Content has always been king for news publishers, but with print readership declining, publishers have had to think creatively with how to reach readers who are moving over to different platforms. Whether it’s through TikTok, podcasts or videos, media companies are experimenting with various ways to entertain and engage with consumers.
E&P takes a look at a couple of these platforms and speaks with news companies who are finding success with redefining their content to meet the habits of today’s audience.
Reaching Gen Z
When you visit the Washington Post’s TikTok page (tiktok.com/@washingtonpost), the first thing you see is the tagline “We are a newspaper.” Under that, you’ll see this man’s face: Dave Jorgenson, video producer at the Post. Jorgenson told E&P the tagline was chosen because he thought it would be funny to approach the account as if his parents or grandparents created it.
Jorgeson, who is actually 29, launched the account in May 2019. He was originally hired for the creative video team to bring in younger viewers, so the transition into TikTok wasn’t a stretch for him.
The Post’s TikTok account currently has close to 440,000 followers and more than 21 million likes. If you scroll through the feed, you’ll find humorous videos of Jorgenson and his colleagues in the newsroom—many of them poking fun of themselves and their profession. Usually when Jorgenson has an idea for a video, he’ll determine which of his colleges would be best for it and approach them.
“They almost always say yes…I think those working in hard news are especially easy to convince because it’s a break for them, and it allows others to see them in a positive, wholesome light,” Jorgenson said.
These days, Jorgenson is seen hanging out alone in his apartment during self-quarantine, but the account is still racking up views. A recent “Law and Order” parody with Jorgenson interrogating his dog, Lola, had more than 77,000 views, while a video with Jorgenson speaking on an actual banana phone had more than 42,000 views. They may sound silly, but these videos “inject some much-needed happiness” during these unsettling times, Jorgenson said.
The quarantine has been beneficial to the account, he added. Focusing the video clips on quarantine and the coronavirus has allowed him to put all his energy into one idea.
“I think people rely on two TikToks a day in the same way they rely on our newspaper at their doorstep every morning,” Jorgenson said when asked about the account’s popularity. “Being reliable and consistent in our humor and message has helped to create a steady fanbase, in my opinion. On top of that, we’re always sprinkling in new things or ideas, so sticking with us means you’re in for something interesting every day.”
One of the more tangible ways the Post has seen the TikTok content payoff is through a special subscription offer: New subscribers are offered digital access to the Post for a year and a t-shirt featuring Jorgenson’s face for $29.
To spread the word about the offer, Jorgenson sported the shirt in several TikTok videos. While he couldn’t share the exact number of new subscribers this offer has netted, he did share that when subscribers on Twitter heard about the promotion, they wanted t-shirts as well.
“There’s also the long game. Now they know who we are,” Jorgenson said. “Maybe one day in the future if they’re looking for a news source, they’ll remember that weird guy from the Washington Post and think ‘Maybe that newspaper has something to offer.’”
BuzzFeed is another media company engaging with a younger audience through social media. The company is in the process of hiring three “teen ambassadors” who will create news content for TikTok and Instagram. The ambassadors were originally going to cover the 2020 presidential election, however, they will most likely cover COVID-19 as well, said Sara Yasin, director of news curation.
Yasin said the ambassadors will work remotely and create one video a week that will be posted on either BuzzFeed News’ TikTok or Instagram stories. They will work closely with the news curation team to create content, but Yasin said she hopes to incorporate their interests in the process.
While BuzzFeed’s audience has always skewed a little younger than most other media organizations, Yasin said, she believes this content will help BuzzFeed connect more with Gen Z, who tend to latch on to personalities.
“They like the kind of intimacy that comes with trusting a specific person rather than trusting an institution,” she said.
From the Studio
The current coronavirus pandemic is a moving target, so in order to keep their audiences up to date on the situation, many newspapers are turning to video.
At the Los Angeles Times, the paper’s owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, brought forth his medical background in an eight-part video series called “The Science Behind the Coronavirus.”
According to a Times media contact, the series was produced as a special for “LA Times Today,” an hour-long program on Spectrum News 1, which aired on March 16. The content can be found on YouTube or the Times website.
