As part of the never ending search to uncover the most efficient means of tackling the digital monster, publishers have continued to experiment, innovate and, in some cases, receive some much needed help. For the most part, common ingredients to digital success, or even the slightest hint of progress, stems from the willingness to adapt without sacrificing the quality of the product provided to readers and advertisers alike. With that in mind, E&P decided to take a closer look at five digital initiatives taking place in the news industry and how they’re helping advance the tech movement.
Digital in Rural America
While newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times are able to freely experiment on the digital side of things, smaller publications have often been left to trudge along the digital path without much guidance.
This problem was entrenched deeply in the mind of Mark Nienhueser during his tenure as a 2015-2016 fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. As advertising director at the Missouri Press Service (MPS), an affiliate of the state’s newspaper association, he was keenly aware of the challenges newsrooms were facing.
“The hypothesis heading into the fellowship was that the Missouri Press Association needed to be able to help their newspapers get into the digital side of things,” Nienhueser said. “What I was finding was that most of the dailies had it somewhat figured out, but most of the local weeklies didn’t have anything at all.”
Of the nearly 250 newspapers in the state, about 200 are weekly publications, he said.
Following an extensive interview process with different vendors, Nienhueser and his team were able to develop a suite of digital services designed specifically to support community newspaper publishers improve their relationship with local ad clients as well as boost revenue.
The services available include website creation, social media management, programmatic advertising, SEO, YouTube TrueView ads and hands-on training. MPS partners with St. Louis-based Amplified Digital, who serves as the vendor for the digital products and training.
Nienhueser said MPS is in a particularly unique situation because it can provide products without the need for large margins.
“We have products that I don’t believe some of the bigger digital houses would even offer. For example, you can buy 100,000 programmatic impressions above the fold with us for about $649,” he said. “Those other guys are going to come in there and say you know we’ve got a $1,000 or $1,500 minimum spend. I think it has really given us the ability to walk into rural America and uncover some opportunities that are going to provide a revenue stream to the newspaper and allow us to make money too.”
According to Whitney Livengood, digital advertising sales manager at the Washington Missourian, the paper’s advertising staff has been able to “step up their game” due to their ongoing work with MPS and Amplified Digital. The semiweekly paper maintains a print circulation of 13,100 on Wednesday and 12,320 on the weekend.
“We had some digital products but we didn’t have the capacity to do things like website development,” she said. “We also have utilized them a lot for programmatic advertising, which is something that people in our area we’re only somewhat familiar with.”
So far, the feedback from local clients has been positive for the Missourian. In one case, Livengood noted that she and her staff were able to keep a customer from spending their money elsewhere by suggesting programmatic advertising.
“We’ve had customers cut down on the newspaper budget because they needed to reach outside their market. So we were able to go in with a proposal to this particular client based on what their needs and expectations were in different zip codes and who they were trying to target,” she said. “Not only did we make up that money but we also added on a few thousand dollars to their campaign total for the year. We are recouping lost dollars by providing these new digital services now to our clients.”
Tapping into Local Audiences
Since its launch in 2011, Nextdoor has seen its popularity steadily grow and partnerships with public agencies expand. The private social network, which allows users to connect with neighbors in their community, recently added newspapers to that list.
“I emailed Nextdoor last fall after a conversation with coworkers about the platform and its potential for reaching readers,” said Beth O’Malley, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reader engagement editor. “They responded back with a proposal to help them with an initiative partnering with news outlets. My understanding is that we are one of their first news partners, and the first in the Midwest, to have this type of account.”
By partnering with Nextdoor, newspapers can target where they post stories down to the community level, giving them the ability to share hyperlocal news that is highly relevant to specific communities. The articles appear in Nextdoor’s newsfeed in the app and website, as well as in the Daily Digest email that members receive. In addition, neighbors can share story ideas or tips with newspapers through Nextdoor.
To date, Nextdoor has partnered with several dozen local news entities covering a cross section of the US.
