Today’s newsrooms are increasingly responsible for attracting and retain digital audiences. This means a focus on being maximally useful and interesting to people so they will return and keep using our products. While we can’t directly measure utility and “interestingness,” we can employ proxy metrics, such as time spent, return visits, article views and newsletter sign-ups to understand how we’re doing with audiences. And when we think about the various levers we can pull to improve performance on these metrics, almost all of them revolve around the daily work of the staff, which is a newsroom’s greatest resource: What should we do? Who should do it? When should we do it? And how should we do it?
Importantly: This section of Better News assumes you already know the mechanics of how to do things and can simply decide to change your collective habits; where there are gaps in ability that need to be addressed, refer to the Skill Development topic of Better News.
Let’s take each of the above questions and tease it out a bit.
What should we do?
Apply audience analytics to beat assignments: Most newsrooms’ beat structures are based on audience assumptions that are decades old. Digital audience data can help identify areas to focus on and areas where you should draw down resources.
Decide when to create content for specific platforms: Social media, search, newsletters and mobile apps are important audience channels with different purposes. Again, audience analytics can help you understand how much time and effort you should be spending on each.
Who should do it?
Move all aspects of standard article creation and publication upstream in the workflow to reporters and line editors. In a legacy workflow, an average article might need work from several specialists (writing, visuals, line editing, copy editing, web production) along the way to publication. While there’s still a need for specialists, efficient digital workflows can’t afford to rely on so many of them for the average article. Enabling a reporter and line editor to manage every aspect of an article’s creation and publication helps streamline and speed digital work.
Ensure print needs aren’t dictating workflow constraints by isolating print functions from the primary publishing workflow. News organizations with print products have long-held editing and production processes that tend to stymie change efforts upstream. Breaking off print decision-making and explicitly freeing reporters and line editors from print responsibilities enables them to focus on doing the best possible work for digital, while dedicated print specialists ensure the best of that work is expertly curated for the print audience.
When should we do it?
Change digital publication deadlines to be in line with audience habits. Most general news sites see peak audience in the morning to midday hours, while most newsrooms still tend to be oriented toward the kind of late-in-the-day publication schedule dictated by print. Deadlines should move earlier to ensure there’s fresh reporting to meet audience demand.
Adjust workdays and meeting times/formats accordingly. Moving up work schedules and news planning meetings ensures staff is available and focused on the right things early in the day. And changing the time of the morning news meeting is a good opportunity to adjust the format of the meeting, if necessary, to orient the discussion around the digital audience.
Update print deadlines if it’s helpful. Some newsrooms have taken the additional step of moving up print deadlines, both for production logistics and cost-saving reasons and to bring the print workday more in line with digital.
How should we do it?
Listen better. Ensure journalists are taking every opportunity to listen to the conversation going on in the community around them. (There are social tools that can make this easier — at least where it comes to conversations taking place online — including CrowdTangle and Nuzzel.)
Write people-friendly headlines. It’s worth the extra effort to write headlines that match key search terms, sell your journalism to prospective readers and help them understand what they’ll get if they click.
Employ SEO efforts and audience-centric (not newsroom-centric) tagging. Good SEO has many components beyond headlines, some of which should be the domain of newsrooms — including article URL terms and site topic structure, which also helps users browsing your site. (Example: Many sites have a “lifestyle” channel that corresponds to a similar section in print, even though there’s little evidence that digital users understand what kinds of content is grouped there. Instead, “food”, “fashion” and “housing” might be more useful groupings.)
Adopt digitally aware planning, publishing and communication tools. The right newsroom tools enable journalists to engage audiences in new ways and make efficient use of their time. The wrong ones block the adoption of digital-first workflows and hold news organizations back in their digital evolution. Specifically, today’s newsrooms need modern tools for social listening, internal communication, planning, authoring/editing and audience analytics — and those tools must continue to evolve with customer needs.
Consistently inform decisions with analytics. The news organizations enjoying the most success in the digital age tend to be those that have developed a continuous feedback loop with their audiences. Feedback channels could include face-to-face interactions with readers or, say, reporters engaging in comments or listening on social media, but perhaps most important on a minute-to-minute basis is using digital analytics to understand how people are interacting with our journalism — and then letting those insights inform our work.
Finally, the ingredients of change. It’s not enough to say we’re going to do things differently. Change requires sustained effort and buy-in from all levels of the organization.
Message repetition. Many newsrooms have found success with regular internal newsletters, quick reference cards and online knowledge bases to reinforce the message of change, repeat best practice, share examples of what’s working and — crucially — remind people why it’s important.
On-the-ground champions. Changing long-established workflow is hard, and it requires repeated coaching, coaxing and, yes, chiding that can only really be done by believers who are actively pushing the change every day from the front lines, with the necessary cover from their bosses.
From-the-top enforcement. Senior leaders must support these kinds of change efforts by not only encouraging performance from all corners but by ensuring people understand that failure to adopt new workflows can’t be tolerated.
Permission to stop doing things. Often the hardest part of change is deciding what to stop doing and following through, but it’s necessary in order to free people up to work on things that have been deemed more important. Leaders must help their teams identify these opportunities and provide cover and support when resistance is encountered. There is a cost associated with giving things up, but audience analytics can help build the case that the cost is outweighed by the benefits of doing something else instead.
Performance management. An essential tool in a manager’s arsenal is the discipline of regular, candid and solutions-oriented conversations with every employee about their work. This is useful both in recognizing and rewarding positive performance and in quickly correcting performance that doesn’t meet standards.