Up to the Task

The challenges and adversity newspapers have faced in recent years are real and imposing. News is not a business for the timid. It’s a business with a history of pavement-pounding and cage-rattling, of strength, courage, and intellect. And it’s taken a lot of that ingenuity, tenacity, and creativity this year to navigate publishing.

To get a sense of how newspapers across the spectrum of markets and audiences are facing their greatest challenges and rising above them, E&P asked publishing leaders to identify their biggest struggle and what strategies they have in place to overcome it.

Rick Thames

Editor and vice president, news

The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer

How can we engage readers in more meaningful ways?

In his position, Rick Thames has thought a lot about what compels readers to read. Like other McClatchy newspapers, Thames’ newsroom is trying a new approach to reporting—the deep dive.

“Our readers are very interested in true enterprise reporting,” he said. The newsroom made this discovery by paying careful attention to reading behaviors—when they’re reading and in what medium—as well as what readers had to say.

“It is longer-form journalism. That’s how I explain it to readers,” Thames said. “I say, ‘You rely on us to tell you what happened, but you can get that from a lot of places. Honestly, breaking news is becoming more of a commodity. But what you can’t get from anyone else is the how and the why of the story.’ So we’re spending a lot more time ‘going there’ with our stories, and it really has changed the feel of our reporting, both online and in print.

“So far, what we’re hearing is that readers appreciate it. They’re certainly spending more time with the printed newspaper, and we believe they’re spending more time online. We’ll see. It’s still very early into this (initiative), but the early evidence indicates that we’re getting more engagement in both places.”

But the deep-dive pieces aren’t the only thing that’s different about The Charlotte Observer’s newsroom. Beat reporters are now blogging, and that’s been a mutually beneficial endeavor for both reader and journalist, according to Thames.

“The blog posts can be reversed into printed form as columns,” he said. “What we’re discovering is that in many cases, the blog has freed our reporters to explore ideas and topics outside of the framework of traditional stories. They’re covering topics within their beats that people find useful.

“For example,” Thames continued, “we have a reporter who covers transportation, and this reporter now covers traffic in the blog…It’s very popular, because it tackles everyday commuter headaches and mysteries. Like, is it ever okay to turn left on red? Or, can you turn right on red if there’s a red arrow? This has been a lot of fun for reporters because they go into topics that they couldn’t otherwise explore, and we cover these beats because we do believe that they affect people’s lives.”

Nicki Purcell

Chief digital officer and senior vice president, consumer sales

The Dallas Morning News

Engagement is not always a good indicator of customer satisfaction. How can we build and measure brand loyalty, and sell our advertisers on it?

Recently, Nicki Purcell blogged at INMA.org about the challenges publishers have in measuring engagement, and how engagement doesn’t always equal customer satisfaction.

“With frequency of visit, a low measurement may have more to do with the person’s lifestyle and personal rhythm for seeking news and information than how much they like what we provide,” she wrote.

In a follow-up conversation with E&P, Purcell spoke about a glut of data.

“I do believe that some of these measurements of engagement don’t necessarily equate to customer satisfaction. In a sea of imprecise measurements, one of the things that we can do as an organization is identify what’s important to us, and what’s important to our readers,” she said. “Those become the limited qualifiers by which we measure ourselves. Because we can measure everything, if we really wanted to. When we think strategically about what the customer expects and wants from us, and we hone and deliver that, we’ll be much more successful.”

Trying to make sense of engagement data requires removing some of the variables. That’s precisely what The Dallas Morning News has done by implementing PICA, which stands for “Perspective, Insight, Context, and Analysis.”

“Given the sheer volume of content and choices that people have out there, we desperately don’t want to become a commodity,” Purcell said. “We want to give people a reason, when they can look at our content, juxtaposed against other sources of content, to come back to The Dallas Morning News. And we feel PICA does that for us. We take the time to think, how does this uniquely affect the audience we reach? Or, what additional insight can I provide because I’ve studied the topic for so long? Or, what additional context can we offer the reader? It’s a differentiator for us.”

That’s one of the strategies they’re implementing to momentarily engage readers and to keep them satisfied in the long term. Finding out how to match that audience with advertisers is also a challenge.

