Seven advertising department influences which can help make a digital newsroom great

ONE of our newsrooms was described to me this week as being run ‘like a finely-tuned advertising department.’

Now, there was a time when that would have been seen by journalists as some sort of insult. Those who can see where the future is going won’t see it as an insult – just proof that being digital first just means being closer to audiences than ever before.

When we set out to build what became ‘Newsroom 3.1’ at Trinity Mirror, we didn’t set out to replicate a sales floor within editorial. We set out to become truly ‘digital first’ while at the same time maintaining quality in print. I believe we have achieved both, and data – such as last week’s ABCe figures – back that up.

In the process, we have become more like our colleagues on the advertising floor. Instead of chasing revenue, our job is to chase audience. Within that, there are subtle but significant differences, but several common themes do jump out.

1. Nothing like a target to focus minds

For a long time, in fact for as long as I’ve been in journalism, audience targets weren’t something widely shared in newsrooms. For some, this was to ensure the sanctity of the content we produced, a belief underpinned by a fear that looking at audience reaction would somehow undermine who we were.

In other cases, it was a case of not wishing to demoralise newsrooms with current circulation figures. I suspect that’s why ABC day twice a year was often such a shock.

But by sharing targets, such as page view and unique user targets for both local and global audiences, newsrooms rise to the challenge of meeting – and beating – those targets. It’s the professional pride we all have, manifesting in a different way.

Newsrooms will increasingly experiment with department-level and maybe even individual-level targets.

2. The right sort of targets

But, as anyone who works in sales (and I draw on my experience here as a bike and computers sales person at Toys R Us many years ago) will tell you, the right sorts of targets are essential.

It used to be enough to look at a newspaper, see it was stuffed with ads and assume it was making money hand over fist. But I know of newspapers which folded despite being stuffed with ads because the market had got used to waiting until a Wednesday, the day before deadline, when the newspaper would start heavily discounting prices just to get clients in.

So while a top-line target, be it overall revenue or audience, is needed, it’s not enough on its own. Whereas sales departments set minimum CPMs online or cost per cms in print, newsrooms need a subtle array of sub-targets to ensure we’re attracting the right audience.

While the Surrey Advertiser could legitimately argue there’s a lot of interest in Manchester United down there so it should cover United on its website (it doesn’t, by the way), there are many other sites who, by running with United content, would be doing so solely to hit a headline target.

This is where pages per user metrics, engagement time (an art still to be refined), return frequency, local audience targets, bounce rate and exit rate are all important – not to mention the increasingly important view on where traffic is coming from. Facebook, as we know, can become too big.

Keeping the targets simple is important, but understanding what’s driving performance is essential.

3. Knowing what the audience wants

This is where the clickbait critics start sharpening their pens. A good advertising department knows what its clients want. Only a crazy sales rep would ignore what the advertiser is saying to them, and rely on gut instinct instead.

This is where analytics become essential in a newsroom. Big screens displaying Chartbeat or Omniture can be daunting at first, but few things are as motivational as seeing a story fly up the rankings once published. Likewise when Buzzsumo shows you a URL being shared on Facebook, or a Tweet gains momentum.

This doesn’t mean having to resort to clickbait which harms the brand. The right set of targets and measures means that won’t happen. But it does mean being prepared to provide a wider mix of content, and potentially dropping some content too.

So when a big yacht sailed up the River Tyne last year, the Chronicle discovered the first story was popular, so wrote a second. And another, and another. Around 10 pieces of content – words, pictures, video – were created all in all. A cynic might say ‘boat on Tyne’ isn’t worth so much, but the reader response suggests otherwise.

Likewise, those carping on Press Gazette and on blogs about a Local World title running an article telling people when the Eastenders Lucy Beale revelation are perhaps forgetting why newspapers run TV listings in print.

Writing stories for a quick audience hit generally isn’t good. Writing stories which appeal to the right sort of audience and result in them coming back next time, are.

4. Educating the audience

There is, however, a risk that if you lived only by what you saw on Chartbeat or Omniture, or what got the shares on Facebook, an awful lot of the content we hold dear would no longer be produced.

