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 Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief politics reporter; Courtney Crowder, Iowa columnist; and Rachel Stassen-Berger, news director, all of The Des Moines Register, which participated in the Major Market Table Stakes program in 2021.
Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?
Answer: We are Iowa’s largest news gathering organization, serving central Iowa with The Des Moines Register. We also serve other Iowa communities with the Burlington Hawk Eye, the Ames Tribune and the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
The Register has a 170-year history in the state. For about 80 years, it was owned by the Cowles family. In 1985, the Register and other Cowles outlets in Iowa were sold to Gannett, which owns more than 100 news outlets across 46 states.
Q: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
A: For more than a century, the Des Moines Register has prided itself on being “The News Iowa Depends Upon.”
But in the age of Twitter, TikTok and too little time, what can our newsroom do to evolve into the modern version of the paper’s longtime mantra? How can we truly be depended upon?
In the year or so before Table Stakes, our staff dealt with a few public PR crises and a widening gap in trust between the newspaper and the community we cover. Our group’s challenge was to close that trust gap, narrowing the space between our journalism and the people we serve while becoming the most relevant digital news organization in the state.
We believed closing our trust gap would lead to more brand loyalty online and in person. While we didn’t set out to grow subscribers or decrease churn – this was really about the intangible idea of trust – this work has yielded subscriptions, pageviews and higher profiles for our reporters as they grow into their beats.
Q: How did that idea lead to the development of an entertainment newsletter?
A: Our small group, which included Courtney, Rachel, Sports Editor Zack Creglow and was led by Brianne, spent hours brainstorming ways to increase trust.
What about a news literacy program? How do we reach out to conservatives? Should we create a marketing campaign around our work?
It was a story from Brianne Pfannenstiel that got us thinking about the ways our reporters already engender trust with the community and ultimately led us toward our final product idea: an entertainment newsletter.
After the Register was denied media credentials to cover campaign events for then-candidate Donald Trump events in 2015, Brianne, our chief politics reporter, spent hours and hours waiting in line to attend his rallies and speeches. The people waiting in line with her were not fans of the Register — not at all.
But after a few hours being queued, when chatter about politics wore everyone down, Brianne found herself talking about, well, life. Dogs. Favorite breakfast spots. The upcoming Iowa State game.
When everyone was finally let in, the people Brianne had spent time talking with would often say, “I’m going to look for your name. I’m going to check out your work.”
She’d broken through with them. SHE had. Not the Register, but Brianne herself. They may not have gone on to become regular readers or to subscribe, but now, at least, the door was open to a relationship.
Trust is best gained when you know someone, we decided. When you see someone as a multifaceted human being with common interests.
Using this story as a germ, the project’s leadership team honed focus, centering its work on the idea that trust is best gained when you know someone. To gain that trust, we had to humanize our reporters, showing them not as two-dimensional bylines, but as three-dimensional community members who are in and of Des Moines.
We spent months conducting research, polling, experimentation and interviews with experts, readers and community members. We also dove into internal reader surveys. Specifically, we learned:
- Readers want continuing coverage of important “passion” topics with content that’s highly tuned to audience impact. “Entertainment” is one of those passion topics.
- Don’t just post links! We should be on social media as an avenue to speak directly to readers and especially casual readers. They want to engage with us outside of traditional print mediums.
- Our readers prize attention given to positive issues and solutions in our reporting.
So, to instill trust in our vocations, we would focus on our avocations. And to meet readers where they are — on social and in their inboxes — we’d publish exclusively digitally.
Voila! An email newsletter that focuses on literally everything that is not our job. We dubbed it “Off Hours” — a title we felt that would encompass everything you might do in our community that is unrelated to your work. Hunting, fishing, eating, dancing, entertaining kids, knitting or singing all fall under our umbrella.
Our goal is to help readers live more fully in Des Moines through doing something new – or something new to them. The newsletter oozes voice and is reflective of how people live, talk and spend time in our community. It has also become a feedback loop, soliciting reader input for suggestions of what to do/see around town as well as how we can better our product.
Since launching, we have seen this initiative deliver on many fronts: 1) Writing content that our readers have told us they are interested in; 2) Putting that content on platforms that our readers are already on and 3) Allowing our reporters to tackle beats and story forms that might not be open to them usually.
Q: What’s in the Off Hours newsletter?
A: Three Register entertainment reporters anchor the newsletter — each of them authoring an edition on a regular rotation.
Then we mix in a rotating cast of guest writers and staffers from across the newsroom to help give the newsletter a broader range of perspectives and spread the workload. Our entertainment editor creates a writing schedule as well as finds, cultivates and works with guest authors in our community.