“I think, oftentimes, advertising can get a bad rap for being something that disrupts the consumer experience, or that it interrupts reading and their enjoyment,” Purcell said. “The reality is, when a reader comes to our site, and spends an extraordinary amount of time on a fitness blog, for example, it’s the perfect opportunity to serve up advertising about products or services that may interest them, too, and impact their everyday life.”

Edward Roussel

Chief innovation officer for Dow Jones

Wall Street Journal

How can news publications ride the mobile wave and optimize content for it?

This spring, The Wall Street Journal unveiled its newly designed WSJ.com, which promised a fast-loading digital experience, no matter the reading device.

“Our readers are migrating in large numbers toward mobile,” Edward Roussel said. “It doesn’t mean that they’re not looking at the Journal on their desktop anymore. We expect that to continue because unlike a lot of other publications, many people access it while at work.”

The mobile space is particularly dynamic, in Roussel’s estimation. While the Web—now more than two decades old—developed at a comparative snail’s pace, the appetite for mobile has been voracious.

“A year ago, when I’d take the subway in New York, I’d see people with iPads. Now, there are few people reading on their iPads. They’re all staring into the screens of their smartphones,” he said. “So when we think of mobile, rather than take a website that was designed for desktop and adapt it for mobile…we now have a piece of engineering that works across the screen sizes.

“In structural terms, we chose to have four different snap points. In other words, what that means is that the content adjusts itself for four different screen sizes, and in time, if we need to change that to six or five, we can do that.”

Roussel believed it was a mistaken path the publishing industry took when it treated platforms as islands of content, treating each device as a separate publishing venture. “So, you ended up with an iPad product, a smartphone product, your website. But the evidence has shown that it’s not what readers want. They want consistency.”

At the Journal, this re-engineering and cultural shift is something that publishers across the news spectrum are facing—some, more successfully than others.

“It’s amazing how even in 2015 the number of major companies—media and non-media companies—have websites that when you access them, you can’t read them. It’s a fundamental problem, and you could go as far as to say that it’s holding back economic growth,” Roussel said.

That wouldn’t be a stretch, particularly when one considers digital advertising.

“We think that it’s important that you see an ad. We take money from advertisers, and we want to make sure that the ad is well-displayed, that it’s in view, or we don’t get paid. The advertising industry is much more rigorous about ensuring that their ads are actually seen,” said Roussel, who also noted that the Journal has had a bit of a cultural shift in that vein too. “There are fewer, but better ads. We ripped out some of the ad formats that we felt were a bad experience…and we expect to make as much money or more by having fewer but better ads.”

Christian Lee

Vice president of audience

Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram

How can newspapers grow the entire audience ensuring that print, digital, and social media are all working toward that goal?

When asked about some of the greatest challenges in circulation and audience today, Christian Lee noted that the overarching cultural shift has presented some new dilemmas.

“We’re going from ‘newspaper companies’ to full-fledged media companies. How do we do that? By integrating all of our different touchpoints, whether it’s print, digital, e-editions, websites—all the different platforms—and together maximizing the audience,” he said.

Social media has proven to be a vital channel in bringing readers to the paper, but it needs to be nurtured.

“I get the impression that people are skimming more and more. Twitter and Facebook have become these huge venues for content, but do people think that just a few sentences is enough of the story? We want to give them just enough to know what’s going, but welcome them to dive deeper into the topic. I think that’s a very important relationship between our social media and digital editors—working together to figure out how to draw them in to our website, where they can read the full article. Those partnerships and that focus have worked because right now, our access numbers are up 40 percent over year. Our digital-only audience—the people who only subscribe digitally, and pay for it—is up by 42 percent.”

But it’s not enough to craft good ledes, in hopes that it’ll whet readers’ appetites for more in-depth coverage. Once readers get to the newspaper’s website, they need to be instantly engaged by the content.

“We have more online,” Lee said. “More video, more graphs, much more than what’s being printed in the paper. So they may read the paper in the morning, which is their habit, and then look online throughout the day for updates. We are presenting ourselves—and they are thinking of our news brand—as a continual media source to be accessed throughout the day. That’s been our goal, and I think the results are starting to show.”

Circulation’s and audience development’s role has to be just as creative as the editors and social media teams’ approaches.