Newsrooms, after all, are run by editors, not computers. Whenever a content area isn’t working as well as we would expect, the editor needs to ask whether that content is worth producing. If the answer is that it’s important to the brand, then the challenge becomes making sure the reader knows that.

It’s similar for advertising departments moving from a print-based world to a digitally-led one, many following a similar route to the digital journey newsrooms embarked on earlier in the pursuit of audience.

While as an industry, we live and breathe changes in technology, ad formats and user behaviour, the average advertiser probably doesn’t, unless they are using an agency. As this report from Johnston Press last year showed, education of the advertiser is as important to advertising departments as educating the reader has always been to editorial.

But that education process for advertisers needs to be done in a way the advertiser responds to. And the same applies to the content we consider important but which doesn’t necessarily fly up Chartbeat.

For newsrooms, this means exploring how to make subject matters – such as NHS changes or local politics – more engaging. Live blogs work well for council meetings, and recently Google Hangout video discussions have proved popular when discussing big issues. Explainer articles also help, but perhaps most important is the ability of savvy journalists to take to social media and explain why a story should matter to a reader.

 5. We make money

The most liberating aspect of digital journalism over almost any other platform journalism is the close correlation between what you write and the money earned from it. The advertising department still brings in the big deals, but content alone can make money.

Gone are the days where a story could be written and you’d never be able to judge how successful it had been commercially.

For every article written and published online, it’s possible to work out what the commercial value of that story is at a programmatic advertising rate. This assumes 100% sell-through rate of programmatic, which is reasonable if you are producing content of a good standard.

In the wrong hands, of course, this is can be a dangerous thing, but for the first time in a long time, editors can confidently say ‘if we do x, we generate y in revenue’ which, for an industry which has been perceived as in decline for a decade or more, is empowering.

There are other revenue streams too which are more at the control of our journalists, such as affiliate links. Again, in the wrong hands these can become a trigger for content produced for the wrong reasons – but the fact that users can spot such content a mile off and ignore it is a very useful safeguard to that.

And native advertising – an area still defining the rules of what works and what compromises editorial integrity – is also a potentially huge opportunity for editorial to apply the skills which make for great content, with an understanding of what the audience value, to create opportunities for clients which leaves all involved better off.

6. The advertising department is probably more like our readers than editorial

It’s a well-worn phrase to say that we are not our audience. As journalists, many of us aren’t. I do know journalists who are very close to being the same people we write for, and those people are worth their weight in gold. Many others are equally as valuable if they understand what readers want.

Newsrooms I work with which listen to what individual ad reps are saying about content which interests them are often the ones attracting bigger local audiences. Why? Because they, too, live locally but probably have a different view on our content to those of us creating it.

7. Selling ourselves

Perhaps the area newsrooms still have the most to learn from our commercial colleagues is in selling ‘our story.’ Digitally, we’re second to none at selling the stories we’ve written for the audience, or at least we are if we apply the themes set out above with sensible use of SEO and social media awareness.

But what about selling the digital success story we’re experiencing. We’re getting better at it. Alastair Machray, the editor of the Liverpool Echo, regularly references back to the last time the Echo reached as many local people a day as it does now – the figure goes back to the early 1980s. The Daily Echo recently mad a big fuss about reaching 1 million uniques a month. And rightly so.

And this week, Darren Thwaites, editor-in-chief of the Newcastle Chronicle and Journal brands in the North East, wrote an opinion piece explaining why the near 200% growth in unique users – matched by page view growth at the same level – was good news for journalism and our readers.

Time and again, when I see ‘our story’ being shared, the response is positive. I know police forces which say we help solve more crimes than we have for 20 years, councils which bemoan the impact us highlighting an issue can have, and community organisations cock-a-hoop at the difference we can make.

If that’s not a powerful story to sell, I don’t what is. We just need to sell it more often … perhaps even the Holdthefrontpage ‘commenters’ might start to listen too…

2 comments

  1. I think this post highlights one of the most refreshing and exciting aspects of digital journalism: the ability to see which stories readers actually like. No more circular arguments in the newsroom about the stories we think readers love or hate. It’s there in the figures. Isn’t this the missing piece of the jigsaw we’ve all been looking for?

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