During the series, Soon-Shiong answered a number of questions the public might have about the coronavirus. In addition, the series discussed what symptoms are associated with the infection, possible treatments and the science of soap.
Another publisher using video to get information about the coronavirus out to readers is the Guardian.
Their explainer videos can be found on YouTube and embedded in various articles related to the virus. The videos mainly feature health editor Sarah Boseley answering frequently asked questions from readers. The first video was released in January and received nearly 10 million views. It is the Guardian’s third best video to date.
As readers seek out trusted information about the coronavirus, the Guardian has seen a bump in traffic, financial contributions and digital subscriptions. Video has seen “a year-on-year rise of 74 percent for views across the Guardian’s YouTube channels (January to March 2019 verses January to March 2020),” Christian Bennett, global head of video and audio, shared.
When creating video content, Bennett said it’s important to remember that each publisher and content creator is different.
“I think the very first thing to ask yourself is: ‘Is it visual?’” he said. “Video can be expensive, time-consuming and hard to make, so a good starting point is only choosing the stories that can be enhanced by visuals. Secondly, how does the format serve the audience? I would advise only making videos if they genuinely feel like the best way to tell the story to your intended viewer.”
Translating Data into Journalism
In addition to the video series covering the coronavirus, the Los Angeles Times created a coronavirus tracker which collects “data from more than 60 public health department websites,” according to a Times article.
The tracker breaks down the number of cases and deaths in California by county. In addition, deaths are broken down by gender and age. The tracker also includes information on county closure and restrictions, how many tests have been run in the state and portrays how California compares to other states.
“Our tracker has been responding to what readers want to know,” Sean Greene, graphics and data journalist for the Times, said in the article. “We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback, and we try to add features and make this a page that responds to what people want to know. I like to think that we’re listening, and we want to hear what people have to say about it.”
In China, infographics also play a key role in relaying important coronavirus information to residents as seen in the visual pieces produced by the South China Morning Post.
Infographic designer Pablo Robles is the author behind one piece titled “Decoding COVID-19” that visually explains how viruses and vaccines work, how COVID-19 spreads and how it compares to other viruses. The piece received 200,000 views in 21 days and the bounce rate is below 20 percent, Robles said.
“For readers, visual elements are always easier to understand than some paragraphs,” he said when asked what infographics bring to the coronavirus story. “Visuals are easy and fast to understand (and) digest especially when we’re talking about a complex topic that includes a lot of technical and scientific words.”
At the New York Times, every year the publication releases a list of the most read stories, and visual stories are sure to make the list each time. For 2019, nearly every story in the top 10 had some form of visual journalism attached to it, whether it was photography, video or infographics.
“There are times when the visual stories that graphics people make throughout the industry really resonate with readers,” said Archie Tse, Times graphics director. “Those moments are a great illustration of how readers today are connecting with stories in more ways than just reading words on pages. It might be something that they’re interacting with or something that is moving on their screen that is conveying something about the news that they haven’t understood before.”
For Your Ears Only
In January, the Economist’s first podcast dedicated to the U.S presidential election, “Checks and Balance,” made its debut.
According to an Economist article, John Prideaux, the magazine’s U.S. editor, serves as the host. Each week, he speaks with Charlotte Howard, New York bureau chief and energy and commodities editor, and Jon Fasman, Washington correspondent, to deliver a “global view on democracy in America.”
Prideaux told MediaPost that the goal with the project is to “give (their) readers and listeners fair-minded analysis in what will be an emotionally charged media environment. Although the reporting from our U.S.-based correspondents will be local, the election coverage will put what is happening in an international context.”
According to the MediaPost article, the Economist depends on North America for 55 percent of its 1.6 million print and digital circulation. Also, the magazine saw a boost to its base from the 2016 election until the end of Trump’s first 100 days in office and reported a 19 percent increase in digital subscriptions across North America and globally. As the media outlet expands its coverage in new areas, the audience has followed.
Over at the new Gannett, Rob Connelly, director of digital audio, said not every podcast or audio project needs to be a big production. A podcast featuring two guys talking about the local high school softball semi-finals is equally as effective.