“We’ve looked at places where we’re not getting subscribers, and we go after them with specific entry-price points and the right terms. We’re being smarter about how we approach non-subscribing households, and we’ve done very well at that. In fact, we’ve grown a big piece of the audience by finding that right niche, that perfect match, by using smart intelligence and then going after those prospects with just the right package.”

Joe Leong

Vice president/chief revenue officer

Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal

How can newspapers leverage technology and technical partners?

If you ask Joe Leong to narrow down the single most daunting challenge circulation/audience managers face today, he can’t. That is, he can’t name just one.

He acknowledged there are many, and the pace at which the job responsibilities and goals have changed means that it’s not always possible to hire and cover it all. Sometimes, the more cost effective approach is to complement a great team with technology partners that enable them to be even better at their jobs.

At the Albuquerque Journal, the leadership seeks out and retains smart people, but outsources technological expertise when necessary. Leong said that’s been instrumental in growing circulation and audience. They’ve partnered with Leap Media Company to automate retention and billing messaging. Another developer is helping the newspaper survey readers in order to better understand their level of satisfaction for the content and service.

Routesmart is mapping software they’ve leveraged to well-plan delivery routes, and another developer was hired to help build Android and Apple mobile apps for the paper’s wildly popular subscriber rewards program. Two years ago, that was just a spec of an idea. But it germinated, and after rolling out a tangible, card-based program, Leong said that they realized it wasn’t reaching its full potential. There was no way to gather any credible data about how the program was being used. Subscribers were taking their cards to merchant partners—more than 250 participants—and using them on deep discounts, but those partners weren’t able to deliver that data back to the paper. Digital solved this problem.

Though it was a “substantial” investment and more than a year working on developing the apps, according to Leong, it’s already seeing dividends. To date, there have been more than 3,500 opt-ins who’ve requested the physical card, and more than 6,300 subscribers who now participate via the mobile app. In the near future, the apps will be licensed to other publishers and publications.

It goes without saying that being bold, trying new things, and measuring the results is a mandate in the dynamic digital world. But Leong is encouraged that technology developers have really “stepped up” to help with circulation, data, and audience management.

“Our overall audience reach is at an all-time high,” he said. Revenue has risen by 4.2 percent since 2013, and expenses are down by seven percent. Some of that expense cutting is a result of doing away with single-copy rack sales this year. It represented a legacy distribution channel that was consistently lost money because of paper and coin pilferage, and it had to go. Out with the old; in with the new.

Greg Franczyk

Principal architect and director, software engineering

The Washington Post

How can publishers better manage the creation and distribution of content in a multimedia world?

Content management systems are not newly-developed tools. They’ve been available to publishers since the advent of digital media and the Internet. They’re big, “monolithic” software systems, though, said Greg Franczyk.

And they’re not nimble and agile enough to manage the rapidly changing demands of news media.

It was in 2013 when the philosophy about content management began to evolve at The Washington Post, Franczyk said. While the print newsroom and digital newsroom were literally separated by personnel, focus, and the Potomac River, the move to combine those editorial operations began. Then came the dilemma of how to create a singular system that would feature the very best form and function for creating content, presenting content, and preserving content.

“We realized something: It’s not about digital first; it’s about content first,” Franczyk said. “It’s not about having a great website; it’s about having content managed in a way that it’s pliable and easy to use when you’re pushing out to all of these channels.”

That philosophical shift inspired a completely organically grown content management solution called Arc. Franczyk led the team that designed it. The application programming interface will soon be available to other publishers; they’ll be able to build upon it the best custom experience for their own teams to create and publish.

Francyzk noted that they’re already in talks with some university presses that’ll be among the first adopters, and he hopes these relationships will offer some rich feedback that’ll help direct Arc’s future development.

In August, the Post re-launched its digital brands, including the website—promising readers “a cleaner, more dynamic reading experience, a bolder visual display, and improved performance.” It was the deployment of Arc, and its site layout engine, PageBuilder, that enabled the digital refocus.

“You either go with the monolithic CMS, or you create your own,” Franczyk said. “The industry is moving to a place where even the smaller organizations that only have a fraction of the dough that larger organizations have can focus their time on the actual user-facing tools and features instead of spending their time reinventing something that everyone has to have.”

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