“The response has been strong and positive,” said Brian Backus, director, agency and news partnerships at Nextdoor. “It’s still early, but our current partners have said that, unlike other social networks, Nextdoor’s ability to let them target different stories to different neighborhoods in their service areas is key to delivering and delighting their audience. News partners have also seen incremental traffic and new referrals from their posts on Nextdoor.”
Though Nextdoor has faced criticism for instances of racial profiling among its users, Backus said its team has taken steps to address the issue by introducing a new set of community guidelines and moderation tools to encourage neighbors to be more mindful when posting. He emphasized that the improvements have led to a 75 percent reduction in problematic posts.
Meanwhile, Offline Media, a free curated guide to events in a handful of cities in North Carolina and Tennessee, has begun the early stages of a strategic partnership with McClatchy. The startup has already built a strong core audience in markets such as Raleigh and Charlotte N.C., where a third of all college educated millennial women now use the app.
“We’re building a scaleable technology platform that we believe is going to allow us to curate experiences in these mid-market U.S. cities better than anyone else,” said David Shaner, Offline Media founder and CEO. “The thing that makes us unique is our focus on our target customer, which is women between 18 and 34.”
Shaner said he hopes to expand Offline Media to cover 50 cities by 2020.
According to Andrew Pergam, vice president, video and new ventures at McClatchy, the digital partnership will revolve around “content sharing and advertising exchanging.”
“I think it probably makes the most sense to look at where there are some overlaps for us,” he said. “We are targeting what I call the next generation of our audience.”
Several years ago, McClatchy-owned Charlotte Observer launched Charlotte Five, a mobile-first website featuring stories geared toward millennials. Pergam noted that the website and Offline Media have recently begun content sharing and will continue to experiment.
“There’s a lot of millennials who love their cities and want to know more about what is going on and how to get involved in things,” Pergam said. “What we are doing with Charlotte Five and Offline will help us grow that even further.”
Despite its infancy in the market, some news organizations have already begun to explore the possibilities of the voice-activated assistants. Last May, the Washington Post became the first publisher to announce breaking news on Alexa-enabled devices.
In order to start receiving up to three daily news updates, a subscriber voluntarily opts-in to notifications from the Post in their Alexa app. Once a breaking news notification is available, Echo devices chime once and its halo flashes green. The updates aren’t vocalized until a user asks, “Alexa, what are my notifications?” or “Alexa, what did I miss?”
“The alerts will be short and to the point—think a headline with context, not an article,” said Dave Merrell, lead product manager. “We have had great success delivering short and informative alerts on other platforms, such as email, mobile push and social media, and we will bring that ethos to the Alexa platform.”
This isn’t the Post’s first foray into the world of voice-activated news. Last year, reporter Chris Cillizza utilized Alexa’s Flash Briefings to deliver the latest news and analysis on the 2016 presidential election. Among the biggest lessons the paper has learned during its experimentation with the emerging technology, Merrell said, was to keep the interactions simple.
“We are very aware that not only is this a new platform for us, it is new to users as well,” he said. “Discoverability of skills on these platforms is difficult in a screenless environment, so the simpler we can go and the more integrated into the system itself, the better.”
Other tech giants such as Microsoft, Google and Apple have also joined Amazon in establishing their place in the voice-activated market. Earlier this year, Microsoft announced its partnership with audio equipment manufacturer Harman Kardon to place their voice-activated assistant, Cortana, into a smart speaker of its own. The move placed the company in direct competition with the Echo and Google Home devices.
So where does news fit in the future of voice technology? Moving forward, Merrell acknowledged that the Post, and any other newspapers interested in incorporating voice assistants, need to remain true to their pillars of their newsroom.
“Throwing our current products and storytelling onto these platforms just won’t work as users will demand experiences that are in line with the rest of the device, just like they did with smartphones and mobile-optimized websites a few years ago,” he said. “It’s so easy to have Alexa play the song that’s stuck in my head—it should be just as easy to get the news and information I want to hear. People want the news and they want to use their new voice assistants to get it, so we’re constantly thinking of how to innovate in this space.”
