Not ‘just chasing flashy, shiny objects’

Participants in the News Leaders Project recognized the need to find new ways to serve audiences and gain financial stability. But they cautioned that change must happen strategically, and that true innovation isn’t chasing “shiny objects,” a popular metaphor that kept popping up in our interviews.

We’re really always looking for new things, but not a shiny object. We want to make sure that if we are going to try a new project, that it makes sense for our readership, that it makes sense for the staff time, and that the return on investment is there.

Karen Andreas Regional Publisher, North of Boston Media Group (CNHI)

A.G. Sulzberger, Publisher of The New York Times, said the news business was suffering from ...

innovation fever, where there’s a sense of innovation for innovation’s sake, new for new’s sake. I think the word ‘innovation’ has in some ways been a real distraction to the industry.

It’s really important for any organization that’s going through a period of radical change, like the Times is, like our industry is, to understand what’s the core, what’s the thing you’re changing in service of? Because if everything is up for grabs, if you can change anything, then you really don’t have a reason for being. For us the core is original, expert, on-the-ground, reported journalism that’s independent, fair and accurate. That’s the core, and then everything else is in service of that.
A.G. Sulzberger Publisher, The New York Times

Is innovation overrated?

I want to bang my head against the wall when people tell me that innovation’s going to make the difference. The innovation almost has to come from how people, the average consumer, accesses and processes information. Doug Phares Former CEO and President, Sandusky Newspaper Group

Constant revision is central at Newsy.

CEO Blake Sabatinelli’s Newsy, a leading digital video news network, was once focused on desktop and mobile, but has shifted into a streaming, on-demand service that aims for the biggest screen in consumers’ homes.

Everyone’s sitting right now at this crossroads of do we stay the same and keep the same business model, or do we change and pivot and try something new. Now, I can’t speak from a local perspective because that’s not my business, but you can’t be afraid to change. Otherwise you’re just going to die. Blake Sabatinelli CEO, Newsy

Texas Tribune wants to be best, not first.

I think we have a responsibility to constantly be thinking about the next platform that we’re going to be on, the next way that we’re going to present our content to our public, the next way we’re going to engage with our audience, I think. But, for me, innovating isn’t just chasing flashy, shiny objects. It’s not being on the latest platform or social media tool for the sake of being on that platform or using that tool. We don’t have to be the first at the Texas Tribune. We have to be the smartest. Emily Ramshaw Editor-in-Chief, The Texas Tribune

Some industry analysts think innovation is more talked about than accomplished.

We don’t see much product experimentation or differentiation in the newspaper experience. Ken Doctor Media Analyst, Nieman Journalism Lab
I don’t look at a TV newscast and say it’s a shadow of what it was five years ago, but neither does it seem especially innovative or ambitious. Rick Edmonds Media Business Analyst and Leader of News Transformation, Poynter Institute

But some see signs of transformation in TV.

We have more and more newsgathering techniques that are bringing efficiencies. We have more reporters and anchors being multimedia journalists. ... We have more technology capability to bring real-time video and storytelling to air. We’re quicker and faster and more capable. Larry Wert President of Broadcast Media, Tribune Media

The Culture of Creative Thinking

In a fluid and sometimes frightening industry, will the risk of change be embraced? Are we ready to “rip the Band-Aid off”?

The enemy of innovation is denial.

There’s a time, I think, when people go through disruption in any field where you don’t want to believe it’s as significant as it really is. And you get conservative pretty fast, and you try out a more incrementalist approach. Randy Siegel CEO, Advance Local

Siegel’s Advance Local chain was an early proponent of the industry trend to cut back from a daily print edition. Advance raised eyebrows in 2012 when it reduced the News Orleans Times-Picayune’s print editions to three days a week and put front and center. Advance also implemented the strategy at its other outlets.

I think what we did in 2012 without having a robust digital playbook ready to go was to rip the Band-Aid off, jump into the pool head first, then really test and learn, try a lot of things. Instill a culture where people are not afraid to share new ideas and insights, and try new things, even if they’re not successful, because it’s a very humbling experience to work in a field like local media that’s been disrupted so tremendously. Randy Siegel CEO, Advance Local

Earlier this year, Advance exited the New Orleans market by selling to the family that owns its competitor, The Advocate; is now the combined digital face of the Times-Picayune and The Advocate. Print has been restored to seven days a week in New Orleans, though the general strategy of reducing print frequency has spread to many other markets.

Leaders must be listeners.

