Local Media Must ‘Re-learn’ How to Engage With Readers, Online News Consultants Say

As online news organizations try to pivot to reader revenue models to achieve financial sustainability, a New York-based firm called Piano is among those offering expertise.

The Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications interviewed two Piano executives about the shifting media landscape. Michael Silberman, Piano’s Senior Vice President for Strategy, helped launch Vulture.com and TheCut.com and was a founding editor at MSNBC.com. Patrick Appel, Director of Research, is the Editor-in-Chief of Traffic magazine at Piano and previously worked at Politico and Daily Beast.

The following is an edited transcript.

  • Mark Jacob

    Can you explain what your firm does?

    Mark Jacob
  • Michael Silberman

    We help media companies and content marketers find the right users and drive them through a series of experiences to encourage them to consume more deeply and ultimately to convert. That could be a paid conversion to purchase content or it could be another kind of conversion. That’s the essence of what Piano does.

    Michael Silberman
  • Patrick Appel

    We’re in the direct relationship business. You’re a website, you’re a publisher, you’re a broadcast company, you’re an audio company, you’re someone with content, and you want to create a direct relationship with your customers. So you want them to pay, you want them to give you their email address, you want them to take some action. We help facilitate that through software, through strategic guidance.

    Patrick Appel
  • Mark Jacob

    Are local news websites doing what’s necessary to build relationships with readers?

    Mark Jacob
  • Michael Silberman

    For local media companies, it’s about re-learning something that they used to do before they changed their model when they went to digital. In the DNA of most local media companies, certainly most newspaper companies and also television companies, is to serve their community, and to build relationships with readers in their community, and frankly also with businesses in their community. That habit got lost in the transition to digital. And some of that is because, frankly, especially in the early days of digital, until Piano and other similar companies were created, there weren’t necessarily tools that allowed them to drive that user engagement. So I think it’s primarily about relearning old habits, refocusing on their customers who are most likely to really want to be engaged, and then using the right technology and tactics to execute that.

    Michael Silberman
  • Patrick Appel

    It’s about a realignment of newsrooms and businesses around the right metrics. As an industry, for the longest time we were chasing reach. As we tried to grow big, it became harder to serve that individual smaller community, that local community. A lot of the metrics that we see as an industry have focused on are very immature metrics, immature in the sense that there are better metrics to replace them. Understanding what’s of real value to customers, not getting distracted by big spikes in traffic that don’t have any real return for your business, is critical for success.

    Patrick Appel
  • Mark Jacob

    What are some mistakes that local news outlets make on the web?

    Mark Jacob
  • Patrick Appel

    One mistake is not putting the customer at the center of everything they do. When we take people through our strategy process, we have clients who know they need to go after reader revenue. They don’t really know how. Is it a metered paywall? Is it a premium model? Is it my sports content that really matters? We will take them through a multi-month, consumer-focused process to answer those questions. Because the problem generally isn’t a lack of ideas. They’ll have 30 different ideas …

    Patrick Appel
  • Michael Silberman

    … “It’s all about events.” Or ”It’s all about exclusive commenting.” Or whatever the flavor of the month is that they saw on another website.

    Michael Silberman
  • Patrick Appel

    So, when you instead take the customer and use them as a prism to what you should be doing as an operation, what’s the thing that adds the most value to them, it’s often an “A-ha” moment for those people. It’s often a reconnection back to the heart of the business.

    Patrick Appel
  • Michael Silberman

    Another mistake that we see is a lack of alignment between the business team and the editorial team. Executing well in digital subscriptions requires more collaboration between edit and business – the shift is actually from edit and advertising cooperating with each other to edit and marketing cooperating with each other. And so there if there’s a lack of alignment there, that’s a problem. The other thing that we see is the newsrooms sometimes have a little trouble breaking the addiction to giant page-view spikes for individual articles. So, getting used to the idea that the most important thing is: How many subscribers came and read my story? Or how many new subscriptions did my story get? As opposed to, gee, did my story become a viral hit on Facebook and bring in a million users?

    Michael Silberman
  • Mark Jacob

    Do you think ads get in the way of the user experience on local news websites?

    Mark Jacob
  • Patrick Appel

    Ads are inherently somewhat obtrusive. We’ll have people who come and say, “Can I just launch an ad-free experience? Will that be enough for people to pay?” In some cases that can work, but it generally works much better when it is video or audio because then it’s saving the consumer time.

    Patrick Appel
  • Michael Silberman

    There are certainly examples of not only local but also national media sites where very clearly they’re not putting the user first. In some ways it’s gotten better. There was a period maybe five years ago when every time you landed on a particular website, the page would move up and down because there was some expanding ad that would take over a big part of the screen and you couldn’t actually read the story until it had finished doing whatever it was doing. Some of that has started to disappear, probably because it wasn’t working very well from an advertising point of view. I think the advertisers and the ad sales teams, they’re starting to understand that having too many ads on the page actually doesn’t help the advertisers either.

    Michael Silberman
  • Mark Jacob

    Are you optimistic or pessimistic about what local news will look like in 5 years?

    Mark Jacob
  • Michael Silberman

    I’m optimistic about the fact that the industry is making the right shift to focus on user engagement and building businesses based on user engagement. We’re in a bubble of 10 or 15 years of chasing mass audience in digital and now there’s this smart shift that will build not only subscription businesses but frankly better advertising businesses too. And we’ll also bring them back to the thing that I talked about at the beginning, back to serving their communities and their audiences as effectively as possible. So, I’m optimistic about that. I am worried about the state of things now, and is there enough time to build this, because it does take time and focus, and learning all of these new tactics and a new mindset takes time. And we can only hope that the owners and the backers of these media companies have the patience and the foresight to fund this.

    Michael Silberman
  • Patrick Appel

    It’s heartening that the industry is focused on the right problem. The truth is, the solution is not easy. The only way through this is to turn the tools of journalism back on itself, to use our investigative skills to understand how media have been transformed, and then ask this ourselves: What is the way forward? What are both the little practical steps we need to take and the big-picture philosophical changes we need to make?

    Patrick Appel

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of six books on history and photography.

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