Owning the local news franchise

This post originally appeared on the Community News Leadership 3.0 blog at Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg. It is the second in a series based on a report I wrote, “Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation” about work I have been doing with KDMC to speed the digital transformation of 13 Journal Media Group (formerly Scripps newspapers) newsrooms. 

The Four Platform NDigitalLeadsCoverewsroom initiative sought to keep journalism that served the local community at its center.

A persona exercise (see previous post) was part of that effort. In addition to learning more about how different groups of digital consumers found their news, journalists learned through persona interviews how and why certain local topics were particularly important to actual news consumers.

Knight Digital Media Center at USC/Annenberg introduced the concept of franchise topics to the newsrooms in 13 local markets over the course of 2013 as part of its work to help the news organizations (formerly Scripps, now Journal Media Group) speed their digital transformation.

A franchise encompasses a highly local topic in which potential local digital subscribers have a high interest and are not satisfied with news and information that is available on the topic. A franchise topic also is an area where the newsroom has or could develop significant expertise that would enable the newsroom to own the topic in its market.

Creating unique, local content that would drive readership and engagement was only part of the picture. A focus on selected topics would help newsroom teams drive digital production into the newsroom more effectively than attempting across-the-board newsroom adoption. That latter approach risked being shallow and short-lived beyond a few that had a natural affinity for digital work. Instead, developing significant pockets that would lead the way and model new practices for their colleagues offered a greater potential for lasting change.

“A critical part of the culture change effort was using the franchise topic concept to drive digital transformation,” Mizell Stewart III, managing director content at Journal Media Group, said. “The franchise concept enabled the effort to be grounded in improving the quality of journalism across platforms and the newsroom’s service to the community. This led to greater adoption than a pure focus on digital skills ever would.”

Also, by focusing first on highly resonant topics, teams were more likely to be able to experiment with engagement techniques and see a fast payoff in positive community response.

But the primary reason for franchise was to heighten the news organization’s brand in the community at a time when web users did not value the old brand of delivering a comprehensive news bundle to local doorsteps every morning.

Newsroom teams used consumer research and conducted their own interviews to shape their franchise topics and to determine what coverage and engagement made the most sense on each of the three digital platforms – web, mobile and tablet.

They quickly found their topics were resonating.

Treasure Coast Newspapers/tcpalm.com in Florida saw traffic peaks on franchise issues, visuals, and watchdog. “The digital subscriptions grew, in large part, because seasonal residents wanted to continue to read about this region on digital platforms when they moved back north for the summer,” editor Mark Tomasik said.

Treasure Coast also saw communities mobilizing to take action, including protests and town hall meetings, and legislation passed based on issues the Our Indian River Lagoon franchise team reported on, Tomasik said.

Treasure Coast sought to engage directly with residents and connect them with legislators. The news organization hosted four forums for subscribers about Our Indian River Lagoon in 2013 and 2014. At the 2013 forums, which were standing room only, opinion journalists interviewed state legislators and subscribers could ask questions either live or via Twitter.

“It generated news. The legislators made promises that we then could track throughout the year. We videotaped it and made it available to subscribers. The legislators and the subscribers saw us as the leaders and facilitators and watchdogs on this issue. Subscribers thanked us repeatedly and profusely,” Tomasik said.

The Wichita Falls Times Record News and TimesRecordNews.com developed a franchise topic called “Lifeline,” as the northern Texas town faced a water crisis.

Coverage scrutinized water consumption by large entities – including the local Air Force base’s practice of using city drinking water to fill recreational pools and the police department’s washing of patrol cars in violation of city restrictions. An editorial criticizing the city for exempting car washes from restrictions prompted carwash operators to pull advertising.

At the same time, the news organization published daily tips on how to save water.

The effort brought significant results, including substantial reductions in local water consumption.

“Prior to the drought crisis, water consumption from Wichita Falls reservoirs reached 35 million gallons per day. By the end of 2014, consumption averaged 10-12 million gallons per day,’’ Deanna Watson, the editor, said.  “City leaders have credited the newspaper’s Lifeline project with that considerable reduction.”

