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How The Philadelphia Inquirer launched a newsroom team to grow its audience

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: As part of a newsroom reorganization, The Philadelphia Inquirer built an audience development team to support its transition to a digital subscription business. It’s a team anchored by versatility and diversification. We wanted to create a data-informed newsroom (not data-led, as solid news judgment is just as important as ever) to achieve responsible reach and loyalty at scale for its journalism.

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 Kim Fox, the Inquirer’s managing editor for audience and innovation, and Ross Maghielse, the manager of audience development.

API and Poynter teamed up to take a deeper look at The Philadelphia Inquirer’s experience with transforming itself. Here, you can read about how the news organization created its audience team using essential lessons from Table Stakes, and over at Poynter, you can read how the newsroom automated Twitter and grew audiences on other platforms.

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

Answer: In 2016, The Inquirer combined three newsrooms into one, and in 2017 restructured virtually every beat. It also shifted its online operations from a free website that prioritized volume and clicks to a business model focused on digital subscriptions and a deeper relationship with its audience. That meant that the previous, years-long approach to publishing, distributing and evaluating its content — such as publishing for volume and prioritizing page views — would no longer suffice.

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: Broadly speaking, The Inquirer’s audience team of today is tied to, and in fact born out of, each of the 7 Table Stakes essentials. More specifically, our audience initiative is rooted in Table Stake No. 1: Serve targeted audiences with targeted content.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We hired. Every member of the seven-person audience team joined the newsroom within the last two-and-a-half years: external hires who brought experience and a passion for audience engagement from newsrooms such as Bloomberg, The Guardian, CBS, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The audience engagement team at the Philadelphia Inquirer (Photo by Megan Griffith-Greene, Philadelphia Inquirer)

With the support of the executive editor, Kim Fox built a team of three engagement editors, two additional editors designated for audience-building activities such as search engine optimization (SEO), newsletters and newsroom analytics, and a manager to oversee the day-to-day operations across those areas.

We also expect every audience team member to spread new skills and insights throughout the newsroom — training reporters on SEO and new tools, and putting data into a practical context to help editors make more informed decisions.

Q: What worked?

A: Our approach to social media became more efficient. Previously, we were manually operating three separate, branded Facebook pages and a flagship Twitter account while largely ignoring social listening and user-generated content, or UGC, and not having a strategy for Instagram.

  • Two of our Facebook pages were driving marginal traffic, and we were posting more than 100 times per day. We combined them into one flagship page and reduced our posting volume by roughly 30 percent. Both organic and branded Facebook traffic increased by more than 30 percent, even as other peers saw sharp declines. That not only made us more strategic in how and what we used Facebook for, but also freed up time for the engagement editors to do other things. We still maintain a sports-specific Facebook page, but that is run by the sports desk.
  • We were spending considerable hours (80 percent of our time) manually publishing to Twitter with the primary goal being to drive traffic. An analysis of Twitter referral showed that it represented about 2 percent of our total traffic. We’ve largely automated Twitter and instead just supplement it manually for bigger projects, breaking news, standalone visuals and evergreen content. It still represents about 2 percent of our total traffic while giving our engagement editors several more hours for other areas of focus each day. (Note: We are considering bringing back a little more manual involvement with Twitter, but that focus would be on social listening, UGC and true audience engagement efforts, not on driving traffic.)
  • The audience team took over responsibility for our Instagram account in September 2017. Our following has increased by 87 percent since — all of that non-paid growth. Year-over-year, total interactions have increased by 366 percent (numbers via CrowdTangle). We’re now consistently producing Instagram Stories that showcase our visual journalism in a creative light, where before we did nothing with Instagram Stories. We’ve also used it to incorporate a consistent UGC photo element (#OurPhilly) that ties into our flagship morning newsletter, our daily social presence and one-off editorial pieces — such as with our coverage of the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl run.

