A resource for news innovators powered by American Press Institute
Complexity: Intermediate
Article Complexity Bar Graph

How The Oklahoman changed its newsroom’s mindset to focus on digital growth

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: To grow your online audience, push your staff away from a print mindset, adjust your workflows and cut stories that used to be valued for print reasons in order to pursue digitally-successful stories.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from David Dishman, business editor of The Oklahoman, which participated in the Major Market Table Stakes program in 2020-2021.

Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?

Answer: The Oklahoman serves communities in and around Oklahoma City. Historically, we were the newspaper of record within the state, with bureaus around Oklahoma, but that has changed as we’ve cut back staffing over the years. 

Business editor David Dishman smiles with reporters in the newsroom after working from home during the pandemic.

Within the Oklahoma City metro, there is a growing diversity of culture, and we are working toward serving these communities better than we have in the past. We are striving to make sure our news coverage more accurately reflects the vibrancy of central Oklahoma.

Historically speaking, The Oklahoman can trace its roots back over 100 years. We were locally owned for most of that time by the Gaylord family — a prominent business family with strong ties to the community. Later, we were sold to another private owner, Philip Anschutz, and then in the last few years we were acquired by Gatehouse (pre-Gannett merger) and now operate within Gannett (post-merger).

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

A: We knew we had to grow our digital audience, and in particular our digital subscribers. This seems to be the financial lifeblood of newsrooms going forward, and we were woefully behind. The organization had not put near enough emphasis on growing those things, or focusing on digital, and therefore was quickly becoming irrelevant to many of the community members. Print subscriptions were only about a tenth of what they once were, and continued to drop.

In order to do this, we felt we needed to transform the organization from the inside before we would have any success converting subscribers or growing our audience. 

Our staff focused on print. That was all they cared about, and everything was written in a way that pleased traditional print audiences and traditional Oklahoman audience members. We needed to adjust workflows. We needed to cut stories that used to be valued for print reasons in order to pursue digitally-successful 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 work relates to Table Stake No. 2 (“Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences”). We embarked on solving these problems when we joined the Table Stakes program. The program helped us to identify our problems, opened our eyes to how far behind other news organizations we were, and most importantly, taught us how to dig ourselves out of the hole we were in. And while we did recognize others were farther ahead than we were, we were happy to find many were more than willing to help us navigate the same problems that they too had once faced!

Q: How did you go about shifting the newsroom culture?

A: I oversaw this challenge and used several specific strategies. 

First, I knew that I had to paint a picture of reality for the staff, many of whom had no idea how bad the print situation was. I built a PowerPoint that showed the drastic dropoff in print subscriptions in the past 10 years, and how we could expect to have barely a few thousand remaining in the next five if current trends hold. That was shocking to many, to say the least. I also gathered a list of every reporter or editor who had left the organization or had been laid off in the last two to three years. There were dozens, and that was also shocking.

My message was simple. Despite all the work these staff members did, all the times we rallied together and said, “We can save ourselves if we just work harder,” despite all the work everyone put into making the print product as great as it could be — our subscribers still turn us away and these staff members are all gone. 

It’s not working, and it’s foolish to think, with our reduced staffing levels, that we can turn something around that we weren’t able to turn around when we had all these people with us.

So after painting that grim image, I had to show that we could grow digitally, and that good, relevant journalism still resonates with readers and they are willing to subscribe as a result. The newsroom was skeptical. We needed to change the way we defined success to help get them to focus on digital growth. 

Reporters often bragged to each other about how many front-page stories they had in a week, or were consumed by how their section looked when it was laid out. We implemented tracking tools so that reporters across the newsroom could see how many pageviews their stories got, and maybe more importantly how many the other reporters got. 

The main tracking tool we added was Parse.ly, a tool designed to provide feedback on pageviews and where traffic originates for individual stories. We trained reporters on how to use and understand the tool, and also on how to understand its limitations. (Pageviews aren’t the end-all, be-all. We want them to understand powerful stories covering diverse community groups or stories that get locked behind a paywall won’t have as many pageviews as a viral piece might). 

We also gained Gannett tools to track subscriptions. We share weekly reports on those with reporters to drive home the importance of converting readers into subscribers. 

One audience journalist within the network began to regularly help us analyze our performance based on metrics, and determine where individual reporters could improve. We set up benchmark amounts to strive for regarding pageviews or subscriptions so we could evaluate whether something was worth doing, or if we should invest our time in other areas instead. 

There was a concerted effort to make sure we were communicating a message that we were not going to abandon a subject just because it wasn’t making benchmarks, but rather show that with limited time on any given beat, it would be wiser to pursue the areas our readers cared most about. 

Since we started our efforts in the summer of 2020, we have seen our digital subscribers nearly double. We have good weeks and bad, but overall we continue to grow at a considerable clip, especially when you know our backstory, which is that we had seen a flatlining of growth for several years prior to Table Stakes. We hadn’t fluctuated on our subscribers by more than a couple hundred for years. 

Editors heaped praise on those who learned to cut their low-performing stories to pursue stuff that had an exponentially larger audience. 

Later, we gained the ability to track our digital subscription conversions. This added an additional layer of accountability toward our work and forced us to question why we were even bothering with certain subjects if they weren’t of interest to our readers. 

We didn’t drop any beats in their entirety, but we did do some significant work on several to try to align the material produced with our audience interests. Some beats needed work to be less about interests and more about audience impact. And the work is still continuing. We have beat mapping planned for this fall as the next step in our evolution to help further refine our reporters’ coverage areas. 