The Redding (CA) Record Searchlight launched its solutions-oriented “Shaping Our Future” franchise exploring how the community is changing and how residents could help make it better last spring.  Public engagement was immediate.

“When we launched the initiative we immediately started hearing that this is what many in the community had been waiting for,” said editor Silas Lyons. “Everywhere I go in the community, people are talking about this and there’s a sense that our leadership is helping to organize and energize the community’s conversation. It’s exciting stuff.”

Lyons said social media participation on the topic was strong.  “It represents a complete culture change for us, and it has already begun to change the relationship with our audience.”

Redding’s “Shaping Our Future” franchise was recognized in by Editor & Publisher as one of its “10 Newspapers That Do It Right” for 2015.

The Kitsap (WA) Sun also paid close attention to social media on its “Kitsap Outdoors” franchise because it was targeting a younger audience. “We really watched the social media numbers. We saw the initial growth was really rapid. Outdoors ran past prep sports in terms of audience in three months. That was the crowd we were targeting. We knew they were on social. We saw it worked,” editor David Nelson said.

Newsrooms also reported evidence that franchise coverage was driving subscriptions. For example, John Moore at the Ventura County (CA) Star said each of the three franchise pages – School Watch, Price of Paradise and Outdoors – last year ranked in the top 10 pages that people looked at and then clicked over to buy a subscription.

“That tells us that we have been able to convert casual readers of franchise content to subscribers, which validates these topics. We also have strong time on site numbers for School Watch and Price of Paradise in particular,” Moore said.

This post is adapted from “Digital Leads: 10 keys to transforming print newsrooms into digital news providers,’’ which I also wrote.

Personas connect journalists with digital news consumers

This post originally appeared on the Community News Leadership 3.0 blog at Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg. It is the second in a series based on a report I wrote, “Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation” about work I have been doing with KDMC to speed the digital transformation of 13 Journal Media Group (formerly Scripps newspapers) newsrooms. 

A major goal of an initiative to drive digital transformation in newsrooms was to help journalists understand and engage with digital news consumers.

The newsrooms had deep knowledge of their local communities. But with their intense newspaper focus, they had not developed strong awareness of digital news consumption.

To change that, we taught staff teams in each newsroom how to conduct, analyze and act on consumer research, including creating personas that reflected target audiences for journalism on digital platforms.

Working with news organizations in 13 markets (previously part of E.W. Scripps, now part of the Journal Media Group), Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg developed a process designed to facilitate newsroom transformation.

The process is described in a new report “Digital leads: 10 keys to transforming print newsrooms into digital news providers.”

The persona exercise sometimes engendered skepticism at the beginning. But it turned out to be one of the most impactful parts of the process.

“The persona exercise had the most long term impact,” John Moore, editor at the Ventura County (CA) Star, said. “We, like others, had presented readership data before. But now staff members had to gather the data themselves, had to interpret the data themselves and – most importantly – had to attach that data to real people. It was that step of attaching the data to real people that helped them connect with the readers for their franchise.

The company provided the staff teams with local consumer research that illuminated how different demographic groups – primarily defined by age, gender, income, family status and education – used different platforms to find their news.

It underscored for the print-focused journalists that many potential readers under 55 were highly unlikely to seek news in print but were eager to find news about certain local topics on digital platforms. The research also confirmed that more and more people were accessing news on smart phones and tablets.

It highlighted two key questions about topics: What topics were most people in specific demographic groups highly interested in? What was their satisfaction level with the information currently available?

The answers enabled newsrooms to identify local news topics that fell in the sweet spot: High interest and low satisfaction.

From there they defined demographic groups with high interest in the topic to learn:

For example, the staff committee in Treasure Coast Newspapers and tcpalm.com in Florida targeted a female aged 35-54, with an interest in local politics, business and the outdoors. The second target was a man, age 55+ with an interest in the outdoors and who had adapted to digital devices.