I learned early on in my career that the best innovations, the most profound insights, come from people who are actually out in the field and the market and in the community every day. And, we’re a company that has several thousand people, spread around 10 markets, but for us, at corporate, at the enterprise level, we don’t come up with the best ideas. We recognize really great ideas when we hear them from being out and about, and talking to our people. So, innovation is really a shared responsibility, but there is a decided bias that those great ideas are amongst our people. We have the obligation to go find them and empower people to share. Randy Siegel CEO, Advance Local
One of the things that I know I don’t get right all the time is that I’m not hearing from the people who are coming up with the next crazy idea because we sit far apart from each other, they’re hard at work on their day-to-day and so I try to think about opportunities for us to try to come together and share ideas across different groups and make sure that those conversations are happening pretty regularly so the company can invest in those ideas and they don’t get lost sort of in the system. Melissa Bell Publisher, Vox Media

And don’t just listen to your staff. Listen to your customers.

Our audience is everything. I’ll tell you what doesn’t matter: What a consultant says based on their research generally doesn’t matter. What our audience says matters.

We have a consumer group called the Newsy Insiders; it's over 4,000 people … who are diehard Newsy fans and who get early access to look into everything we do.
Blake Sabatinelli CEO, Newsy

An industry slow to address basic structural problems.

It’s a reflection in many ways of what’s happened to our industry for, now, more than a decade. Our industry has continually lost jobs, even at an accelerating level, and yet at the same time the basic structure of newsrooms hasn’t changed. ... It is frightening in its consistency over the years that as the number of jobs have (been) lost, what hasn't changed is the percentage of editors, the percentage of reporters, and the percentage of journalists filling a number of roles in that newsroom. Bill Church Senior Vice President of News, GateHouse Media

And a lack of variety in local news.

There’s very little difference in terms of editorial strategies. It’s kind of a one size fits all. ... You don’t see the kind of things that, for instance, The New York Times is doing with cooking or crosswords, they’re going to do it with parenting. They’re not recognizing niches. There’s a couple of sports verticals that have been tried; those were also tried 10 and 15 years ago. But very few, and part of it is a lack of imagination and part of it is simply there are not enough resources to test new products. Ken Doctor Media Analyst, Nieman Journalism Lab

Be selective, news leaders say.

If it doesn’t work, we’re going to move on very quickly to the next thing, but we want to make sure that we are trying things that … have a pretty good chance for success, both in reaching a new audience and being attractive enough to be sustainable. It’s not like we’re just throwing everything up against the wall. We're just being smart and trying to understand if there’s a marketplace for it, both from a readership standpoint and an advertising standpoint, that can support it. Jim Kirk Publisher and Executive Editor, Crain's Chicago Business
We often wish to do a lot of things. But I think, in an era of very finite resources, you’ve got to be really smart about what bets you make. Timothy Knight President and CEO, Tribune Publishing
We don’t have the staff, or the resources, or, candidly, the stomach acid, to be the first ones out of the gate on every new trick of the trade. Emily Ramshaw Editor-in-Chief, The Texas Tribune

When you’re trying to innovate, let other people help you.

I think one thing that I see often times is that a lot of organizations feel that they have to own every solution, either they're spending a ton of money on their own CMS (content management system) or they are hiring people to do very specific tasks, and I think there are a lot of free tools and capabilities out there on the web that sometimes I think organizations don't necessarily take that step to do a more low-fi version of something and then spend their money and energy on the thing that sets them apart from everyone else. Melissa Bell Publisher, Vox Media

There are successes in failures.

Experimentation has to be just that. It can’t be that we have committed to a course, that we’re sure that it will work and we’ll be disappointed if it fails, but rather that we’re going to try something, we’re going to see if it works, and as long as we learn something we’re going to consider that a success. Jeremy Gilbert Director of Strategic Initiatives, The Washington Post

Experiments put you at the forefront.

The companies that started experimenting first with metered access or paywalls are many of the companies, not all, but many of the companies that are in better positions relative to offering subscriber member experiences today. Jeremy Gilbert Director of Strategic Initiatives, The Washington Post

But not all companies can withstand the immediate pressures and think ahead.

It becomes very difficult in a business that is otherwise struggling and trying to deliver its core services to leave enough room as to create a culture where you can really value some experimentation if the outcome is going to be unknown. And I don’t believe that you can be innovating and experimenting if you already know it’s going to work. So, you have to leave room for some of the experiments not to work out, and for some newsrooms, they might not have enough resources to take those risks. Jeremy Gilbert Director of Strategic Initiatives, The Washington Post

Facebook’s Andrew Pergam, interviewed when he was with McClatchy, prefers to focus on the goal, not the glitter.

