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The Detroit Free Press reinvented how it does projects and saw a boost in digital engagement

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The Detroit Free Press found a better way to serve one of its key audience segments — people hungry for coverage of the auto industry — than running a standard serialized project.

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 Randy Essex, senior news director/business & autos, and Anjanette Delgado, senior news director for digital, of the Detroit Free Press.

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

Answer: Being in the Motor City, with perhaps the largest automotive reporting staff of any general circulation legacy newspaper, we identify two or three issues per year to explore deeply to satiate our local and national audiences’ hunger for auto news. At the end of the year, we typically look into what’s happening in the market at that time, when the new vehicle models traditionally reach dealerships, to watch for trends and potential deeper topics.

Like any newsroom, we have long used a template for deeply reported single-issue projects: a main overview story, additional sidebar(s) or other complementary material, maybe multiple parts published on separate days if the topic warrants, and sometimes even a special section. The problem, which is hardly unique to auto news, is keeping readers engaged while exploring several aspects of a single issue. Metrics show us that traditional print series simply don’t work in an online format, because they fail to sustain audience interest. Solving this problem is strategically important for us because we routinely publish strong journalism projects, in which we have invested significant staff time, that fail to meet audience expectations because of a poor rollout plan that’s a print legacy.

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: Reworking our project planning, coverage and presentation is all about being audience-first. It addresses Table Stake 1: Serve Targeted Audiences With Targeted Content. By virtue of being in Detroit and the expertise of our autos team, our audience for this content is national, and it’s not uncommon for an auto story to have 100,000 page views. Being audience-focused in this respect means thinking more about consumers than automakers.

This approach also has the potential to address Table Stake 4: Funnel Occasional Users Into Habitual and Paying Loyalists. We don’t offer digital subscriptions, so we think of the audience funnel in terms of loyalty — how we can encourage repeat visits and routine behaviors. Of course, if they want to pay us for event tickets or print subscriptions we appreciate that, too.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: In late 2018, we recognized that for the first time in history, two of the three best-selling vehicles in America (all three are pickup trucks) were completely new models, vying to seize a bit more of a $100 billion annual pickup market. This is happening at a time when domestic automakers are abandoning sedans in favor of pickups and SUVs. To better serve our rabid auto audience, we decided to take a new approach for our end-of-year market reporting, which became known as our “Truck Wars” series.

We started brainstorming with the autos and digital teams together at the outset, and that’s where we all agreed on two key things:

  1. Each “Truck Wars” story had to stand on its own merits and not just be complementary material to another story.
  2. We would watch our analytics and adjust as we go, which included the possibility of killing some stories and adding others where readers showed unexpected interest.

We agreed on these things because we know from reader data that traditional projects — multiple stories on a single day or a three-day series — don’t resonate. Under the traditional model, we as journalists drop a bunch of news from nowhere on our readers all at once, typically after reporting in secret for weeks or months, and expect every story to be read widely. But what usually what happens is that the first or main story is well-read, and then readership on complementary content or second- and third-day stories significantly drops off.

From the initial ground rules we set, we built a budget in a shared Google doc, divvied up the first few stories we’d identified as the strongest based on our analytics from a year of autos coverage, and then started publishing. With each story, we measured results and adjusted as needed. We kept a shared Google doc of our learnings, noting which stories were being added and killed, and why. We also talked along the way about the danger of overloading our audiences with too much content, so we tried to find the right balance and number of stories.

We published 13 stories over five weeks, posting them when we knew there was an audience opportunity (popular time on site, fewer competing stories, timeliness). We killed a few ideas. We added some new ideas.

We were about four stories into the project before we started adding a traditional series summary box (a pack of headlines in one story that link out to previous coverage), similar to what would be included with a series in print. Before that, we used related links like you’d see in any story.

Q: What worked?

A: We started with the biggest national angle, and then pivoted to consumer angles.

Here’s the outcome in terms of analytics: This project of 13 stories averaged seven times the newsroom average for story page views.

Not every story performed. A more traditional process story (“How trucks became America’s favorite vehicle” about where trucks fit into the economy) got one-eighth of the average page view traffic for a story in this project. Based on that performance, we decided not to write a story on the importance of truck profits to auto companies, which is the kind of story that would have been core to our coverage a couple of years ago, essentially preaching to the masses about the economics of the industry.

With our audience-focused shift in our overall auto coverage, we have become more consumer-focused. So our second story was about whether average consumers have been priced out of the market with the average purchase price of a new truck north of $48,000. It was a story we wouldn’t have done two years ago, but high reader interest in the topic affirmed our consumer approach.

We also did something of an experimental story about the hidden storage spaces built into the vehicles. That’s something that would have been elbowed out in a traditional series before we took this new approach. The story proved to be the third most popular of the series of 13.

We killed a story on truck engines despite audience interest in past engine stories (really, this is true!) because we wanted to avoid oversaturation. At the same time, we added a second story on Texas Truck of the Year after strong reader interest on a basic story about the winner of the Texas Truck Writers award.

Overall, the project was a source of pride for the auto team, cited internally as a digital and audience-first success. It now is part of the planning vernacular: “Let’s take the ‘Truck Wars’ approach,” which we are doing in partnership with USA Today during tax season and will apply to other auto projects. If we can replicate this model in other areas, which we should be able to do, it can be transformative as we push to be ever more digital- and audience-focused.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: We didn’t provide unique videos for each story. The ones we did produce performed quite well, so we likely lost a revenue opportunity by not telling more stories through video.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: Even though we knew we have a large audience for truck stories, the consistent interest exceeded our expectations. The national audience exceeded expectations.

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

A: We would have taken a bit more time on videos to run with these stories. We would have also worked on a data visualization to show sales or a schematic of a truck to show storage.

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

A: Ask, “How can this story best serve this particular audience?” to help you decide what to include and what to exclude. Listen to the data. It’s too easy to fall into legacy habits and approach, especially when doing a routine project.

Go all in on this strategy, even if it feels awkward at first. Don’t back slide and try to package two stories in one day. Instead, space them out so readers see them as separate stories. Talk about the project openly in the newsroom and share results as you go so that others learn by experiencing the evolution firsthand.

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

A: We don’t have digital subscriptions, but if we did we strongly believe this series would have driven sales.

Related content: See how the Anchorage Daily News reworked the way it covers recurring events.