What we’ve learned from Oslo’s Newsroom Summit, 2018

When Gard Steiro kicked things off in Oslo’s Newsroom Summit this week, he did so by introducing the idea of the moon landing: a seemingly impossible aspiration, but one that ultimately becomes attainable through creative thinking and learning.

It was a theme quickly seized upon by other presenters and best extrapolated by Mark Little of Kinzen who noted that:

“We fixate on the rocket itself, but we think very little about the person we put at the top, the person we’re supposed to be aligned with.”

In that one quote Little articulates what we – and many other key players in the industry – have long known: the vehicle for change has the potential to be as much point of distraction as it does the heralded savior. What emerged as a key theme over the two days’ discussion was that success in newsrooms is very much linked to a fundamental understanding of users and user behavior. Data-informed operations are now absolutely key.

Write for your readers

“We need to listen to our users and invite them in” – Gard Steiro, Editor in Chief, VG

Steiro made a brave acknowledgment that “we have been writing for ourselves, not for our users” – something which is likely true in other newsrooms. It’s not just a problem of the continuance of a ‘broadcast mentality’ (I have the platform, come listen one and all) – in an age which demands we get down off the soapbox and listen, realizing that ‘readers’ is not a single demographic and that there are likely sub-divisions down generational lines, is vital. Speaking of the problem in engaging the ‘impossible generation’, Steiro pointed to the example of his own daughter, whose feedback on their generalized content was that “it’s like dropping me off at level 50 of a game I’ve never played”. Publishers need to look for more nuance.

When we spoke to Newsmavens‘ Lea Berriault on stage, she highlighted another point. LGBT+ issues were something which her editorial team were selecting for publication, but they weren’t performing adequately. Why was this the case? Well, the simple reason that these articles were being presented from a male perspective and, for a publication which has a core demographic of female readers, this obviously had failed to strike a chord. Through judicious use of content intelligence and editorial nouse, this was something they were able to rectify. It all starts with understanding why content might not be resonating, and that hinges on a sound understanding of who those readers are.

Over at BBC Worldwide Dmitry Shishkin noted that there needs to be a balance across the types of content being published “editorial teams are obsessed with ‘update me’ content, but there are five others” (update me, give me perspective, educate me, keep me on trend, amuse me and inspire me). 

The problem of routine

Mark Little highlighted the problem that routine poses to publishers in his talk. Younger users expect control in their daily lives: they want to watch on-demand, shop on-demand, and so it stands to reason that news consumption is something they’re likely to want to get on demand too. His comment, that news would be better thought of as “punctuation” is one that’s worth ruminating on.

Platforms may have disrupted this long-established routine – buy the morning paper, watch the 9 o’clock bulletin – from their readers but they didn’t completely remove it. Now, as we each punctuate our days with breaks we look for things to do to fill those periods of respite. “We run for the bus, sit down and check the news. We stop for lunch and check the news. Apps need to follow the routines of the day, which were demolished by these tech platforms”.

Active users are engaged readers

As subscriptions and membership become the focus on revenue in newsrooms, it seems self-evident that publishers are going to be paying more and more attention to engagement and loyalty analytics. Readers who spend longer on site, return more frequently, and engage with the content while they’re there are a more promising bet as a future subscriber than those whose interactions are fleeting at best.

Need further convincing? The Financial Times’ Deputy Head of Audience Engagement, Hannah Sarney shared some compelling figures about the importance of nurturing community:

Active comment writers and readers are not only 46 times more engaged, but active commenters who don’t write, but read are 11 times more engaged and – critically – the cancellation rate of those who comment on articles is 11 times lower than those who don’t.

Data is key

“Analytics are a steering instrument. You should be data-informed, not data-driven – you’re still a newsroom” – Naddal Salah-Eldin, WELT

During round-table discussions about the finer points of engagement and newsroom layout, one thing became abundantly clear: newsrooms struggling to find their way forward were often those who admitted they had found it difficult to incorporate data and analytics into their broader culture. Needless to say, the opposite rang true. At The FT, analytics are available to everyone, all day, every day.

At Sweden’s Espressen, the self-titled ‘most data-informed newsroom in the Nordics’,  data has been embedded into the company culture since its inception in 1944, when all staff received a daily sales figure. Now, in an environment with significantly more complex statistics at its fingertips, they have addressed the question of how to make the newsroom more data-friendly by physically re-organizing the space to ensure that analysts are situated close by other non-technical staff.

It’s a strategy employed at South Africa’s The Tiso Blackstar where Lisa MacLeod wryly notes that “the advantage [of this] is that everybody talks to each other. The disadvantage is that everybody talks to each other”.

The right tools

Sunnie Huang gave possibly our favorite analogy for the issues facing the industry – and the need to focus on the end result when she quipped that people rarely buy a quarter-inch drill because they want a quarter-inch drill bit, but usually because they want a quarter inch hole – and probably even more than that, the facility to hang a picture.

Moon landings or drill bits, it’s a good call to arms. If you want, as Ingeborg Volan does, for “the journalism to fund the journalism”, it all comes back to aligning your content with your readers. What this looks like will look different depending on whether you’re crafting a newsletter (as Huang does), operate internationally like the BBC, or a niche publication, like Newsmavens, and so there can be no single formula: what there is is an agreement of approach. If there’s data there to help you understand your demographic’s needs and usage patterns, use it. Why would you not?

Our thanks to WAN-IFRA for organizing this conference. 


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