For (McClatchy), it’s important that it be experimentation with purpose. That it’s not simply experimenting with augmented reality for the heck of it. It’s doing it because ... this is what this piece of the future looks like and here’s a revenue model around it and here’s how we start to sell those components to local advertisers. Andrew Pergam Director of Global Affairs, Facebook


Are podcasts innovative? They’re really just radio shows available on the listener’s schedule, right? But their popularity as a news product for outlets that have been print-reliant is one of the major journalism product changes in recent years.

Podcasts are a proof point for multimedia journalism.

I think the explosion of podcasting is really interesting and also very promising because it’s, I think, finally a recognition of the fact that media organizations should not be siloed. And the fact that the leading podcast in the country is coming from a legacy newsprint news organization (The New York Times) is exciting, and the fact that that same news organization is growing a filmmaking enterprise within the newsroom is also exciting and at last you're seeing an organization do what we’ve been saying all along, which is that we’re platform-agnostic and we’re multimedia and all of that. And I think these are words that we throw around a lot in the industry but that are finally, I think, being taken seriously.

The problem is that these forms require new sets of resources that not all organizations have, but podcasting, for instance, is something that does not have huge barriers to entry.
Ann Marie Lipinski Curator, Nieman Foundation

Not all podcasts are successful, of course.

I think passion detached from knowledge is where a lot of podcasts fail. And I think, again, because they’re fairly inexpensive and easy to do, at least in their most basic format, we’re overrun now with a lot of podcast choices and there’s a lot out there that’s not very good. But I think the ones that are going to be successful are the ones that you're going to turn to time and time again sometimes for the passion but I think more often for knowledge, for understanding, to have something explained to you. Ann Marie Lipinski Curator, Nieman Foundation

The competition is fierce.

You can’t just launch a podcast and expect people to find it and start downloading it like crazy. Everybody’s got a podcast, and I will tell you in my own conversations with people who do similar jobs … podcasts have probably been the most difficult area of innovation. To scale a podcast when you’re starting flat-footed … it’s difficult. Carol Fowler Director of Content, KSDK-TV

Smart Speakers and Mobile Phones

The whole topic of audio journalism is more than podcasts, and it warrants serious strategizing.

There is intimacy in audio.

There has been tremendous growth in audio journalism. Some of that in terms of people’s use of public media, the NPR-affiliated stations, public radio stations, those kinds of things. Some of that is about interactive audio devices like the Amazon Echo family, the Google Home, the Apple HomePod. I am really curious to see how local publishers engage there. …

So there’s an intimacy that I think is even more intimate than having the local news on in terms of TV, listening to the news while you cook in your kitchen or prepare coffee in the morning or get ready for work via one of these interactive audio devices or listening in your car on your commute, however you commute, to this news, it feels very personal in a way that I think would be powerful and could let people really engage with brands, news brands in a way that would be positive. However, I don’t know that enough publishers have figured out how they're going to get into that and how discovery would work finding the podcasts, finding the skill that you could enable. Those are really difficult things to do right now, so I think that that’s a big cause of concern.
Jeremy Gilbert Director of Strategic Initiatives, The Washington Post

Goli Sheikholeslami, who is ending her five-year tenure as President and CEO of Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ to take a similar role at New York Public Radio, said the Chicago station is involved in a smart speakers project.

Google News announced sort of a partnership with some major news organizations at the end of the year for their Google Assistant platform. And so we’re one of the partners that is working with Google News to really figure out how people are going to want to consume news on these smart speaker platforms, for example. So, that, I would say is the most cutting edge because I think it’s just ... it’s so new. ... What is the news experience in a voice-activated world? Goli Sheikholeslami President and CEO, Chicago Public Media

Both the emergence of smart speakers and increased smartphone use bear watching.

Everything that we do really has to work on the phone. That’s obviously the most personal technology people have at the moment and are using the most, so everything that we do is really kind of focused on optimizing for that, first and foremost. But I do think the adoption of the kind of home personal Alexa kind of technology, where people can smartly ask for information and have it delivered to them just by asking for it, is something that we have to really look at and take seriously. Jim Kirk Publisher and Executive Editor, Crain's Chicago Business

Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor gave most news outlets poor marks on delivery via smartphone. He emphasized that the top priority is quality content, but …

the secondary part of it is 66 percent of reading, of news reading, is mobile, yet the mobile news experience for most newspaper companies is pretty poor. It’s a pretty fatal combination when you don’t have the content and you don’t have the product delivery. Ken Doctor Media Analyst, Nieman Journalism Lab

Texting as an Innovation? Really?

Text messages aren’t just a way to say you’ll be late for dinner. Chalkbeat, the education news operation, is using them for engagement and reporting.

