How Newspapers are Rethinking and Delivering the Online User Experience

By: Natalie Hope McDonald

During the past year, USA Today’s vast network of more than 100 websites has undergone a transformation. By standardizing each of the publication’s templates to match the overall design and impact of the USA Today brand, owner Gannett found a way to not only bridge local and national branding efforts that reach more than 125 million visitors each month, it delivers a more consistent (read: profitable) platform for advertisers. The efforts resulted in a June 2018 comScore ranking that squarely puts USA Today’s Network into the top 15 most successful digital properties in the U.S.

Jason Jedlinski, head of consumer products for the USA Today Network, said the company ultimately wanted to improve site performance and introduce a clean, modern design that would attract more clicks.

“Our articles and section fronts now beat industry benchmarks, loading faster and smoother than many competitors,” he said. “Our users are spending more time reading more of our content. Year over year, average scroll depth on mobile web articles is up 86 percent—that’s approaching double—and time spent is up 28 percent.”

Jason Jedlinski

While Gannett’s third quarter earnings were down this year, digital ad revenue is actually up 1.3 percent. Since the website redesign, USA Today’s online visitors have also increased to 107.4 million, according to comScore.

One of the reasons for the upswing, said Jedlinski, is mobile. More users now than ever are accessing digital newspaper content via tablets and smartphones. As such, it’s leading publishers like Gannett to rethink how it delivers content digitally.

“We’re laser-focused on growing return frequency (visits per month) along with visit depth (pages per session),” said Jedlinski. “From a content strategy standpoint, we’ve developed proprietary tools which help our reporters, editors and content strategists understand what’s driving true loyalty and engagement, versus the old metric of page views or hits.”

A simply change, for example, was switching to a vertical photo gallery format that works well on tablets and smartphones. “This unique treatment also improved our display advertising revenue by making our sponsors’ messages more visible,” said Jedlinski. “Users who browse our vertical galleries are consistently diving deeper, viewing more photos than they did in our classic slideshows.”

For desktop audiences, USA Today focuses on what Jedlinski calls “super-serving” loyal readers and subscribers. Improvements here include posting new content up front for quick access and offering overall easier account management, like handy links to the crossword puzzle and e-edition of the daily paper.

He said, “Responding to reader feedback, we recently switched our desktop video experience to click for sound versus playing audio by default. We’ve been able to offer a more respectful user experience without losing revenue, given continued growth in video views.”

Digital storytelling has become a key ingredient to how many print publications are rethinking their web presences overall, notably by creatively mixing elements like long-form video with testimonials, and interactive graphics that create a more digestible and relatable read for online users who have come to expect a more rounded multimedia experience. This can translate into even more comprehensive storytelling.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, also owned by Gannett, won a Pulitzer Prize this year for its “Seven Days of Heroin,” a bold narrative that incorporated photography and video to tell the story of addiction. Gannett also won three more Pulitzers for its multimedia report, “The Wall,” which examined President Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The immersive online experience included the use of virtual reality complete with bots, aerial views, 360-degree video, documentaries, photos, podcasts, exclusive reporting and a long-form film.

Jedlinski said multimedia is a priority now for online reporting. “Even in our day-to-day coverage of our communities—whether a press conference, parade, severe weather, or even a shuttle launch—our reporters are empowered to leverage multimedia to share what they’re seeing and hearing on the scene.”

And it seems to be paying off in a few different ways. The number of users choosing to play videos embedded online has increased 25 percent so far this year. It’s enough of an increase to inspire newspapers around the country to rethink how they want to tell stories online.

“We don’t see ourselves as a newspaper company,” Jedlinski said. “We have traded picas for pixels. We believe that’s very much about mobile, and increasingly through conversational user interfaces: voice search, whether Siri on your iPhone or Google Assistant in your kitchen.”

Practical Considerations

While multimedia technology has reshaped the online user experience in terms of content production, speed can make or break even the best-intentioned websites, said Bradford Campeau-Laurion, partner and chief strategy officer at Alley Interactive, a custom digital publishing company based in New York City.

Campeau-Laurion has worked with the New York Post, Politico and TwinCities.com on repackaging the way they deliver content to online users. He said how fast a user can access news, download content and consume, share and comment on a story all play vital roles in the way newspapers are rethinking digital properties for the better.

“Being fast to publish new content is critical,” said Campeau-Laurion, “which has led to many newspapers moving to a digital-first workflow.” For the formula to work, however, there needs to be a tight integration of web and print, and a sufficient staff to actually produce the more nuanced content.

Bradford Campeau-Laurion

As more newspapers face economic challenges that can sometimes lead to shrinking staffs, being able to produce and post fast, digestible multimedia content can have its challenges. A big question newspapers may need to be asking right now is how they intend to fund special online projects and who will ultimately be responsible for taking them live and maintaining the 24/7 scheduling. Without a support system in place (both talent and technology), throwing money online may not be a winning venture for everyone.

“A great design and user experience are certainly important,” said Campeau-Laurion, “but speed is a more important factor in retaining readers. It’s also a critical factor for how Google and other search engines rank their sites and provide an additional source of traffic.”

Another big question is apps. In many ways, apps have become synonymous with the digital experience, but they may not be a great fit for everyone either. Campeau-Laurion said apps can have their share of challenges. “Many publishers think they need to have a mobile app for discovery and engagement, but I think it’s more important to focus on the main web platform first,” he explained. “Mobile apps are great to get real estate on a user’s phone and deliver push notifications, but the percentage of people that will use your mobile site is higher.”

The real meat of the online user experience often exists in overall value, that is, how newspapers ultimately prioritize what content is posted online and how it’s delivered to reach users coming from different platforms.

