Better Digital: Embracing data-based content and distribution strategies

Unless a newspaper’s goal is to fade into oblivion, reducing print must be accompanied by investment in better digital experiences for readers. Just cutting print publishing days alone is not movement toward the future. Newspapers must embrace using data to understand their audiences and the effectiveness of their own workflows. And to survive and thrive, newspapers must meet audiences where they are. That place is on digital platforms, especially smartphones.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for digital success and every market finds its own approach, the foundation is built on a better understanding of the audience and a deeper use of analytics.

At the Greeley Tribune, where the mantra is “digital first, print better,” staff members embraced data, Publisher Bryce Jacobson said.

“We analyze more. We look at data more. I don’t want to remove the gut, but I want to minimize the gut in our content creation strategies,” he said.

Jacobson said the paper’s reorganization included building a content creation department and a separate group focused on engagement.

The approach “gives the old editor title — the director of content — time to focus on creating content,” he said. “The director of engagement is focused on what to do with the stuff that they created — whether the reporter should put it up right away on this (platform), which audience segment is it going towards, and how are we measuring whether or not that works.”

The tactics are revisited every couple of days so we can be “learning from every single thing that we do,” he said.

[pulldata context=”Unless a newspaper’s goal is to fade into oblivion, reducing print must be accompanied by investment in better digital experiences for readers.”]

Some tactics after a publishing reduction help newspapers move away from old print cycles and schedules that are less relevant to modern readers.

Even before The State Journal in Kentucky cut its Monday print edition, the team there worked to transition print subscribers to digital. After the reduction, the focus on web and email has grown.

“We stepped up productivity requirements of our journalists over the weekend because we wanted to offer a really robust digital offering during that print dark period,” Stewart said. For Mondays, the newsroom delivers email newsletters and electronic versions of the puzzles, comics and entertainment pages.

“Assuming you’re willing to consume certain content digitally,” he said, “you didn’t miss anything.”

While the overall focus on digital is important, that doesn’t mean just desktop, said Ken Doctor, the news industry analyst.

“You have got to have a state-of-the-art, compelling, attractive mobile news product, and I believe it needs to be an app and not just a mobile browser,” he said. “It’s got to have enough of a newsroom behind it that there’s a reason for people to use it.”

The critical focus on mobile is simply a matter of numbers, Doctor said.

“If 65 percent of the audience is on mobile phones,” he said, “you don’t concentrate your business on the 10 percent that refuse to use mobile phones.”

Better Digital: Opportunities to create new products while cutting print

As much as reducing print publishing days is about losing something, it is also an opportunity to build, to embrace new products and technologies. As publishers pursue cutting days, they will find gaps and disruptions in the ways they traditionally interact with audiences and advertisers. It is at these junctures where innovative thinking is needed.

At The Daily Sentinel in Colorado, cutting days created a challenge with the print classified ads people would buy for a full week, Publisher Jay Seaton said. This quandary offered an opportunity to make something new: e-edition classified ads.

“We can offer them at a lower cost. We can offer a full page ad. We can offer ads that would otherwise appear as pre-prints but they appear on the e-edition as individual pages between sections,” he said. “We’re selling that almost like a different product.”

The ads, which run between pages of the e-edition, caused an initial bump in sales that then waned, likely because of issues with sales management, Seaton said. He said he hopes to pump those sales back up.

Across Colorado at the Greeley Tribune, the team turned to email newsletters to address another area disrupted by cutting print days: obituaries.

“We have very loyal obit readers and we knew that it would be a big complaint that they don’t get obits on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday,” said Shana Fisher, the marketing director.

The new daily obit newsletter has more than 1,000 subscribers with a 50 percent open rate, the highest at the paper, Fisher said.

Better Digital: The debate over e-editions and digital replicas

E-editions or digital replicas of print newspapers are a common tool used by publishers to fill the gap left by reduced print days. Some papers direct readers to e-editions when home delivery or print publishing stops. And some publishers find e-editions enormously popular with vocal minorities of current readers.

“It helps to preserve an older revenue stream,” said news industry analyst Ken Doctor. “E-editions clearly work for a relatively small but significant part of an older population that wants the print format and may want it for another 10 years.”

However, there is debate about whether e-editions and digital replicas are always a good fit to replace cut print days. While the newspaper-like experience of e-editions is a draw for some readers, the newsroom resources needed to create an e-edition are identical to those needed for producing the print paper. Those resources could instead be invested in better news coverage and digital products.

In the end, the e-edition is often viewed as a transitional product. It’s up to each publisher to decide whether it is worth the effort.

The team at the Salisbury Post in North Carolina discussed putting out an e-edition on the printless days of Monday and Saturday, but decided against it.

“We really needed to take the time that we save and put it towards local content instead of building a newspaper that we’re not going to print,” said Publisher Greg Anderson.

The Greeley Tribune in Colorado has an e-edition, but it also does not produce it when there is no print newspaper. On the printless days of Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, the e-edition is just the comics page.

In addition to saving the time and effort of producing and laying out a paper with no print edition, foregoing an e-edition on non-print days helps support the experience of print news readers during the rest of the week, Publisher Bryce Jacobson said. He said an e-edition would exhaust content intended for print later.

“We really needed to take the time that we save and put it towards local content instead of building a newspaper that we’re not going to print.”