A different way to engage.

In the past year, we’ve ... been experimenting with a text messaging platform called GroundSource. That’s just been a different way, again, to reach people through text messaging, versus the website or newsletters or social media. Bene Cipolla Executive Editor, Chalkbeat

And also a reporting tool.

One of the first instances that we used it was in Detroit last fall,” Cipolla said. “We were doing a package of stories around student mobility, so students who changed schools frequently throughout their academic career. We actually purchased (lists of) phone numbers, which I know sounds super shady and like a gross marketing ploy, but we bought phone numbers and we were able to get responses from 100 parents about why their children changed schools, and that was actually a really effective boost to our reporting. It was certainly people we never would have found otherwise. We experimented with that number purchasing there, but we decided that's probably not a path we're going to continue down. Bene Cipolla Executive Editor, Chalkbeat

And also for events.

We use it at events as well so people can communicate with us via text, asking questions and participating. Then we’ve also used it to do outreach on other stories. We did a discipline package in Tennessee, and people could text in and do a little survey so we could again gather more information. I think we’ll probably start to use it more across bureaus in our coming fiscal year. Bene Cipolla Executive Editor, Chalkbeat

Facebook and Google’s Help

Two web giants, Facebook and Google, have made billions of dollars by selling advertising associated with local news. Now, they say, they want to give something back.

Befriended by Facebook.

We see ourselves as hopefully being a good partner where we can be. One of the things we know is that people really like local news, and not everybody may want to read hard political news, but people really, across segments of the Facebook population, people really, really like their local news. And I believe that’s true on and off Facebook. And so, it’s important to us that there is local news. It’s also, I mean honestly, it’s just something that we as a company believe in. News in general, and local news specifically, because we’re so invested in the idea of community and helping people build community. Anne Kornblut Director of New Initiatives and News Partnerships, Facebook

Facebook announced early in 2019 that it was spending $300 million on news programming, content and partnerships, with some of that money supporting an Accelerator effort that is helping local newsrooms refine their business models to attract more subscribers and members, among other things.

We have a local news resource center at LMA (the Local Media Association). It is funded by Facebook, but we operate it independently. And we’re working with media companies on growing their audience. And a lot of it is via social networks. Nancy Lane President, Local Media Association

One of the beneficiaries of Facebook’s Accelerator program is Berkeleyside, a Northern California “benefit corporation,” or B Corp.

We heard them talk about how their traffic actually has grown to the point where it exceeds the population of Berkeley, which is their constituency. They have a large following, and it's not all people who live in Berkeley. Anne Kornblut Director of New Initiatives and News Partnerships, Facebook

Experiments by Google.

Last year, the Google News Initiative announced it was spending $300 million of its own to help news publishers. After the announcement in June 2019 that the Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator newspaper was closing, a new Google-McClatchy lab called the Compass Experiment chose Youngstown as one of its launch cities for a digital startup. Google also is working with the Local Media Association. In August 2019, a nearby newspaper, the Tribune Chronicle, purchased the masthead, web domain and subscription list of the Vindicator. So there will effectively be a Vindicator in name only – a zoned edition of the Tribune Chronicle.

With newspapers, so much of our work and my work is around digital subscriptions. We’re a big partner at a Google News Initiative program called the Digital Subscriptions Lab, where we’re working with 10 different publishers to help them optimize their strategy and their tactics in the short term to create digital subscribers and in the longer term to grow them even more so that digital subscriptions can truly be a meaningful and a very big part of their business transformation. …

We have corporate publicly traded companies, we have large, we have small and we’re working with Toronto and learning and we're working with literally Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and Portland, Maine. It’s U.S., it’s Canada, it’s Puerto Rico, it’s very much a North American project, diversity of inclusion and diversity of types of companies is very important here so that we can really test out: Can digital subscriptions be a healthy and growing and hopefully sustainable model or at least a big part of a sustainable model for newspaper companies?
Jed Williams Chief Strategy Officer, Local Media Association

Williams said the effort involves on-site workshops and “deep benchmarking of all of their audience data.” The goal: “to basically build a short-term and a long-term roadmap for growth with digital subscriptions.”

Erica Anderson, now at Vox Media, was with Google News Lab when she talked about tech support:

When I think about innovation in journalism, I think about the integration of technology, technology that can bolster the editorial skill set of a journalist. … A journalist is going to have instincts, they’re going to know community, they’re going to know community needs, they’re going to know members of the community, they’re going to have sources, so they kind of know that side of the brain. ... But what are the innovative technologies that we can launch or provide to them to make it easier to do storytelling around that, make the distribution broader, to make it monetize in a more efficient way? Erica Anderson Executive Producer of Content and Partnerships, Recode (Vox Media)

Making Metrics Count

Harnessing data to better understand your audience isn’t a new idea. But doing it in a way that provides truly actionable information is vital these days and is constantly being refined.