For example, it might seem like a great idea to add a few custom fonts to a site, but fonts can make a site load much more slowly. “Even worse,” said Campeau-Laurion, “it uses up data for your visitors who aren’t on unlimited mobile plans. It actually costs them money.”

Bottom line, Campeau-Laurion said, “A user experience should reflect your branding, but it also needs to be practical. It’s important to remember that launch isn’t a finish line, it’s just when you start to get real feedback.”

“The Hardest-Working Paper in America”

At the Chicago Sun-Times, Carol Fowler, senior vice president of digital news products, has been spending a lot of time thinking about the re-launch of the newspaper’s digital properties. In April of this year, a complete online overhaul replaced a web presence that Fowler describes as, well, “pretty cluttered with a lot of pop ups.” She said, “From a user experience, it was just not optimum.”

Now that the new site is up and running, she’s charged with figuring out what works—and what doesn’t. The impetus all along, she said, was the paywall. “If we didn’t improve the user experience, how do we expect people to pay to access the site?”

With a background in tech and many years in TV news management, Fowler seemed the perfect choice to help lead this enormous redesign project, one that spanned eight months and included a collaboration with Ogilvy, one of the largest marketing and communications companies in the world.

The goal for the redesign was to ultimately deliver “a more straightforward and cleaner look both in print and at Suntimes.com,” CEO Edwin Eisendrath said in a press release, “and serving up content in a more organized way on both platforms.”

Carol Fowler

This initiative included the creation of a news app, as well as podcasts spanning everything from race relations to sports. The Sun-Times also now offers full-scale live broadcasting and video programming online. One of the first tests of its success was the streaming of a Democratic gubernatorial forum that attracted more than 120,000 viewers.

The overall visual impact of the site is part of a much wider branding effort that makes the look and feel of the paper and website cohesive. “Prior to that, the website looked different, though it generally had the same content,” Fowler said. “You wouldn’t have automatically known that those two belong together.”

She also said that the Sun-Times today isn’t the paper it used to be, nor should it be. “It wasn’t just the website and print; it was really how we present ourselves in the public space (like social media). That took a little longer to think through.”

Interestingly, working with Ogilvy inspired the team to think more deeply about the core mission of the paper and its audience. “We decided to identify as the hardest-working paper in America,” said Fowler. “That’s how we see ourselves. We report stories that impact working men and women in Chicago and elsewhere. All of the design decisions came from that place.”

The soul searching inspired content that’s easily accessed on the go by, yes, busy working people. The team also reconsidered how it structured headlines on the main page, and how breaking news would be balanced with other key content, like the most popular stories clicked by users.

“We ride a balance showcasing stories that people are clicking on,” Fowler said, “but also showcasing the most timely news.” And video has become a much bigger focus, something Fowler described as “a work in progress.”

For example, video is now included in every article page possible. “It helps your SEO because people are going to spend more time on your page if they are watching video,” Fowler said.

Prior to posting video directly on the site, the paper had been posting to a dedicated YouTube channel, which meant it was losing out on advertising and traffic. To counter this, the paper brought its own video player in house and began creating original content. “It gave us more control over being able to make money on that part of our content,” said Fowler. “We now have a couple of video series that have local B-roll and advertising. Our plan is to do more than that with content partnerships.”

Fowler believes that video is ultimately distinguishing online publishing from print, but the question is will it be enough to lure readers?

“We have to pull as many levers as we can to see what the audience is going to respond to and what’s going to work,” she said. “We’re going to try things that don’t seem to resonate and that’s okay.”

A recent video series that seemed like a gamble has since become one of the most popular online features for the Sun-Times. Called The Grid, it explores different neighborhoods throughout Chicago. “It’s very personality-driven,” said Fowler. “It’s nothing like the Sun-Times has done before. It really celebrates and tells stories and histories of neighborhoods across Chicago.”

As more projects like these develop, newsrooms are finding themselves in a new position to hire different types of talent, including multimedia journalists, videographers and social media managers. It’s a gamble the Sun-Times and many other newspapers around the country are willing to take.

WordPress: A Case Study

WordPress, the free open-source content management system, has become an important tool that more newspaper publishers are using to share digital content. A few years ago there seemed to be a run on WordPress sites. The New York Times, for example, had an entire network of blogs running on WordPress at one point, that is, until it decided to custom-build its own CMS to keep up with demand.

In the ever-evolving media market, technology has certainly become a competitive advantage. For a company like the Times, which can publish an estimated 700 stories and more than 50 hours of video each day, the need for a robust online publishing system that allows many team members to collaborate is a no-brainer. For others, a prepackaged solution like WordPress may be the best answer (both in terms of profitability and user experience).

When Campeau-Laurion worked with the New York Post to launch the new and improved NYPost.com in 2013, there were far less solutions from which to choose. Since then, he said he’s actually seen a “rapid growth in WordPress usage among publishers.”

A big reason for this, he said, is that WordPress is, “a well-supported platform with ready-made integrations (plugins) for almost all of the common services publishers use.”

Having a WordPress plugin, he explained, “is like having an iPhone app; it’s the most ubiquitous content management system in the world, so it’s advantageous for people looking to sell a service to integrate with it.”

Another appeal is that using WordPress can actually lower the overall cost of ownership versus other platforms (or even a custom CMS) since there’s less work to do. It also gives its builder a lot more creative control over which third-party platforms to use on a site.

“I think the most common theme across the successful launches we’ve seen on WordPress is applying a deep focus on editorial workflow,” said Campeau-Laurion. “When starting a project, we spend a lot of time trying to understand each publisher’s current and optimal editorial workflow. We also take into account the CMS we’re using, which is almost always WordPress.”

Figuring out where it makes sense to customize versus using the tools that WordPress already offers is a critical decision that affects both the scope and successful adoption of the new CMS by the editorial team.

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Published: October 15, 2018

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