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 Maria Carter, news director, and C.J. Janovy, digital managing editor, at KCUR 89.3 in Kansas City. KCUR participated in the Poynter Institute’s Local News Innovation Program in 2018-19.
Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
Answer: Each weekday from 11 a.m. to noon, KCUR broadcasts a talk show called “Up to Date.” Hosted by the popular and influential Steve Kraske, it usually consists of three segments on different topics, and is a place for timely conversations about issues that matter in Kansas City. Guests on the show often make comments that break news. Occasionally, one of the “Up to Date” staffers or an intern would write a web story based on one of these conversations — we call these “build-outs” — but we did this inconsistently and without much thought to what sort of content would best serve our digital audiences.
Our strategic goals include diversifying our audiences through broadcast, digital and live events. We knew “Up to Date” was great broadcast content, but unless we figured out a way to re-package that for digital readers, we were missing a chance to reach a wider audience online. Also, our strategy includes working to grow our loyal (three-plus visits per month) and identified users in the digital space. After months of increased digital production, the “Up to Date” team had enough weekly content to launch an email newsletter, which deepened relationships with fans and gave us an avenue to ask them for financial support.
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 is related to Table Stake No. 1 (Serve targeted audiences with targeted content) and Table Stake No. 2 (Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences).
Q: How did you go about solving the problem?
A: Here are the steps we took:
- We looked at a year’s worth of page views for all “Up to Date” build-outs. The initial data revealed high loyalty, and the build-outs that performed well helped us understand what types of stories our “Up to Date” audience values most. The ones that performed poorly told us what types of stories we should stop doing.
Example: There was a short segment each week when the host discussed a local musician or band. These segments might have been entertaining for listeners, but few people cared enough to read them online, even though we tried writing them in various web-friendly formats. So we quit doing them.
Though Kraske often interviews non-local guests about topics of national interest, we decided to focus on five types of stories specific to, and rooted in, Kansas City:
- Local politics and civic issues (tight lens), i.e. The Head Of Kansas City’s Bus System Says Public Transportation Should Be Free
- A focused short web article (may be based on one question to one guest), i.e. This Eviction Researcher Says It’s Time for Kansas City’s Tenants to Organize
- The Kansas City connection — a big name’s connection to Kansas City, i.e. Queer Eye’s Fab Five Helped One Kansas Man Realize He’s ‘Worth The Effort’
- Something that speaks to the zeitgeist of Kansas City, i.e. Kansas Mother Says There’s ‘No Other Option’ to Save Her Daughter Beyond THC-Infused Oil
- Local expert on national topic or local person nationally recognized/quoted, i.e. Why Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine Owes His ‘Egalitarian Spirit’ to Kansas City
- We set specific goals for page views:
- More than 50% of “Up to Date” build-outs would have more than 1,000 page views (up from .8%).
- Less than 25% of “Up to Date” build-outs would have fewer than 250 page views (down from 70%).
We are also tracking loyalty, but focusing on page views was an easy way for members of the team to see immediate results.
- Based on the types of stories that performed well, we wrote “user statements” for the types of people we knew listened to “Up to Date.” That was based loosely on the “Define Your Audience” section of NPR’s Project Blueprint 2.0.
We used this formula: As a <TYPE OF USER>, I want <SOME GOAL> so that <SOME REASON>.
- As a pastor of a church in Kansas City, Kansas, I want to find ways to empower people in my community so that they have more control over their own future.
- As a Kansas Citian, I want to know more about how the Missouri River divides Kansas City so that I can understand the stigma behind living north of the river.
- As a Kansas City resident, I want to share my first-hand experiences from Kansas City’s dividing lines so that I can feel like I’m part of the story and connected to my community.
These user statements helped us focus on the wants and needs of the people listening to “Up to Date,” which helped us decide which talk-show segments to build out. This tactic resulted in high-performing stories, such as:
- How Two Kansas City Area Pastors Are Addressing Gun Violence from the Pulpit
- As Homebuyers Struggle to Afford Kansas City, Realtors Point Them to the Suburbs
- Nonbinary Folks in Kansas City Say Their Pronouns Aren’t Really That Hard to Understand
- The “Up to Date” team committed itself to writing two build-outs per week. An associate producer consulted with the news director and the digital editor to determine which of the week’s topics would be most valuable to our digital audience.
- We created a basic template to help build-out writers focus their stories. This template made it clear that the purpose of the build-out was not to recreate an entire conversation but rather to find one particularly compelling point in the conversation and write a classic, inverted-pyramid-style news story. The associate producer also ensured we had high-quality photos and workshopped headlines in our “Headline Help” Slack channel.
- Finally, we launched the newsletter. “Kraske Off Mic” now includes a column by Kraske and links to these build-outs, along with other items of interest contributed by the team. After debuting in mid-July, the newsletter now has more than 3,400 subscribers. We are using the newsletter data to track loyalty to the program in the digital space.
Q: What worked?
A: The team exceeded both of its goals for page views:
- We increased the percentage of high-performing stories improved from .8% to 63% (goal was 50%).
- We decreased the percentage of low-performing stories from 70% to 22% (goal was 25%).
The monthly average of digital users was up 37% in Q2 2019 over Q2 2018, and loyal users are up 42%. This is consistent with overall growth we’ve seen for kcur.org this year. Our traffic for 2019 so far is up 45% from 2018.
Q: What didn’t work?
A: The “Up to Date” team’s commitment to writing build-outs without additional staffing diverted several hours of the associate producer’s time every week. That occasionally made it difficult to book quality segments for future shows, which, in turn, sometimes left us with fewer compelling segments to turn into digital stories.
Seeing the good results from time invested, however, we were able to secure some additional hours from a freelance producer, who also helps write the build-outs.
Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?
A: Some “Up to Date” build-outs are now among the highest-performing stories across our website. Also, our meetings became more focused because producers were encouraged to pitch a headline, even if it wasn’t perfect. That cut down on more rambling pitches.
Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?
A: We continue to refine this process. When these stories become news, they are often based on a conversation with the talk-show host and just one guest. We’re aware that some topics may require additional reporting so they’re not just one-source stories.
Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?
A: Book talk-show segments with an awareness of what might, and might not, translate into a good written story (i.e., what might break news). Make one member of the team responsible for writing build-outs.
Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?
A: Success is a great motivator. Shortly after we began the project, a build-out from an interview with an activist who had started a new organization to promote tenants’ rights quickly earned more than 3,300 page views. Soon, a build-out from an interview with a farmer about the troubles of rural America racked up more than 4,000 page views. Looking at the data and recognizing some early wins was very encouraging for the team and helped cement support for the time it took.