The committee at the Redding Record Searchlight and Redding.com in northern California targeted a man and a woman each aged 34-54 who were interested in local government and the economy.

“Things to do,” either in the form of entertainment or outdoor recreation, was a topic of high interest in nearly every market. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times/Caller.com in Texas, targeted a woman 35-54 with children and a a man, aged 18-34, who were active on social media.

The journalists then indentified and interviewed at least several dozen people who fit each profile to learn:

  • How they framed the topic and why it was important to them.
  • When they looked for news and information and what platforms or devices they used to access it.

The interview material was used to create composites, or personas. While personas are fictional, they serve to make real the information needs and news consumption habits of potential users or subscribers. Though the concept was difficult for some newsroom leaders and staff members to grasp at first, it underscored the value of bringing consumer-first thinking to each newsroom team. Once they had created their personas, the teams designed coverage plans to meet the news needs of the personas.

Mizell Stewart, the company executive who leads the Four Platform initiative said the persona process won over many skeptics. It “convinced a significant proportion of our journalists that they needed to go in that direction,” Stewart said.

This post is adapted from “Digital Leads: 10 keys to transforming print newsrooms into digital news providers,’’ which I also wrote.

Leadership and culture are linchpins of digital transformation in the newsroom

This post originally appeared on the Community News Leadership 3.0 blog at Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg. It is the first in a series based on a report I wrote, “Digital Leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation” about work I have been doing with KDMC to speed the digital transformation of 13 Journal Media Group (formerly Scripps newspapers) newsrooms. 

DigitalLeadsCoverLittle has proven more challenging for newspaper newsrooms than their transformation to digital news and information providers. It takes much more than learning new skills, although those are important.

It’s a matter of re-engineering journalists’ attitudes and their relationships with news consumers, as well changing newsroom workflows and priorities.  It takes significant culture change; both leaders and staff must shift how they approach their roles.

In our work at KDMC helping newsrooms transform, we have learned the importance of a variety of factors, including a having and articulating clear strategy, an understanding of audience news consumption, training, and adoption of simple tools. These factors are detailed in a new report “Digital leads: 10 keys to newsroom transformation.”

All 10 factors are important. But ultimately, leadership that creates an open, adaptive culture and fosters staff buy-in of change is the linchpin of transformation.

Working with news organizations in 13 markets (previously part of E.W. Scripps, now part of the Journal Media Group), Knight Digital Media Center at USC Annenberg developed a process designed to facilitate newsroom transformation.

The effort was designed to support implementation of the company’s Four Platform Newsroom strategy, which was led by Mizell Stewart III, an experienced news executive with corporate roles at both Scripps and now Journal Media Group. The multiyear effort, which began in 2012, has achieved results. The newsrooms have either achieved or are close to achieving a “digital leads” footing in which they focus on journalism for phones, web and tablets and then produce a print newspaper at the end of the cycle.

The transformation is not finished. However, as the title of the report indicates, we consistently saw 10 elements present in newsrooms that were quick to embrace the initiative and produce results.

Here are the 10 elements from the report:

  1. Strategy:The initiative was grounded in an overarching corporate strategy for multiplatform journalism that set a high standard but was flexible enough to evolve and to be adapted by each newsroom.
  2. Research:The company provided local consumer research to help newsrooms identify potential topics of high interest to target groups who wanted their news and information on digital platforms.
  3. Staff ownership: To foster staff ownership of changes, newsroom leaders appointed staff committees to determine key coverage priorities based on the research.
  4. Process and planning: Creating a consumer-focused newsroom culture was critical, so the KDMC process was designed to connect journalists with digital news consumers.
  5. Leadership and culture: Corporate and newsroom leaders kept up a steady flow of clear, consistent communication about the initiative, and facilitated staff ownership.
  6. Organization-wide buy-in:Newsroom leaders and committees made sure key people on the business side understood and supported changes in coverage.
  7. Training and tools:The initiative included KDMC and company training in digital strategy and literacy as well as skills training, relying heavily on free or low-cost training as well as peer learning.
  8. Organizational change:  As newsrooms began to implement their digital initiatives, they altered their organizational structures, workflows, job roles and other internal practices to meet the new priorities.
  9. Priorities:Editors relentlessly looked for ways to cut traditional coverage to free resources for more compelling digital work.
  10. Feedback loops: Through web and social metrics or by re-connecting with key audiences, newsroom teams assessed what was working and what was not.

