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How The News Journal in Delaware reinvented the watchdog newsroom and grew subscriptions

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Create a daily focus on watchdog reporting — renewing your newsroom’s sense of purpose and growing your digital audience.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and to b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Robert Long, regional editor of local news and visuals for The News Journal in Delaware, in addition to news sites in Maryland and south New Jersey. The News Journal was a participant in the Gannett-McClatchy Table Stakes program.

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

Answer: The News Journal has been telling Delaware’s story since 1866. We’re a small state, but we have plenty of news to cover. About 64% of the Fortune 500 companies are incorporated in Delaware. We’re home to powerful chemical, banking and poultry industries, as well as the 46th president of the United States. Delaware also is bordered by fragile waterways and ecosystems and faces critical challenges from sea level rise and climate change.

Most of our population and news is in northern Delaware, but we cover the entire state with a staff of about 30 journalists.

In 2012, we were one of the first Gannett sites to launch a metered digital subscription model. And in early 2019, we began piloting a hybrid subscription model to grow and maintain a loyal digital subscription base. In this new model, we set about 20% of our best stories to “subscriber-only” access while keeping the rest of our content metered.

Early results from this new model revealed that watchdog stories led to some of our biggest successes in attracting new digital subscribers.

But our newsroom was not optimized for watchdog reporting.

We no longer had a separate investigative team, and the watchdog stories we were doing were too infrequent and too massive. To continue our subscription growth and serve our community, we needed to find a way to give watchdog stories to our readers every day.

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 idea is tied closely to Table Stake No. 4 (Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying/valuable loyalists).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

The News Journal created a checklist to identify watchdog content. It then includes a transparency box that explains why the story was written and how it was reported.

A: In the summer of 2019, we set in motion a newsroom-wide culture shift that touched every journalist and every beat. Our goal was to grow subscribers by producing daily watchdog stories, but many of our beats and journalists were not focused on watchdog reporting. We needed a structure to address that.

We started with an all-hands meeting to explain and begin rolling out our plan, and then we met individually with staffers to determine what they needed to succeed.

Then we took these next critical steps.

1. We defined “watchdog”

 We quickly discovered that watchdog reporting does not mean the same thing to everyone, even in a newsroom. We had to clearly define watchdog reporting and make sure we were all on the same page. We developed a checklist that identified the six main elements of most watchdog stories.

Is it watchdog?
A story is watchdog if you are using your unique expertise to do one or more of the following:

  • Hold those in power accountable
  • Shine the light on an important issue
  • Expose wrongdoing
  • Provide important information not readily available to improve readers’ lives
  • Produce positive change
  • Make a difference in our community

We also created a checklist of elements that each watchdog story needed, such as visuals, data, solutions, an explainer box and a follow-up plan.

Is your watchdog story ready to go?
Here’s what you need to check:

  • Who is impacted by this story and who do you want it to reach?
  • How will your story be presented for a mobile audience? Make sure no one component has more than 1,000 words.
  • What is your visual plan that includes video, photos and graphics?
  • Do you have data, and if so, how are we presenting it?
  • Have you talked to producers about a social plan or online strategy to share this work?
  • Do you have an explainer box to show what your reporting process involved?
  • Do you have solutions for the community or how to take action on this issue?
  • Is there additional (or previously reported) content that you’re linking to or we should be sharing alongside this package?
  • What’s the impact you hope this story will have and who is going to (hopefully) take action?
  • Are there opportunities for follow-up stories we should be planning now?
  • Will your story be completed and edited at least 24 hours before it’s scheduled to post and does it have the tag “watchdog Delaware?”

2. We reimagined beats

Shifting our focus to watchdog reporting meant we had to restructure some beats. We needed to refocus journalists’ attention from commodity news to deeper reporting and storytelling that only we were equipped to deliver in our market.

For government reporters, that meant less day-to-day coverage and more identifying key issues in the community. For food and health reporters, that meant fewer features and more focus on restaurant inspections and public health accountability.

For sports reporters, that meant less game coverage and more focus on university athletic budgets and fairness issues at our local HBCU. For crime reporters, it meant spending less time on press releases and more time on the streets, reporting on the impact of crime.

A recent watchdog story investigating Radee Prince, convicted for shooting five co-workers, killing three, at an office park outside Baltimore, generated almost 40 subscriptions. Our reporters elevated trial coverage to find out the story behind the shooter and the roles he may have played in well-known (and often unsolved) crimes in Delaware.

Another watchdog story investigated health care disparities experienced by Black women in Delaware. Our “Our Towns” reporter used real voices and stories to explain an issue often talked about but rarely addressed. The two-story project led to about 15 subscriptions.

One side note: The new digital approach actually helped us with our print production. With more frequent watchdog stories, it was less of a struggle to fill 1A each day and actually gave us an inventory of stories several days out.

3. We offered support and training

Editors used an out-of-the-way whiteboard to assemble four cross-disciplinary teams.