Before the GateHouse Media and Gannett merger, Connelly served as director of digital for GateHouse, where he said some of their top audio content came from their Division I sports vertical, such as the Gainesville Sun which is near the University of Florida. Because these reporters are trusted in the area, Connelly said that this has translated well into podcasts.
“Division I delivered well over 1.5 to 2 million downloads and audio streams in 2019 division one season, so that would be from August until December,” Connelly said.
He added, “Doing podcasts doesn’t mean you have to do ‘Dirty John’ (the popular Los Angeles Times true crime podcast). Just get your sports guys out there to do quick little Saturday show. If you embrace it, it will work.”
Bring the Readers to You
The first thing many people do now in the morning is check their email and newsletters.
“(Newsletters) are more important than ever,” Thomas Bassinger, newsletter editor at the Tampa Bay Times, told E&P. “For us, newsletters are one of the biggest drivers in converting readers into subscribers.”
The Times produces several newsletters, but their most popular one is “DayStarter,” which launched around 2015 but it recently went through a revamp. Up until last year, the newsletter was an automated email. Now “DayStarter” features three notable stories that are summarized for the reader and a handful of other significant stories and opinion pieces summarized and curated by a team of three, including Bassinger.
But when the coronavirus pandemic took over headlines, “DayStarter” began including a section dedicated to those stories and delivering headlines six days a week instead of its usual weekday schedule. And in response to the disheartening coronavirus news out there, the Times began to share a “daily dose of relief,” which could include a photograph of a cute animal.
Since changing the newsletter, the subscriber list has grown to 100,000 subscribers and Bassinger said the number continues to tick upward as people seek out reliable coronavirus information. Because of that, the Times has seen a 10 percent subscriber increase, a 30 percent open rate increase and a 60 percent click through rate increase.
“Under the old model, we expected people to come to us, to inherently understand the value of journalism,” Bassinger said. “Through newsletters it’s easier for us to become part of readers’ routines. They’re a sort of ambassador, a friend who says, ‘Hey, I know you’re busy. I’ll come to you.’”
In addition, Bassinger said they now have tools and analytics to help determine what content audiences are interested in. However, the most important thing to remember when creating a newsletter is to write it “with your audience in mind.”
CNN was also quick to launch their own daily coronavirus newsletter on March 3. Named “Coronavirus: Fact vs Fiction,” this project also has an accompanying podcast.
Amy Langfield, senior mobile editor, told E&P that the newsletter aims to “help readers get a quick overview of all the main elements globally every day—and emphasize what they can do personally to stay healthy.”
She said in a matter of weeks, several hundred thousand subscribers joined, and the number continues to rise. With this increase comes new audiences.
“We’ve been super surprised how ‘new’ this audience is for us,” Langfield said. “We have very little overlap even with our existing weekly health newsletter from Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s team, ‘The Results Are In’ (a newsletter that delivers reliable medical news).”
These readers are not only engaging with these stories, they are also heading over to other CNN products that are offered in the Fact vs Fiction newsletter. In addition, CNN is promoting their Coronavirus: Fact and Fears Global Town Halls in the newsletter and inviting subscribers to send in questions and stories.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is also working hard to bring consumers the latest coronavirus information on a nightly basis with their “Inquirer Coronavirus Daily” newsletter. This product features Inquirer headlines related to the coronavirus as well as other aggregated news.
Kim Fox, product director for editorial innovation, couldn’t share the subscriber base with E&P but she noted that when compared to other Inquirer newsletters, the product was growing at six times the rate.
According to Fox, 32 percent of the audience has never paid for an Inquirer subscription in either print or digital nor have they ever subscribed to another newsletter; 80 percent of the audience is new and has never subscribed to the Inquirer but has subscribed to one of their newsletters at one time.
In her experience, Fox has found that when creating newsletters, the publisher needs to know why they are doing it. There needs to be a dedicated focus to it, and it needs to be staffed properly, whether there’s one person on the team or more, at the end of the day, there needs to be at least one person with a mind for writing newsletters—someone that can create voice, tone and purpose.
“I think the power of newsletters is huge,” Fox said. “I’m even more interested in them than I am in the power of distribution through social platforms because we own the customer relationship.”