Flying Above the Norm
Though the relationship between drones and newspapers remains in the midst of a feeling out process, some news organizations have showcased the potential of drone journalism stories this year.
Following President Donald Trump’s call to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a significant amount of coverage ensued, with both the Associated Press and CNN recognizing an opportunity to put their own unmanned aerial vehicles to use.
In April, AP reporter Christopher Sherman and photographer Rodrigo Abd embarked on a two-week journey along the U.S.-Mexico border documenting the true nature of what was occurring at the ground level. On day 12 of their reporting, the pair received some help from AP reporter Brian Skoloff, who piloted a drone to capture an aerial view of how the border fence divides the towns of Nogales, Ariz. and Nogales, Mexico.
As part of its coverage of how Texans perceived the possibility of additional miles of wall being built in their state, CNN relied on a drone to capture shots of the land straddling Texas and Mexico.
In both cases, readers were provided with informative reporting at a relatively inexpensive cost for the news outlets themselves. Considering drone journalism has technically only been legalized for less than a year, the results produced so far are encouraging.
With a number of drone-related training initiatives and boot camps underway, such as Poynter’s drone journalism school, the idea of experiencing aerial video shots and photography regularly alongside a story isn’t an outlandish concept either.
“I’ve seen some good work, and more and more of it. I think that the real breakthrough is that coming up on a year after federal drone rules went into place, you’re starting to see additional newsrooms getting them and starting to use them,” said Matt Waite, professor of practice in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications and the founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “It’s all pretty cautious right now, but you’re going to see a lot more in the coming year.”
Setting Digital Deadlines
Last year, The Times in London tried approaching online news with a different kind of mindset—one that didn’t involve the normal pattern of rapid posting throughout the day. By adopting a publishing schedule focused on three daily updates to their digital edition, at 9 a.m., 12 p.m. and 5 p.m., the paper has seen hikes in the usage of its paid-for mobile app, total digital subscribers and website traffic.
What led to the change in the first place? According to Alan Hunter, head of digital, the shift in mentality was led by their users. “We conducted in-depth interviews with them and followed their actual usage in the data, just in case it differed from what they claimed. Both revealed the same thing: that they wanted authoritative reporting, analysis and opinion from us rather than breaking news. For that, they go elsewhere, notably the BBC and Twitter.”
In other words, why would you subscribe to a publisher that wasn’t giving you something different from news which you can get for free? After all, it’s no secret that online news has become a commoditized product.
Over the past 12 months, the number of subscribers on the Times’ smartphone app has increased by 35 percent. Additionally, users are reading nearly double the amount of articles on both the app and website. The number of digital subscribers has also grown from 172,000 to 185,000.
“Many people are at work and at their desks at 9 a.m., our first update; they take a break at noon for lunch; by 5 p.m. many are starting to return home. Our aim is to drive a habit to check out what’s important in the world at those times,” Hunter said. “If we can satisfy readers that they are up-to-date and well-informed at those times, they will stick with us.”
In the next year or so, the paper plans to introduce a 10 p.m. update due to usage data indicating that smartphone users tend to have one last check of the news before they go to bed.
When asked if the unique approach to digital news could be applicable here in the U.S., Hunter emphasized that it was a complicated matter each individual publisher would have to consider on their own.
“The U.K. is also peculiar in that it has a state-funded digital news behemoth in the shape of the BBC which significantly distorts our marketplace. I do believe, however, that people are assailed by a tidal wave of news at the moment, which is a good thing in itself but is increasingly hard to navigate,” Hunter said. “Some people will choose to ride that wave on their own, picking stories to read on an ad hoc basis. Others will want a trusted source to pick out what’s important for them and collect it in easily digestible form. That’s where the idea of editions comes in.”