We strove to create a structure that would be consistent and easily replicated by a mix of authors while also offering the flexibility so each author could highlight what was unique to them.
Each edition starts out with a fun photo (think selfie) and a quick, fun bio. (Hello! I’m Courtney Crowder, the Register’s Iowa Columnist, and I was raised by television. I’ll be your guide for the week!)
Next comes “The Deal,” an opening essay on a theme, topic, interest or passion that the writer will carry through the newsletter.
That’s followed by three permanent features. The first is called “My Top Three” where the writer selects three things to do or try that tie into the theme they’ve created in the opening essay. That’s followed by “Eat This, Drink That” where the writer shares their favorite thing to eat or drink in the metro. That’s rounded out by “48 Hours Off,” which highlights three upcoming events that our writers have curated.
After that, we offer a content menu with a range of mini-features that each writer can select from based on their own interests. These range from gardening tips, to workout recommendations, to places to volunteer. They choose one mini-feature to include, and then curate a list of five to eight links to Des Moines Register entertainment content.
The newsletter ends with “My Day Job,” which brings our readers back to the journalists and their everyday beats. This quick paragraph lets the author share something they’ve written recently that they’re proud of or discuss an upcoming project readers should watch for.
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 initiative is related to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content”), Table Stake No. 2 (“Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences”) and Table Stake No. 6 (“Partner to expand your capacity”).
Specifically, we considered the first Table Stake, which tells us to serve targeted audiences with targeted content. We targeted an audience that knows the Des Moines Register but doesn’t subscribe and only interacts with our work on a casual basis.
So rather than put our content in one of the Register’s more traditional delivery vehicles — on our website or in print — we decided to focus on a free newsletter that anyone could sign up for. We were intentional about creating content that would live natively inside a newsletter, rather than repurposing content we had developed for the website.
This concept is also related to the second Table Stake: Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audience. We know that casual readers rarely go to our homepage to seek out content. We had to meet them where they already are: their inboxes.
We faced a couple of major challenges when developing our plan. The first was the amount of time we would be asking our staff to dedicate to this project when resources are already stretched thin. We also worried that our staff is largely white and relatively young. We knew that to engender trust within our community, we needed to elevate diverse voices across a range of Fault Lines. The Fault Lines is a framework developed by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, a Table Stakes partner, to help address personal bias and dismantle systemic racism.
To help tackle both of these problems, we turned to the sixth Table Stake: Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities.
We knew we wanted Des Moines Register staffers from across the newsroom to help author the newsletter to show off their own personalities and connect to our readers. But we also began to brainstorm and reach out to people beyond our newsroom — artists, athletes, restaurateurs and more — who could help represent every facet of our community.
They became the basis for our guest author program, where we offered payment to people willing to share their own take and author the Off Hours newsletter. This helped us spread the workload while elevating important voices that are not represented in our newsroom.
Q: How were you all able to create metrics to measure trust?
A: We spent months attempting to discover if there was a reliable way to measure “trust.” We met with experts, explored data tools and looked at research.
After months of frustration, we realized that there was no measure we would consider reliable or relatable for our project. So we developed our own metrics to gauge our success.
We decided to track a handful of key metrics and weigh the ones we believe are most reflective of trust so that they get more prominence in our calculations. The measures remain a proxy for trust, but they get us as close as possible to reflecting how people feel about their interaction with us.
One key measurement we track is called the “Inbox Score,” which tallies the emails and other direct contacts Off Hours authors receive after each newsletter. We believe if a reader is willing to reach out to the author, that is a sign the reader has found some sort of meaningful connection to the work.
Those direct connections, we believe, are the basis of trust. This is our most important measurement and is given the most weight in our calculations.
We also factor in the number of subscribers (using Exact Target); the interaction with the newsletter on social media (using CrowdTangle); the number of people who paid for a Register subscription (using Google Analytics) after reading a newsletter online; and the number of page views each newsletter has (using Parsely).
We also developed a system of “Fault Line ticks” to ensure we’re fostering diversity across a broad range of Fault Lines. Our system measures whether the newsletter includes subjects not routinely featured in the Register, whether the activities we highlight are affordable, whether we feature people of color and immigrant communities, whether we feature locales outside the downtown core, and more. Each time we cross one of the Fault Lines we’ve identified, we add a “tick.”
Q: How has this work impacted the culture of your newsroom?