Our email newsletters were totally redeveloped. Our email offerings went from automated, voiceless link threads without sound data analysis to a portfolio of staff-written, highly curated newsletters overseen by a designated newsletter editor focused on growth, presentation, analytics and digital subscriptions.

Our newsroom is miles ahead of where it was with SEO, and we’ve been able to capitalize on major news events by successfully bringing in large search audiences.

  • We previously would routinely publish headlines without full names or any relevant keywords and rarely paid attention to search terms and trends. Nor did we customize URLs for articles. Today, our headlines are much more consistent, and we customize virtually every article URL. Our workflow for getting SEO suggestions to writers and editors is clear: For major events, our SEO editor prepares a list of keywords and headline and URL structures that are given to reporters and editors for our forthcoming coverage. We have a Slack channel to get SEO advice in real time and around breaking news, and we have documentation and training tips easily accessible for the entire newsroom.
  • Our backend site structure was a mess from an SEO perspective, with incomplete or nonfunctional sitemaps, metadata errors and more. We brought on an SEO consultant to work alongside our SEO editor and have made immense progress in this regard, all while rolling out a new CMS and redesign of our website. This is still very much a work in progress from a technical standpoint, but we’re in a much better place than we would have been without making this investment.

Working with our partners in analytics and editorial, we built detailed, easy-to-use dashboards for analytics that measure the distribution of our journalism by platforms, by desks and at the author level. Much of this work was done by our analytics editor, a position that did not exist in the newsroom until February 2018.

We now have clear data that shows our publishing by day of week and time of day, as well as detailed Google Data Studios customized for each desk in our newsroom, all of which has come within the last year. This information complements a “Newsroom Index” that measures and weights 17 different metrics for each desk, team and author to track progress and trends on a monthly basis.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: As the team grew and gained its footing, our three engagement editors became stretched a little too thin. They spent their days jumping equally between running our social accounts, moderating comments, looking for UGC opportunities, participating in enterprise planning sessions, doing data analysis and occasionally backfilling on newsletter writing. That was all happening on a staggered schedule that covered 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week.

Following the mantra, “When everyone’s in charge, no one’s in charge,” we adjusted their schedules and designated specific ownership categories to each engagement editor, even though each remains capable of covering where needed.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: Some members of our audience team have had to take on larger-than-anticipated roles helping navigate frequent challenges/gaps on the technical and product side of our business. This distraction and divided focus has slowed progress in some areas of audience growth. Our managing editor is partnering with our new director of product to shift product management duties that the audience team had taken on, back over to product management.

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

A: Early on, we likely tried to take on too much at the same time. It’s important to build a realistic audience roadmap that accounts for the time and resources it will take to spin up new functions.

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

A: Build a strong partnership with your analytics team: You’ll need to be well-versed in data and develop a strong reporting system. We had a lot of success, as an audience team, repeating the mantra, “We are data-informed, not data-led.” In order to carry that out in a meaningful way, you need to know your stuff and be able to translate or contextualize that information for journalists who are often more comfortable with words than numbers. You need to be comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” and working with experts in your company who can help wade through mountains of data to find the meaningful (actionable) pieces.

Create a team culture that values experimentation but is also highly disciplined. The audience role has evolved into a function that should be focused on building new audiences and retaining customers. It’s great to experiment and get industry attention, but it’s even more important to systematically focus your work on activities that generate revenue and ensure that your company is working toward a north star of sustainability.

Work with your team and partners to build an audience development system: Audience development is such a broad term, so it’s really important to identify the right activities to support your business model. That involves clearly identifying business goals, KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), operational tactics to best carry them out and how frequently to measure and report on your work. It’s important that the people doing the work are also involved in building out all of these pieces so that they understand and champion them.

Weigh every decision against the ROI (and learn to stop doing things): Audience folks tend to be people-oriented, so saying no is difficult for many of us. But in order to strategically build audience/subscriptions, we need to be laser-focused with our time.

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

A: Maintain a learner’s mindset and hire people who are passionate about engagement.

Related content: How a “growth editor” can turn your audience vision into reality