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..