“All of that news that was created and disseminated on Monday and Tuesday is in the Wednesday paper,” he said.

Allan Block of Block Communications spoke strongly against most e-editions. He believes the industry as a whole is handling them wrong.

“The software that’s been used by the industry is such a bad experience that it might as well not exist at all,” he said.

But not everyone is against e-editions.

The Daily Sentinel in Colorado produced e-editions on its days without print and made its e-edition free for nearly two months after it cut print frequency.

“We wanted to get people comfortable accessing it and realizing it’s a pretty good product and a good way to consume your daily newspaper,” Seaton said.

Since then, a few hundred subscribers have stopped print subscriptions in favor of an “e-only version,” he said.

“Many who told us expressly they would never read the newspaper on a device now no longer want the print product,” Seaton said. “We’re hoping to turn that into thousands of subscribers.”

Seaton noted that Daily Sentinel readers skew older and the e-edition helps connect with an audience uncomfortable with other technologies.

Around the time of the print reduction, “almost 100 percent of our calls were from people over the age of 70,” he said.

Seaton said these callers would say: “The world has passed me by. I can’t buy a plane ticket anymore. I have to go online so I have to have my kids do it. I can’t get information that other people get on the internet. I don’t do email. I don’t have a computer. I don’t want a computer. And the newspaper was one of the things that was still catering to me, something that I could access and be part of and you’re taking that away from me now, too.”

Seaton said he bought a couple of Kindle Fire tablets and showed a handful of readers — two of whom had never used a computer — how to access the e-edition.

E-editions clearly work for a relatively small but significant part of an older population that wants the print format and may want it for another 10 years.

“It can be a positive, life-changing experience,” he said, “but it’s also crushing for so many people.”

One newspaper betting in a big way on digital replicas is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which has distributed more than 10,000 iPads to subscribers in a move to convert print subscribers to digital, the paper reported. Publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. has sent teams across the state to teach subscribers how to read the newspaper on a tablet.

The goal is to cease print publication except for Sundays by the end of the year, Hussman told the Democrat-Gazette. The paper needs to convert 70 percent of subscribers from print to digital to make the plan profitable, Hussman said.

“It may not work,” Hussman told his paper. “It’s a risk, but it’s a risk we’re willing to take. We want to remain a viable journalistic enterprise in Arkansas and we don’t see any other way to do it.”

Analyst Ken Doctor said he was skeptical of efforts to deploy tablets as a newspaper replacement. He said getting a tablet into readers’ hands is not a “gating issue.”

“It is a good reading format, but it’s not a kind of panacea,” Doctor said, adding that the focus should be on the smaller mobile screens that attract the biggest audience. “You have got to create a compelling smartphone experience that gets people what they want.”

Better Digital: Sustaining the commitment to local coverage

Many of the newspaper leaders interviewed echoed Ken Herts in saying that the ultimate goal of cutting print is sustaining a news operation in a digital future. For them, reducing print publishing frees up both money and time that allows for better journalism and a greater focus on local coverage.

“Our enterprise reporting has gotten a little better with one less day to feed the beast that is a print edition,” said Steve Stewart, publisher of The State Journal in Kentucky.

Stewart said that by freeing up time from putting together just one day’s paper “we can direct that mental energy into our digital future — figuring out what kind of content is going to drive up a value proposition for a prospective digital subscriber.”

Our enterprise reporting has gotten a little better with one less day to feed the beast that is a print edition.

Answering those kinds of questions and finding ways to reach digital audiences with the right content is critical to a newspaper’s future, analyst Ken Doctor said.

“How are we engaging the great audiences that are out there? Do we have sufficient unique content to offer them? And are we delivering it in a way that makes sense to that audience largely through the mobile phone?” he said. “Unless you can answer that question your movement to cut days of the week is not going to be successful.”

While newspapers reducing publishing days should bolster digital content operations, they must also be wary of cutting away at their own competencies and core mission.

“The goal should be to preserve local journalism, not to protect print frequency,” said Mark Lorando, the former editor of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

Publishers should not be afraid to start reducing frequency “before reducing the number of journalists covering the community,” Lorando said. “Newspapers should be part of an overall multi-platform business strategy, not a sacred cow.”

As the Ionia Sentinel-Standard cut days, the newspaper “made a commitment to add more local content and so the paper is actually more robust with local content even though the frequency is less,” said Orestes Baez, Michigan group publisher for GateHouse.

[pulldata context=”The goal should be to preserve local journalism, not to protect print frequency.”]

For newspapers that have gone through a publishing reduction and fundamental restructuring to content operations, there is a common truth: Transformation is hard — very hard.

At the Sierra Nevada Media Group, the move to eliminate print days and overhaul the organization caused shock in its newsrooms even with plenty of transparency and warning about the change, said Adam Trumble, editor of the Nevada Appeal. While the transition was difficult, Trumble said, it was important to look forward.

“We took the approach of ‘Let’s build something healthy and sustainable for 10 or 15 years. Not something that gets us through to the end of the year and we have to re-evaluate,’” Trumble said. “Hard as it was, the decision put us where we are now. We can move on and focus on becoming better and work on the content.”

Bryce Jacobson of the Greeley Tribune in Colorado said that even amidst difficult change and transformation, the “mission of our company is to connect communities.”

“We completely changed the way we create content, the way we disseminate content,” Jacobson said. “We’re getting there.”

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