The role that top newsroom editors played in the success of the initiative cannot be overstated. Without their willingness to step back and facilitate rather than acting as decision-makers, critical staff learning and buy-in would not have occurred.

Stewart acknowledged the challenge he was placing in front of his top editors by asking them to facilitate rather than direct. “It’s an unnatural role for an editor, there is no question. But I think it was critical in getting buy in of the organization.”

The more successful editors “made it very clear they were supportive of the process but had enough trust in their people to allow them to drive it. They were also savvy enough to choose the right people,“ he said.

KDMC guided the committees through a process designed to help them better understand digital audiences and connect with their news needs.

Stewart said the committees proved to be a key to getting the staff to embrace new ideas and practices. “The sense of ownership at the front lines really came from that,” he said.

That did not mean top editors were divorced from the effort. Far from it.

Guidance from the top editor contributed significantly to success of the committees. The more effective editors were active partners to the committees – communicating the strategy across the newsroom, providing support, time and other resources for the committees to do their work, and planning other changes as the initiative progressed.

Leadership communication also played a significant role. Relentless repetition of goals and direction and a willingness to drop print activities signaled the importance of the digital initiative.

In a handful of newsrooms, however, the process uncovered cultures of control and mistrust that had to be rebuilt under new leadership before significant work could go forward.

In these newsrooms, I observed two characteristics at work:

  • The top editor or leadership circle tightly controlled activities and information. As a result, the staff members were afraid they might cross an invisible line or they did not know where they stood in terms of performance. This translated into a change-averse newsroom; change was just too risky for most of the staff.
  • The top editor actively blamed someone else (often “corporate”) for the inability of the newsroom to move forward. This undermined the confidence of the staff that any changes or new efforts they proposed would be allowed to go forward.

Happily, nearly all of the top editors in the Four Platform effort embraced the process and their committees produced effective coverage plans.

“In newsrooms with a healthy culture, the process unleashed leadership at multiple levels,” Stewart said. However, “this process did not work in a broken newsroom culture. It revealed newsrooms that didn’t have a healthy culture. That was one of the most valuable parts of the process.”


Next: Connecting with digital news consumers

Digital Training Comes of Age

I helped write a new report on professional development for journalists for the Knight Foundation. “Digital Training Comes of Age” was released Aug. 9.

Key findings:

  • Professional development has impact. It helped journalists learn the multimedia skills needed to create new, engaging story forms. It provided the entrepreneurial skills needed to start new local news ventures. It taught university professors the digital fluency needed to teach the latest best practices. Training helped journalists investigate wrongdoing and prompt policy change.
  • A growing demand for training as journalists adapt to the 21st century’s evolving media ecosystems. Journalists want more training in digital tools such as multimedia, data analysis and technology. Most give their news organizations low marks for providing training opportunities.
  • Digital classes are gaining popularity as a cost-effective way to reach more trainees. A third of U.S. journalists and eight in 10 international journalists say the online classes they took were as good as, or better than, conventional training in the classroom.
  • Training organizations are adapting to the digital age. They are providing more training online and rethinking how their programs can foster the transformation of journalism.

The report also notes that the news industry can use training to propel change and innovation, but few traditional news organizations are doing that. Knight Foundation, meanwhile, has invested heavily in journalism education – $150 million in the past 10 years.

It is the fourth Knight report on journalism training in the past decade, including “News, Improved,” which I co-authored in 2007.

Update: Here’s  a post about the report on The Hub, a site for nonprofit news organizations.