Only a few journalists in our newsroom had years of experience with watchdog reporting. Still, as a newsroom, we had a wide diversity of talent that we wanted to capitalize on. So, we divided our newsroom into four cross-disciplinary teams.

Each team had a reporter with strong FOIA skills, someone with data reporting skills, a visual person, a digital/social media guru and a veteran reporter with deep sources. (These cross-disciplinary teams did not have a specific content focus but were formed to help our journalists learn from one another.)

The teams met sans-editor every couple of weeks to share stories and ideas and brainstorm on approaches. We didn’t include editors, because we viewed this as another learning opportunity for our journalists, outside of daily coaching from editors. The team structure not only provided peer support but kept us focused on watchdog reporting and improved buy-in.

4. We told our readers

It was important to let readers know that we were shifting our focus to deeper watchdog reporting. That was an opportunity to let them know that their subscription dollars were being spent on meaningful journalism that identified problems and solutions that would make our community stronger.

In each watchdog story, we included a transparency box that explained why we wrote the story and how it was reported. Our editor started a weekly newsletter highlighting our best watchdog work. And we launched marketing campaigns, mostly on social media, that featured videos of reporters talking about their roles.

In a Dec. 19, 2019, newsletter about an investigation into accusations of sexual harassment in a local police department, executive editor Mike Feeley wrote: “A lot of news organizations report on the surface. We dig deep. We work hard to talk to those impacted by an event, not just public officials. We work hard to explain why something is happening, not just that it happened. While other news organizations may talk to one or two people, we talk to a dozen.

“And this,” he wrote, “was just one of a series of in-depth stories this week you’ll find only on Delaware Online and in The News Journal. We take our role as watchdog seriously. And your support as a subscriber allows us to tell these stories.”

We also used social media to promote our watchdog work, including preview videos on Facebook, Instagram stories and live videos with our journalists talking about their work.

Q: What worked?

 A: Our daily focus on watchdog reporting breathed new life into our newsroom and gave us a new sense of purpose. In a year’s time, our staff produced 356 impactful watchdog stories (some of which generated more than 200 new subscriptions). And readers responded.

We not only grew our digital subscribers by more than 45% in a year — more than 6,000 new paying readers — but we increased the loyalty of our top users and decreased our “zombies,” visitors who visit our site fewer than five times a month. We ended up surpassing our goals in each area.

We started the challenge with 13,500 digital subscribers and ended with almost 20,000. Our growth in subscriptions was steady with a few peaks and valleys.

One side note: Most of our election coverage was free, and our content on President-Elect Joe Biden, who resides in Wilmington, doesn’t do much for us in way of subscriptions. Our Biden stories are more designed for search and a national audience.

To reduce churn, we set a goal to increase the percentage of subscribers who visit our site five or more times a month from 56% to 65%. We ended up at 66%. And we set a goal to reduce zombies from 28% to 20%. We hit that goal.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: Not every beat and reporter is equipped to take this model and run with it. Some people needed more help, and it took us a few months to identify who needed more coaching and how to help them. Also, we had to adjust our watchdog expectations for some beats, because we still need to focus on content that would draw readers who were at the top of the subscriber funnel.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: Well, we didn’t expect a pandemic or widespread protests following the death of George Floyd. Those events initially took us off our game as we shifted to breaking news mode, but ultimately our watchdog model paid off.

It allowed our reporters to switch quickly from stories that the virus was here to a more analytical approach, including whom COVID-19 was affecting, which communities were hit hardest, and what officials were doing to address the larger issues.

Because of the Table Stakes program, we had a structure that allowed us to transition easily from covering breaking news and what was happening to explain why it was happening in the first place.

The structure we created during Table Stakes lives on. We continue to tweak our strategy, and we are still learning and helping our staff to produce strong watchdog stories consistently. We recently reorganized our teams after some staff changes, but they are still meeting regularly to help each other succeed.

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

A: Though reaching new audiences and growing subscriptions was the focus of our challenge, we ultimately learned a lot more about our community. We also connected with underserved and disenfranchised readers previously missing from our coverage.

One early win that helped us shift our focus was the story of B-Wills, a drug kingpin in Delaware’s largest city. We took otherwise routine trial coverage and elevated it by giving readers a look into the people behind the trial and those affected by the case, including a child paralyzed in a shooting linked to this case.

It allowed us to engage with readers who weren’t otherwise coming to us for their news. We demonstrated that we didn’t just care about reporting crime but also how that crime was affecting Delaware communities. The story attracted more than 175 new subscribers.

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

A: The level of planning to pull this off and maintain it is steep. It’s easy to get distracted with the news and issues of the day, holidays and vacations, furloughs and staff changes. Make sure you have a solid planning process in place — a weekly meeting, a planning document, an analytics report — and that you’re constantly talking about what’s coming next week and the week after that.

Related content: Read how the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel drove subscriptions by asking journalists to promote the value of their work