A: We really strove to create a product that our journalists would want to be a part of, and we’ve largely found that to be true. We hear journalists who don’t cover entertainment talking about what they might want to highlight when it’s their turn to author the newsletter. It’s a fun reprieve from some of the daily beatwork, and we hope the enthusiasm will continue.
Internally, we’ve created the “Off Hours Social Club” — a group that occasionally gathers to try the things we’re recommending in each newsletter.
One reporter recently tapped the group to join him in trying a new restaurant he wanted to feature. And, after reading that our courts reporter has a side gig singing with a choral group, one editor messaged about attending one of his upcoming concerts. The sense of camaraderie, particularly after so much time apart during the pandemic, has been a great side benefit to the project.
Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?
A: There are several very different answers to this.
The numbers were better than we expected: Before we launched, we had set out minimum goals for subscriptions and Fault Lines ticks. We thought we were ambitious in those goals. Once we launched, we smashed our four-month goal of 3,000 subscribers within one-month and have already surpassed our 11-month goal of 5,000 subscribers.
Similarly, we had set out the goal of two Fault Line ticks per Off Hours newsletter. We have had an average of 8.5 Fault Line ticks per newsletter. Just once since we started have we had only two Fault Line ticks — and in two newsletters we had 20 Fault Line ticks.
Since we began, we have had more than 150 personal contacts (from our tracking of the Inbox Score) from readers in reaction to our newsletter, and several editions had more than a dozen contacts.
Since the metrics are unique to this product, we do not have exact comparisons to other newsletters or articles. That said, here is a look at the top scoring newsletters:
“How to get married in less than 24 hours in Des Moines,” by Tommy Birch (staffer)
- It had an inbox score of 10; very high social media reaction (the highest) and high page views (the highest). Total score of 67,052
“Get cozy with Des Moines’ best coffee shops for fall drinks,” by Hannah Rodriguez (staffer)
- It had a high social media reaction and good page views. Total score of 49,678
“Circus arts are for everybody and every body. Here’s how to try it,” by Felicia Coe (guest author), 12/16/2021
- Decent Fault Lines ticks, decent inbox score, decent social interaction. Total score of 30,288
“Love beer? We have some options for you, including the newly reopened Beerhouse,” by Susan Stapleton (staffer)
- High Fault Line score (12), good page views. Total score of 27,504
“5 things I didn’t know you can do for free in Des Moines with a library card,” by Isaac Hamlet (staffer)
- The HIGHEST inbox score (16) , total combined score of 26,944
Finding guest authors is a struggle: This venture was designed to welcome guest authors to share their off-hours stories. We wanted this newsletter to be not just for our community but of our community. Although we have made significant efforts to individually recruit community authors, it has been difficult to land non-staff Off Hours contributions — and even when we have commitments from people in the community, they occasionally have not completed the task. This has required us to adjust our author schedule. We are now building up a more reliable pipeline of guest authors but it has taken more time to construct than we believed it would.
Some journalists are not used to having “fun” in their work: They have fun jobs but it was more of a mindset switch than we expected for them to be able to share what they do when they are not at their fun jobs.
Many of our journalists loved the concept: During much of Table Stakes, we only briefly explained our project to the entire staff. But once we were confident the Off Hours concept could work, we slowly widened the circle, providing more and more detail. The enthusiasm was immediate — reporters offered to author newsletters; our executive editor won approval to hire an entertainment editor to anchor Off Hours as well as direct three reporters; fellow Table Stakes participants were interested (and one even called it “utter genius”). We thought our project was great but we were not expecting how much passion others would bring to it.
Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?
A: Success comes from structure. We placed a lot of the burden for keeping Off Hours afloat on our entertainment team. The subject matter falls directly into their wheelhouse, so we believed they should appear in the rotation more often than others. And they have risen to the challenge, growing into the new voice and style we’ve asked of them.
But we could have had greater success by implementing a more structured writing schedule for other reporters across the newsroom. And we underestimated the amount of time it would take to create a cohesive style — while still allowing voice! — when editing so many different writers.
Long-term, we hope to add in-person events and meetups. Right now, our two efforts are on expanding both our social reach for the Off Hours product and recruiting guest authors. Once we get those fully in place (and we consistently have low COVID numbers), we may move on to in-person events.
Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?
A: Off Hours helped fill a hole that we recognized in our coverage at the Register, and it’s one we believed our staff and readers would connect with.
But your newsletter could be about whatever topic makes sense within your own organization. We believe this model is, at its core, highly replicable across a variety of topics.
But the newsletter relies on strong authors who are willing to bring some of themselves to the writing. Make sure you have a core person or group of people who want to take ownership of this project and be its champion.