Digital Publishing: How the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Turned Around Its Social Media Strategy by ‘Shooting in the Dark’

By: Rob Tornoe

Despite repeated promises by Facebook to help support and promote the work being done by newspapers across the country (the latest being a $3 million project to help grow subscriptions), at times it seems like all newsrooms can do is triage the losses caused by constant tweaks to the social media giant’s algorithm.

But Emily Ristow, the social media editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has managed to not only limit the loss of traffic coming from the newspaper’s branded Facebook page, but actually grow just about every meaningful metric over the past year, from post engagement to link traffic.

The Journal Sentinel may be the largest newspaper in Wisconsin, but back in 2016, social media was largely put on the back burner at the Gannett property after cutbacks left the remaining staff burdened with the responsibility of added digital responsibilities.

“For a few years, we didn’t have much of a focus on social media,” Ristow said. “Stories were being published on Facebook the minute they were posted on our website.”

So Ristow developed a new approach to how and when stories were posted on the Journal Sentinel’s flagship Facebook page that went into effect in January 2017. Instead of sharing a story the instant it went live on the Journal Sentinel’s website, Ristow developed a schedule she described as “shooting in the dark” and limited posting on Facebook to every half-hour (every hour during slower times).

Then she participated in the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative known as the “Table Stakes” project, where the Journal Sentinel joined the Seattle Times, the San Jose Mercury News and the Houston Chronicle in an attempt to push metro newspapers from a more print-centric world into a publishing environment dominated by digital. Part of the initiative’s goal was reaching more readers through social media.

After about three to four months, Ristow and her fellow producers took a deep dive into the numbers to see what worked, and what didn’t. For instance, the newspaper discovered that adding text that encouraged a discussion of the newsroom’s political stories led to more engagement on Facebook than something intended to garner a quick reaction.

“With some of the political stuff, our first inclination would be an angry face reaction and no comment,” Ristow said. “Now I will think about what I can write to get people to discuss this topic. I avoid the quick reaction altogether.”

An analysis of the data also made it clear that other types of content, including the type of investigative and watchdog work the newsroom was most proud of, required a different approach to garner much engagement on the Journal Sentinel’s Facebook page.

Ristow said the Journal Sentinel will pay to boost the newsroom’s investigative work on Facebook in an attempt to reach readers that haven’t already liked the flagship page. They’ll also create shorter, more engaging posts including a specific aspect of a longer investigative piece they think will attract a larger audience.

“We did a story that we launched around Thanksgiving on how germs are transmitted on planes, and how there aren’t clear standards how to deal with them,” Ristow said. “We also created a shorter piece for social about how you can avoid getting sick on a plane and used it to link to the larger piece.”

Scheduling also plays an important role to maximizing traffic to the newsroom’s meatier pieces. While most will appear in the Sunday’s paper, the newsroom will typically post them online Thursday or Friday, when traffic is higher. Ristow has found success posting those pieces Sunday night on Facebook, as readers are looking toward next week.

Ristow said that for the Journal Sentinel, sports content tends to do the best in the early evening between 6 and 8 p.m. Politics tends to do well Saturday nights for the newspaper, while on the weekends, more positive and uplifting feature stories garner the most engagement and traffic. And on weekdays, early morning hours typically outperform stories posted in the afternoon between 1 and 4 p.m. when readers are at work.

In addition to scheduling out stories, the newspaper began to create exclusive content for Facebook in order to drive up overall engagement. One post asked readers to vote on where exactly “up north” was in Wisconsin, which led to a slew of comments and a popular story featuring an interactive heat map showing how readers voted.

“We saw the Detroit Free Press had done something similar with a graphic, and we thought it’d be popular with our readers,” Ristow said. “As soon as we brought it up at the Monday morning meeting, a lot of arguing started happening, so we know it would be good.”

But the scheduling does have a major downside—not all stories produced in the Journal Sentinel’s newsroom end up on the newspaper’s official Facebook page. Explaining to a reporter why their story isn’t worth sharing, regardless of the reason, is never easy. And it can be incredibly frustrating from a writer’s perspective, especially as newsrooms increasingly take web analytics into account for performance evaluations.

“It’s been an ongoing educational process,” Ristow said, noting that she’s been very transparent about what is scheduled where and why (complete with an old-school whiteboard), and she does a daily post-mortem during the company’s morning news meeting.

The numbers speak for themselves in terms of the success Ristow has had growing the Journal Sentinel’s digital reach on Facebook. The weekly average reach of the Facebook posts is up more than 500 percent since January 2017, from around 500,000 people a week to north of 3 million in July 2018. The number of “likes” on the flagship page have nearly tripled, from 62,000 to more than 166,000.

Probably the most important metric for growth has been the increase in traffic from the branded Facebook page to the Journal Sentinel’s website, which increased 141 percent from January 2017 to April 2018 (the last month before readers began hitting the website’s paywall on social clicks).

Now that Ristow has the Journal Sentinel’s flagship Facebook page humming along, she’s been working on rolling out a similar approach to the newspaper’s other branded pages, which includes business, local sports, entertainment and food, and home.

“We’re also doing more with Instagram stories since we know that audience skews younger for us and we’re trying to bring in the younger readers and make consuming (the Journal Sentinel’s) content part of their daily habit,” Ristow said. 

Rob TornoeRob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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Published: October 17, 2018

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