that just allowed bad habits to become more ingrained.

Not everyone monitored the real-time metrics for their stories either — one of the key strategies in the content guides. As a result, they squandered opportunities to change headlines, excerpts and photos and request better play for struggling stories or to add more content to better optimize stories that had reached a larger audience.

Most of all, we neglected to evolve our content strategies. We hired a social media director, who has provided key insights for social media approaches, yet we never updated our content strategy for Facebook postings. We started several successful newsletters to better expand our audience reach but never reflected this change in any of our content strategies. We became so busy with our daily work that we took our eye off the big picture.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: We learned a valuable lesson as the content strategies started to work. Breaking news, beyond the traditional crimes and accidents coverage, flourished with the implementation of the these strategies. We came to realize that we needed to devote more resources to this particular type of content. That became the apex of our newsroom transformation, as we merged writers, editors and producers into a real-time team, while also creating topic teams and local teams. We gained a better understanding that reaching targeted audiences with targeted content meant aligning our staff to actually create that targeted content.

The real-time team is how breaking news has manifested itself into a new approach to content creation. The team is structured around traditional interests — business, news, features, sports, etc. — but designed in a way that the writers and producers can break from those interests, at any time, to tackle the top news story of the day. The team transitions from morning, afternoon and night crews that allow us to provide real-time coverage across 18 hours a day, extending our content beyond the peak hours of 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Traditional producers are now also content creators. And everyone on the team shows daily the importance of following the content strategy for breaking news.  

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: For starters, we should have done this sooner. Getting everyone on the same page was crucial to digital optimization across our entire staff. We couldn’t expect everyone to know the best practices when in truth, outside of our own departments, we didn’t always know what was best ourselves.

But, as written guides, they have become stagnant — something read once or twice and then filed away as reference material. What we really needed was a committee to stay on top of changes. We needed follow-up workshops to help the staff learn new best practices and approaches. We needed to reflect key changes in the guides and put those directly in the hands of our staffs.

That’s not to stay we haven’t seen the light and finally started to move in that direction. We are tapping the resources within our own staff to help everyone learn new techniques to deliver better content. For example, one of our investigative reporters conducted training to help his colleagues learn how to acquire and embed audio from emergency personnel. Also, all of our editors are being taught about what we call “online essentials” so when they work weekend shifts, they are in better control of optimizing the content we create across our websites, on Facebook and through alerts.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: First, be sure to include all of your departments. There are excellent reasons why you shouldn’t publish an article without the slideshow and video attached first. (If you want to know the reasons, go chat with your photo and video editors.) Collaboration really is the key to understanding all of the best practices — and routine mistakes you might be making.

Second, don’t stick your content strategy guides in a folder and forget about them. Revisit them every few months. Talk to those with whom you work about what they discovered as a best practice. Often the best ideas are the ones we accidentally stumble upon. Then communicate, communicate, communicate.