Flicking away the click mentality.

For a long time, I think journalists conflated the number of people who came to visit an article with a successful piece of journalism. And I think the good news is, at least from the viewpoint of the Washington Post, it’s really much more about deep engagement than it is about the total number of people who ever see a piece of journalism. The people who engage deeply, who spend their time, who share an article, recommend it to others, those are the people who are most likely to be subscribers. And so, when we craft the journalism, we need to craft journalism that engages people, not journalism that just attracts people. I think if I were to say what does clickbait look like, clickbait looks like journalism that attracts people to at least glance at a story but has nothing to support deep engagement. And good, powerful journalism, well told, that’s the kind of journalism that creates the deep engagement that merits a subscription. Jeremy Gilbert Director of Strategic Initiatives, The Washington Post

Different types of stories must be assessed differently.

We divide stories into critical and fascinating categories. Sometimes they can be both. We talk about stories that are live and stories that are really in depth. Again, they can be both. But we can do a story of the moment, a really live story, where all we have is a paragraph or a couple of sentences, and that paragraph or couple of sentences, it is the thing. So, when people go and engage with that journalism, they’re not going to spend a lot of time, but that might be exactly what we need to do when we have the news of the moment that will define the agenda, set what people are talking about.

So, we need metrics that are flexible enough around engagement that they don’t say a longer story is always better, because that is not true. It also has to be that we don't want circulation to be the only metric, but then say, well, wait a second, it was so engaging that you spent seven or 10 minutes and that was five or six minutes more than you thought you were going to spend, and therefore, you don’t look at a second story, but you still had a very successful engagement with Washington Post journalism. The metrics have to be flexible enough that they can account for the different types of stories we might have and the different moments we might reach people.
Jeremy Gilbert Director of Strategic Initiatives, The Washington Post

So, what are the most important metrics?

No. 1, it’s some way to track what stories, you know, what articles are actually getting people to become subscribers. So that’s probably the most important thing. The other is some sort of measure of how you’re growing user engagement over time. So, the Financial Times uses an index that they call RFV which stands for recency, frequency and volume. So that's the last time they came? How often are they coming? And how much are they reading? So how many articles are they reading? And they sort of multiply those together into an index. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be sort of a more complex metric than that. It's just some sense of how you're growing the proportion of users who are coming back again and again. Michael Silberman Senior Vice President of Strategy, Piano

When innovation is a value, metrics must be too.

Always, we want to figure it out beforehand, of course, to make sure we’re not wasting our time. But it’s not always perfect. Sometimes we’ll launch something and have a pretty good run and then it runs its course and it’s time to try something else. So we run a P and L (profit and loss) on every single product that we do, whether it’s a small health special section, or a large breast cancer awareness project. We really look at different metrics for it. What kind of revenue did we get from it, what kind of expense do we have, what’s the readership value, what was the profit and should we do it again? So we’re constantly measuring ourselves that way. We want to make sure it's incredibly high quality, that it has a lot of reader and advertising value. If it doesn’t, we will say, ‘Eh, you know, I’m out. That one maybe didn’t work out so well, let’s cut that and try something different.’ Karen Andreas Regional Publisher, North of Boston Media Group (CNHI)

Taking the team approach.

We have a centralized group that focuses on (metrics), works very closely with leaders in each of the newsrooms about their key priorities. The data team shares the data across the organization, with each newsroom leader, and with the marketing teams, subscription team, so that we're all aligned. We talk about our key priorities constantly, and we are putting in the processes to measure and report back to everybody our progress. Timothy Knight President and CEO, Tribune Publishing

Data is just as important to nonprofits.

We’ve invested in building out a data warehouse, so that we can really start to understand the behavior of our (WBEZ) members, and understand who they are, so that we can do more one-to-one direct-to marketing to our members. You know, again mostly for retention purposes. But also for the purposes of getting people to increase their giving over time. So, that’s something that we had never done in terms of really starting to use data, and data analytics to message, and market more directly to our members, and to prospects. And we're also building a prospect database. So, as important as the newsletter is to our editorial strategy, and our audience strategy, it’s also critical to our membership strategy. ... Sixty percent of the people that are signed up for our newsletter are not members. So, all of those people are now prospects in a prospect database. Goli Sheikholeslami President and CEO, Chicago Public Media