Editor of the internet.
That was Neetzan Zimmerman’s title when he was a viral content-producing machine during his time at the now-defunct news website Gawker. Zimmerman’s uncanny ability to pluck out content he knew would be popular with readers allowed him to garner over 30 million page views a month, as much as five times more page views than his next highest colleague. That led the Wall Street Journal to dub him “the most popular blogger working on the web today” and New York Magazine called him a “one-man viral treasure chest.”
Back in 2015, Zimmerman took a job with The Hill, a newspaper focused on politics and policy that has served Capitol Hill since 1994. Officially the senior director of audience and strategy, it’s been Zimmerman’s job to help The Hill grow its digital footprint and better compete in a saturated market against outlets as varied as Politico, the Daily Caller and the Washington Post.
So far, so good. According to CrowdTangle, an analytics platform owned by Facebook that tracks the performance of articles on social media in local markets, The Hill had more interactions on both Facebook and Twitter in the first half of 2017 than the New York Times, the Washington Post and Politico. In August 2015, The Hill had just 306,000 followers on Facebook. Just two years later that number now tops 1.2 million. And according to comScore, The Hill also has more monthly readers than any other independent political news source, reaching about 10 percent of all digital media viewers in the United States. Not bad for a niche publication focused on politics.
In other words, Zimmerman knows how to find readers on the internet—which is why I wanted to pick his brain about local news outlets and what they can do to increase their digital reach.
Zimmerman’s position was a new one for The Hill, and at countless news outlets across the country where the news gathering process is still print-centric, having someone whose sole focus is trying to draw in digital readers is a luxury tight budgets can’t afford. For those small and mid-sized newsrooms, the message to reporters has been to find readers themselves, which Zimmerman thinks is the wrong approach.
“You need a separate department or individual thinking about how to get content in front of readers,” Zimmerman said. “You can’t expect reporters, who frankly should be spending their time reporting, to have the time to find an audience for their content. You want to take that off their shoulders.”
Take for instance Facebook’s continuing changes to its algorithm. Recently, Facebook has placed more emphasis on promoting links to websites that load faster, leading Zimmerman to act as a liaison with the product department to ensure The Hill’s digital experience is not only meeting the expectations of readers, but also casting it in the best light possible for social media success.
There are also countless groups on Facebook and elsewhere that pull together members of a local community, sometimes by individual neighborhoods. These groups can not only serve as a conduit for traffic, but they are also a treasure trove of potential story leads and insights into the communities you serve.
“You can’t expect every reporter to know everything that’s going on in social media,” Zimmerman said. “They can help, but you really need someone in the newsroom shouldering that burden.”
Zimmerman’s not wrong about the digital potential of underserved local markets. If you’ve played with CrowdTangle (something that I’ve become addicted to), you’ll notice that in most cases, most over-performing posts on social media originate from either local news outlets or regional affiliates for national news networks.
Part of that comes from the fact that local newspapers and news outlets take pride in their nonpartisan approach to news gathering. Unlike many political news outlets, The Hill is also nonpartisan, something Zimmerman contends is an huge asset in such a polarizing time.
“Most people ultimately want to read news from a place they can trust,” he said. “People are extremely multi-layered and complicated, and in my experience, there’s no one that’s exclusively far right or far left.”
Of course, nonpartisanship shouldn’t be a synonym for transcription, and one area many local news outlets have struggled is making its unbiased reporting appealing enough to stand out on social media against outlets that aren’t afraid to express an opinion or potentially overstate the facts.
At The Hill, Zimmerman says he and his team are constantly thinking about what is going to get people engaged with a story. People want to know how to connect with a story on a personal level, and often that means spending time crafting a headline or teasing out the facts that will resonate with readers without veering into clickbait.
A good example of this is from a story about a state department employee’s resignation that’s featured on The Hill’s homepage as I write this. The headline, “State Dept. science envoy resigns with letter that spells out ‘Impeach’” shows an understanding of who will share this story without taking a partisan approach. It paid off—in just two hours, the story was shared more than 23,000 times.
“That’s even easier to do at local outlets because no one knows the community better than them,” Zimmerman said. “And the beauty is that content can range from the winner of a local dog show to what a large national story, like healthcare, means for the local community.”
One suggestion Zimmerman had for all local newspapers, both small and mid-sized, is to get away from wire stories and have someone on staff aggregate national content. In resource-starved newsrooms, it’s easy to simply drop in a wire story when national news breaks, but it’s certainly not helping your brand stand out in the sea of content swimming around on the internet.
Aggregation has gotten a bad rap in many newsrooms and is still often looked at with a disparaging eye by reporters more interested in breaking news than disseminating it. But the right mix of wire content and local flavor will create more engaging and unique content for the local readers, a valuable commodity as more online outlets look to charge readers for digital subscriptions.
“Position the story that proves unique insight to your local community,” Zimmerman suggested. “If there’s even one thing you can add that gives your readers more of a unique perspective, than you’ve already created something of value.”