Times are desperate, and we don’t have the luxury of writing something just to fill a hole in a print paper anymore. Every story must matter, and every journalist must help drive us toward our goals. 

How important was it to think of your culture outside the newsroom’s walls?

A: I wanted our staff to enjoy spending time together, and have the ability to do something fun together at times, so we set up some work softball and kickball teams.

Our softball team name became The Deadline Dingers, and the first summer we played was 2021 as city leagues opened back up. We had a huge level of participation from newsroom staff, well over 50%. People wanted to get back outside, be around their coworkers, play a little softball, and maybe most importantly enjoy a cold beer or several in the parking lot. We weren’t any good, we didn’t win a single game, but every week we had people hanging out until midnight just socializing again. Sharing work horror stories, encouraging each other on the tough subjects, catching up on life outside of work and more. I had staff tell me they were so glad they played even though they’d never played before.

The Deadline Dingers after a game.

At the end of the season, we had a giant cookout at the softball complex and our food writer made a whole big spread, and we invited everyone who hadn’t played to join us and watch the last games of the year. We had even more people come out who weren’t playing and really enjoyed the camaraderie. 

This summer, we decided to do it again and add a kickball option. Some of the less athletically inclined staff told me things like, “Kickball may be more my speed!” but they still wanted to get out and have fun with fellow staff they had loved playing softball with the year before. In summer 2022,  we had both the Deadline Dingers softball team and the Lede-off Kickers kickball team. It’s been such a fun time we have every intention to play again next summer. In the meantime, there are already talks of joining a bowling league this winter. 

If you are looking to make changes in your own newsroom, I can’t stress the importance of thinking about things beyond work that can help improve a workplace culture. Putting staff in a relaxed environment helped our staff grow closer and more supportive, even across desks that rarely interact. Many of our sports reporters became close with our news staff, and vice versa. Editors got to know reporters that they rarely worked with and so on.

Q: What incentives were used?

A: We didn’t offer any performance-based incentives, but rather let the newsroom competitiveness drive success. When one reporter bragged about a front-page story placement, and then began to realize no one cared like they used to because the other reporter was garnering more pageviews/subscriptions, the bragging rights shifted. 

Our best performing work is included in regional and sometimes network-wide emails and “ideas to steal” lists for other newsrooms. In addition to heavy praise from local editors, reporters started to take notice when a VP of news at Gannett called out their work in a company-wide roundup. We received praise for our investigative work into a local Catholic high school where there appears to be decades of sexual harassment and assaults that were covered up, our coverage of a scandal within the Oklahoma State Department of Tourism, our changes made to several beats including energy and real estate, and more.  

We didn’t abandon the print product. We continue to spend considerable time with it each day ensuring it is filled with good material. But our stories are published on a schedule to best benefit the digital goals first. 

Q: What didn’t work?

A: We had a ton of technological setbacks. For nearly a year, it felt like we took two steps forward, and then a system or digital tool would be changed on us and we had to take a full step back. 

Our merger with Gannett came shortly after we were acquired by Gatehouse and we went through three ownership groups in about two years. It was brutal whiplash for our staff. It’s not so much that things didn’t work, it’s that we were really hindered in our progress forward because before we could do anything, we needed to do simple things, like switch emails or content management systems and so on. 

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: We saw some staff members step up and buy into the changes – including some folks we didn’t expect.

In particular, our real estate reporter managed a real estate section for years. He was a print section editor, and he was great at it. When we took that section away and asked him to go back to writing full time, it was a difficult personal transition for him. But he has since excelled and developed a true skill with web work and SEO. 

He’s one of our longest-tenured employees, and he consistently produces better digitally-optimized material than staffers who grew up with smartphones in hand. It’s been highly impressive. But he finally bought into the idea that his audience can be reached in a broader and more efficient way online than he could with what remained in print. 

One example of a project he took on was a series he produced about different parts of Oklahoma City and what you would need to know before moving there. It’s built entirely on audience interests, and is art-heavy and SEO rich. It’s a truly comprehensive guide to living in Oklahoma City, and includes home prices, things to do, top schools, and more. 

You can check out one part of the series here, where Richard details downtown Oklahoma City

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

A: I mentioned the difficulty in doing this amid ownership changes, and I think that would be my difference today. We learned a lot through Table Stakes, but we weren’t able to run with a lot of the changes until we had finished the program due to these constraints that were out of our control. If your organization has just changed hands, maybe wait a year before jumping into the program. 

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

A: Preach to your staff that the time to change is now, and also preach to them the ability to perform journalism in the most noble of ways is enhanced by a digital-first approach, not hindered by it. 

I hammered home the point that any given story can be read by more people online than it will be in print, and we have the data to prove it. 

I asked my staff members why they do what they do, because I know it’s not the money or the perks — and they all said something along the lines of believing in its value and its impact on the community. 

I would then ask how they plan to serve their community in five years if we have 2,000 print subscribers and two staff members. My point being that the medium may change, but the role journalism plays in a free society remains the same. We must hold truth to power, we must comfort the afflicted and we must remain relevant to the community at large to stay viable. 

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: I wish everyone the best of luck, and please reach out to me should you have any questions or wish to talk more! I gained so much wisdom from others who are doing the same work, and I’d love to continue to help where I can.

Read more about creating a digital-first workflow in your newsroom: How the Minneapolis Star Tribune flipped its production workflow to better meet audience needs