This week, media executives from around the world converged on Washington, D.C., for the International News Media Association’s (INMA’s) World Congress, where they learned new business and editorial practices to help their businesses thrive and grow. Those lessons came during a two-day study tour of D.C.-area newsrooms, as well as a three-day conference featuring presenters from news organizations around the world. While INMA18 gave us a lot to absorb, we’ve boiled the conference down to six key takeaways that we think all media outlets can benefit from.
Do less work, but do it well.
What if it turned out that 80 percent of your audience was coming to you for 20 percent of your content? After studying the data, that’s what Gannett discovered. Their news sites were churning out thousands of stories each day, but many of those articles were getting only one click each. So, they took a gamble — they cut 50 percent of their content. The outcome was that they lost only 3-6 percent of their audience. So, they decided that going forward, they could afford to do less, but they had to make sure that the content they did create was top-notch.
The USA TODAY Network also decided that they didn’t need to put all of their print content on the website. A lot of what they saw underperforming digitally was hyperlocal content from their newspapers. You don’t need to fill your site with every bit of information; only the information that will find a digital audience needs to go live.
Use your data wisely.
Another point made by Gannett’s Josh Awtry, the senior director for news strategy, is that newsrooms need to make better use of their audience data. Looking at the data is what helped the USA TODAY Network cut down on content that wasn’t being read, and it’s what will help your newsroom figure out what’s working and what isn’t. But you can’t just look at what’s getting clicks. As pointed out by the Financial Times’s Renee Kaplan, article clicks do not equal article reads. Page views only let you know that people are interested in the idea of the article, aka the headline. Article reads tell you how much of the article your readers are getting through and if there’s real value in the content beyond the headline.
It’s also key, Awtry noted, to make sure your data team is working with your journalists and that your journalists and editors understand what the data they’re receiving means. While you don’t want your journalists to be writing solely to the data, they do need to know what’s working and what isn’t so they can reach their audience. For Awtry and Gannett, that means having their data analysts embedded in their newsrooms so they can work one-on-one with particular teams or reporters to make sure they know what the data means for them.
Don’t be afraid of evergreen content.
While visiting U.S. News & World Report, the INMA study tour group met with Kimberly Castro, the executive editor of the company’s consumer advice content. While U.S. News & World Report was once shrinking, as other news magazines did a decade ago, their devotion to providing the best consumer-centric content kept them alive and helped them thrive. That’s because people want help. News consumers want the news, yes, but they also want information to help them in their everyday lives. And news organizations should be willing to wade into the evergreen content pool.
Gannett has jumped into consumer advice with Reviewed.com, but you don’t need to create a separate website to do evergreen consumer content. You can do best-of lists and sweepstakes to create evergreen content, or how-to articles covering seasonal or annual advice that can be updated regularly. You can also create explainers to help your users understand important topics that pop up in the news regularly, like what the Federal Reserve does or how the electoral college works.
Move from advertising to marketing.
To serve advertisers, stop thinking of them as advertisers and start thinking of them as marketing partners. The first reason for doing so is that marketing budgets are huge, while advertising budgets are small, so by moving from advertising to marketing, you’re able to go after a bigger revenue source. The second reason is that advertising is a one-off tactic, while marketing is about a long-term solution. Companies want solutions, and by switching to marketing, you’re able to provide a package of content that provides the answers to the problems companies want solved.
Consider membership, not subscription, the next revenue stream.
While most news organizations are trying to capture subscription revenue, Robbie Kellman Baxter suggests moving to a membership model. Why? Because membership, if done right, can create a feeling in the consumer of “I can’t live without that” — what Baxter calls the “forever transaction.” Netflix, for example, has convinced people that they need the streaming service if they want to watch high-quality TV shows and movies, while Spotify has wooed members away from buying CDs and downloading music with their promise that their app will always have all the music you could want, at your fingertips.
News outlets have the same opportunity to become indispensable to their readers, as well. To do that, though, you need to convince your readers that they’re getting something unique and valuable. That’s because the membership model only works if you’re focused on what’s in it for the user, not what’s in it for you. But if you succeed, you can create relationships with your readers that will last longer than a simple subscription.
Get out of your chairs and knock on doors.
The legendary Bob Woodward reminded attendees that none of the other lessons really matter if we’re not all doing top-notch reporting for our audiences, and that means getting out of our chairs and off the internet and going out into the world. Too many reporters these days are trying to deliver constant content, and that means they’re relying on phone calls and emails and social media more than their own shoe leather. But Woodward says the only way to get the kinds of scoops he’s achieved in his storied career is to get out into the world and knock on doors, have drinks with sources and build real relationships.
Another key lesson from Woodward? Stop fighting with President Donald Trump. “We need to define ourselves by our work, not our rhetoric,” he said, and being combative isn’t going to convince readers that we’re trustworthy and honest. Instead, Woodward says, we need to focus on doing better reporting — more knocking on doors — if we want people to believe in the press.
Jennifer is the Alliance’s reporter on trends and insights, as well as the social media manager. Prior to joining the Alliance, she spent more than a decade working in news and magazines in New York City. She is the author of the young adult textbook, “You’re Being Duped: Fake News on Social Media” (Enslow, 2019).