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 Mindy Marquez and Rick Hirsch of the Miami Herald.
Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
Answer: This approach addressed several problems:
- We wanted reporters and editors to take ownership of each story, from conceiving it with audience and mission in mind, to how to best present it on digital platforms, to how to make sure it would reach its target audience.
- In reviewing the readership of our stories, we realized we were writing many from muscle memory — go to a meeting, write a story — with little thought to how it served an audience, what that audience was or could be, or whether there was an audience at all. Many stories were barely being read. We wanted our reporters to write fewer stories, with each having greater impact.
- We also wanted our staffers who were most skilled at SEO and social distribution to shift their focus from pushing out and refining story packages at the end of the story cycle to providing insight and direction at the beginning of that cycle and then fine-tuning distribution at the end. We shifted the responsibility of adding elements to text (photos, videos, links) to the reporter/editor teams to free our growth editors to do higher end work.
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 approach directly addresses Table Stake #1 (“serve targeted audiences with targeted content”) and Table Stake #2 (“publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences”). In strategically planning when we would publish, we tackled Table Stake #3 (“produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs.”)
Q: How did you go about solving the problem?
A: We rewrote the job description for our digital producers to reflect the growth editor role, and named a lead for the group. We put the growth editors in charge of our daily story meetings, which are focused on what we are publishing to our digital platforms, what audience they target, when they should publish and what elements are (or should be) part of the storyteller experience. We blew up our weekly enterprise meeting and instead began small meetings of content groups (reporter/editor/visual lead), each with a specific growth editor assigned so they could brainstorm stories, audience and distribution. We started off using a formal checklist to evaluate stories on audience and mission:
- Who cares about this, or who should?
- Is this a big enough group to make the idea worth pursuing?
- Is there a way to extend/expand interest in this subject or information enough to make it worth pursuing?
- If the group is small, is it influential enough to allow the story to have significant impact? Might it save a life, change a law, cause a change?
- Will the story break news that holds leaders or institutions accountable?
- Will the story break news that makes a concrete difference in the community?
- Will the story tell readers how something will directly affect their lives or the lives of their families or friends?
- Will the story use extraordinary, revelatory storytelling to help readers understand a consequential societal issue in new ways?
- Will this story (or series of quick hits in the cases of breaking news or sports) attract an extraordinary amount of readership/engagement because it is of great interest and/or value to our readers for other reasons?
Q: What worked?
A: Quite a bit:
- We’re making smarter choices on what stories to write and how to write them. The percentage of our stories that are read 2,000 times or fewer has dropped by half. The traffic median for all of our reporters has increased substantially. As a newsroom, we are writing fewer stories in total, but more with a larger audience.
- The discussion of our audience and mission checklist shifted from something the growth editors needed to impose on story discussions to something that in most cases has become part of the inherent thinking of the reporter and his or her editor. (Here’s a piece from Poynter about how one editor at the Miami Herald describes the ways the job of an editor has changed in the digital world.)
- Reporters and editors are owning their story presentation.
- Our SEO, headlines and share text improved as editors and reporters began workshopping them in the reporting and writing process, and consulting with growth editors as stories move through the process.
- On more ambitious enterprise, developing detailed distribution plans (how and when will we roll this out, what potential social influencers could share the story, what sites might link to it, and how to get them to do so) has paid off.
Q: What didn’t work?
A: Applying this process to breaking news doesn’t make sense. Breaking news is breaking news, and you have to run on it. Even so, there are some things we’ve pared from our definition of breaking news: Traffic jams are fit for Twitter, not for stories — unless they really affect a mass audience.
Initially, we stopped having a consistent social media lead and rotated the responsibility daily among the growth editors. We learned that we still needed to have a consistent point person for social.
Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?
A: Our growth editors have become the up-and-coming leaders in the newsroom. This was a challenge in the early stages. We were asking younger editors in some cases to challenge and question more experienced reporters and editors on why we were doing stories or how we were framing them. And there was some pushback. But over time, the folks who pushed back saw results and began consulting regularly with those editors. It helped to have senior editors in those first meetings to back up the growth editors.
Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?
A: These three things:
- Senior leadership needs to show its commitment to the change. To get this started, the growth editors needed the support of upper management to establish their credibility. They were shifting from a service role to one in which they suggested new approaches to journalists more senior than they are.
- Listen to your team and mind the room. We thought we could make daily social media delivery a changing day-by-day responsibility. It became evident early that wasn’t working, so we shifted roles.
- This is still a work in progress. Some groups need weekly (and daily) minding, some less frequency. Building elaborate distribution plans is time consuming and makes sense more for lengthy enterprise than quicker turn work.