If there ever was a time to double down and get serious about the pace of your newspaper’s digital transformation, now may be it.
Recently, Pew released its annual State of the News Media report, and if you were hoping to see a bottoming out of declining print revenues, prepare to be disappointed.
According to Pew, newspapers in 2015 had perhaps their worst year since the Great Recession. Daily circulation fell by 7 percent, the most since 2010, while print ad revenues declined another 8 percent. As New York Times CEO Mark Thompson recently summed up, “Winter really is coming for many of the world’s news publishers.”
The fact that print advertising revenue continues decline is nothing new, of course. For years, the end game for the nation’s top newspapers has been to grow digital revenue enough to offset declining print revenues in order to maintain their depleted news gathering operations.
Most people in today’s newsrooms seem to understand this. Tribune Publishing recently rebranded itself as tronc, Inc., a clunky abbreviation of “Tribune online content.” The Journal Register and MediaNews became Digital First Media all the way back in 2011. Yet both these companies are still largely emblematic of the newspaper industry as a whole, which continues to be run by a print first, digital second mentality.
Despite all the doom and gloom, newspapers benefit from one recent finding—newspaper brands matter. According to a recent report about digital news by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, traditional news brands act like anchors, with 69 percent of people accessing a newspaper brand online every week. Only 45 percent of people in the study accessed a digital-only outlet every week.
“Traditional brands have the advantage of credibility and heritage but new brands have a vibrancy and responsiveness that is often leading the way in innovation and new formats,” wrote Nic Newman, the report’s lead author.
So how can newsrooms, still dependent on the revenue from their print products, quicken their digital transformation and remain as vibrant as new outlets?
If you’re the Dallas Morning News, you start from scratch.
When editor Mike Wilson came to the Morning News from ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight in 2015, he found the traditional news beats associated with most newspapers and a content schedule that included a 10:30 a.m. morning news meeting dominated by column inches, sections and print deadlines.
Changes were made, and they were dramatic. Everyone on staff was forced to apply for a new job, and many of the longtime positions associated with the newsroom (and the print edition) were eliminated. The Morning News ended its traditional beat coverage in favor of reorganizing into verticals currently of interest to readers, like justice and high school sports.
“We just basically wiped the slate clean,” Wilson told Poynter. As the Morning News itself stated in a 159-page report to its employees, “Getting something ‘on the record’ is not a justification for writing boring stories that no one reads.”
Now, as a popular YouTube video created by Poynter’s Kristen Hare bragged, their morning meeting is a headline rodeo that editors vote on. They discuss web analytics and go over what worked well on social media the day before and what didn’t. Meanwhile, the print product is put out by a small team of editors that curates from the best content produced throughout the day by the individual verticals.
El País, the highest-circulation daily newspaper in Spain, has also completely revamped its newsroom structure and placed digital distribution at its core, literally. Editors have created a digital distribution desk focused on audience measurement, social engagement and SEO and placed it in the physical center of its newsroom, surrounded by the company’s other verticals and departments.
“It will be a newsroom without desks, one that is open to collaboration and the exchange of ideas, in which teams will mingle in order to create new stories,” Antonio Caño, the editor-in-chief of El País, explained to his employees.
Like the Morning News, the print edition at El País has taken a back seat, allowing them to push forward with more publishing experiments, such as digital distribution and live video.
During the 2015 elections, El País hosted an election debate between the top three candidates for prime minister and broadcast the video live on their own website. It was a hit, garnering more than 2 million simultaneous live viewers, which chief experience officer Alberto Barreiro said placed it among the country’s major broadcasters during prime time.
“The media is now all over the place. We are not a .com anymore and who knows, maybe we are in the process of disappearing as a destination,” Barreiro said at a recent Digital Media Europe event in Vienna.
Barreiro noted that different distribution projects, such as Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages and Facebook Instant Articles, were exciting and worth experimenting with. But he also said it was equally important for newspapers to remember these platforms also compete for their readers’ attention.
“The interface is where all the value and profit are, so whoever controls that interface controls the business,” Barreiro said, noting that the millions that watched the election debate on El País’ own website helps the newspaper build “brand affinity.”
At Independent News and Media, the publisher of Ireland’s top four newspapers, the previously separate newsrooms have been combined into one staff working on the same floor. As Journalism.co.uk recently reported, content in the Independent’s newsroom is now conceived in a “central hub” and publishes like a wire service, which its newspapers then pull from later in the day to fill their individual editions.
This consolidation has allowed the company to focus on technology invocations, such as customizing the homepage of independent.ie based on data provided by its readers.
“We have a very engaged rugby audience, so during the World Cup, we split the homepage into three formats which changed to suit the readers,” Stephen Rae, group editor-in-chief, explained to delegates of the 2016 World Editors Forum.
“From our data, we knew which sport they consumed and sent out different types of push notifications based on this,” Rae said. “It led to a huge increase in engagement and the open rates of our targeted push alerts increased by 300 percent.”
These organizations shouldn’t be outliers for an industry that has been criticized for transforming at glacial speed. It’s long past time for newsrooms to strip themselves from the shackles of how they’ve produced content for the last 50 years and re-imagine how best to deploy their newsrooms in ways to better serve readers today. Print is still important, but it’s 2016. It can no longer be first.