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Forget competition: How two traditional competitors are working together to grow audience

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The Bay Area News Group and McClatchy’s Sacramento Bee, two Northern California news organizations, are sharing stories, photos and video. A conversation among top editors about how to best collaborate resulted in a content-sharing and co-reporting experiment.

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 Amy Chance and Lauren Gustus at The Sacramento Bee and Neil Chase at the Bay Area News Group (BANG), which includes The Mercury News and the East Bay Times.

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

Answer: All news organizations want to cover more stories. With a few notable exceptions, most of us are not on hiring sprees. So there are understandable gaps between what we offer readers and what we’d like to offer them. For us:

  • The Bee wanted a more robust report on Bay Area sports teams. It staffed the 49ers but relied on the AP for the rest of that coverage. The AP’s offerings were not consistently oriented to the many longtime fans of Bay Area teams who are Bee readers. BANG, meanwhile, has great depth in pro sports coverage.
  • The BANG papers have one reporter covering the statehouse in Sacramento, where decisions are made daily that impact their readers. The Bee’s Capital Bureau, on the other hand, has been a political news power for decades. The stories the Bee’s political team covers every day are as vital to readers in the Bay Area as to those in Sacramento.

We realized that we could each fill the gaps in the other’s coverage. So we agreed that The Merc would publish The Bee’s political and policy pieces and that The Bee would run BANG’s sports reporting.

We also wanted to see if we could work together on a project, given that our readers share an interest in topics ranging from affordable housing to the environment. Ahead of the November election and keyed to a ballot initiative, a reporter from each newsroom co-published a project that looked at the efficacy of rent control. (Examples: the two Bee stories and the corresponding two BANG stories.)  

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: This effort is primarily focused on Table Stake #6: Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible cost. But it also touches on Table Stake #1 (serve targeted audiences with targeted content). (For example, Raiders fans get more Raiders news.) We hope this work will help our audiences see value and turn more into habitual and paying users (Table Stake #4). We know we’re diversifying revenue (it’s still programmatic, but the content sources are new), which is Table Stake #5 (diversify sources of revenue).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We got sports folks from both newsrooms together in the Bay Area and did the same in Sacramento for politics/policy. We mapped out an agreement and then dove into the details.

The handshake deal: McClatchy’s five California properties can pick up any BANG sports story and BANG could take any political piece. Editors in both newsrooms share budgets so both know what’s coming ahead of time. (We agreed not to scoop each other.) We have to request photos or videos, which we do less often.

Q: What worked?

A: In sports, The Bee is seeing enough traffic online that we can measure programmatic revenue. It also provides more thorough coverage of the Bay Area teams in print each day. Before this agreement, The Bee would occasionally receive complaints about the wires’ coverage of Giants and A’s. That’s no longer the case.

On the political front, we’re more efficient: BANG focuses its limited resources on local political stories more tailored for its audience, especially around its aggressive focus on housing issues, without tackling state stories The Bee is already covering.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: There have been three issues:

  • It took us time to work out a system for communicating daily and enterprise offerings. We settled on a massive group email, and we’re now subscribed to each other’s email alerts. We’ve also shared advance planning documents for elections.
  • We’re ripping and repackaging from one site to another, which is time consuming because we have to recreate all fields, add SEO, find photos, proof and publish.
  • And we have different print deadlines, which means stories ready for one publication aren’t always in time for the other.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: It was less of a culture shock in our newsrooms than you might expect. One editor noted that we never would have done this five years ago because any news organization was competition. But we know how quickly the playing field continues to change. BANG and The Sacramento Bee don’t directly compete for subscribers. Today, it’s more likely we’re competing with YouTube, Spotify and Netflix for relevancy, versus a nearby news organization. If we’re not losing measurable audience and we’re providing a benefit to current or prospective readers, why not work together?

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

A: We haven’t seen attributable or measurable drops, but we don’t definitively know if either of our verticals have lost significant audience — i.e., have folks stopped going to The Bee because they can find political stories on The Mercury News website? Politics and sports reporters in both organizations continue to bring in strong readership. We’d like to learn more about whether the value that we’re adding is resulting in improved retention or new paying subscribers. Analytics are the barrier here. We’re working on it.

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

A: Establish a good method/process for sharing content. Some stories are available on the wire, but even then they move too late. If they’re pulled into our digital publishing firehose they are not indexed, so there’s no SEO value. We’re still spending a lot of time emailing and scraping stories from each other’s websites. If we need a photo or a video, we’ve got to request it and send manually. Setting up the right technical connections in advance is smart, but only if it can be done without stalling the project. In this case, it was better to jump in with limited technical help vs. waiting for a solution.

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

A: No local American news organization is big enough to accomplish everything it hopes to do. And few of us are directly competing with each other anymore. So we both hope every newsroom will take a look at what it does well, what others do well and what opportunities there are to share. It helps journalists, it gives readers more information and it might just be part of the long-term solution that sustains local journalism for decades to come.