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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How The Texas Tribune aligns product and editorial for audience retention

February 2, 2021 | By Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst – Mobile Groove @peggyanne

As McKinsey reminds us, great products result when companies build bridges between technology innovation and audience preference. It is critical to deliver a holistic experience across functions and every stage of the customer journey. In media, aligning teams to develop data-informed products that engage audiences is more than a pathway to excellence. It’s essential for survival. 

However, it can also be expensive to support. The record number of newsroom closures in 2020 offers unsettling proof that quality content cannot be the only draw. Organizations need to combine content and experience in new ways that decrease friction, increase satisfaction, and adapt to how consumers want to interact and where they are in the journey. 

Continuing with our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Millie Tran, chief product officer at The Texas Tribune. A local news success story, the Texas Tribune has built a sustainable business, employing more than 60 journalists through a range of revenue sources, including thousands of paying members. 

Drawing from her experience at the Tribune, as well as The New York Times and Buzzfeed, Tran shares how the Tribune aligns editorial with the back-end processes to adapt content and coverage to what most readers find most useful. She also reveals how her team harnesses audience data and innovative news modules and visualizations to drive a 2x increase in homepage views and keep readers coming back.

Watch the video or read the full transcript below.


Peggy Anne Salz: Product is the new marketing, but it’s not a new focus. It is gaining new significance as content companies’ perfect ways to draw from their data, to customize content and measure the results. But what are the business benefits? How can you individualize flagship products to drive views and longer sessions?  How should you focus efforts and investments? Tough questions, yes, but we get the inside track here today from The Texas Tribune on Digital Content Next.

I am your host, Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant and frequent contributor to Digital Content Next.  Of course, DCN is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally.

So my guest today is the chief product officer of The Texas Tribune. So it is a perfect match with our topic. That is where she leads audience, engineering, data, design, marketing, and communications and loyalty teams.  Before this, she was deputy off-platform editor at The New York Times and before that global growth editor.

I am so excited to have her here today to talk about how she creates a holistic and successful product. Millie Tran, welcome to Digital Content Next. Great to have you here.

Millie Tran: Thanks for having me Peggy. I am excited to talk.

Peggy: It is a great topic. Product is so important, and I would like to start by understanding the alignment between product and the newsroom.

So, just thinking about your day-to-day routines, strategically and in practice, what does that look like?

Tran: I love this question. You know product can feel really opaque.  I think traditionally we think of product as sitting in the center. But at a news organization, the news is the product.

So that alignment between product and the newsroom really manifests in the alignment with me and our editorial director Stacy-Marie Ishmael.  I would say we are constantly in communication. And one of our core functions in each of our roles is just making decisions, making a call under conditions of uncertainty, conflict, complexity and increasing and sometimes unknown interdependencies.

We make a decision over here it can affect two things over there. And we are in a process of constantly anticipating those downstream effects so we can make the smartest decision based on our strategy.  The balance between editorial decisions, product decisions and revenue decisions.

How I see my job.  I think it is a mix of people, process and product. And I think it has to be in that order. It has to be that you understand people, their roles, their jobs, their skills, to work together most efficiently and effectively to build that product.  

Salz: I love that because first of all you have people first, that resonates with me and you are thinking about not just the output, not just the articles, videos, podcasts, whatever it needs to be.  You are focused on an experience. What you yourself have called a more holistic product. I would like to understand what you mean by that. I think you have also tweeted about that as well.

Tran: Probably. Speaking of tweets, I was just reminded of this tweet that Margaret Sullivan shared the other day about how she is a big fan and supporter of local news.  But the websites are so horrendous, and I think that neatly ties up with what you are asking. Holistic to me means the whole experience.  All of those things you mentioned, those modules, articles, videos, podcasts. There are micro experiences to each of those things, but all of those add up to the overall user experience.

When I say holistic user experience, I also mean not just the engineering, not just the CMS, it is also the design.  It is also the way we write headlines, for example. So it is organizationally something we want to provide our users.  I know even the ads we consider putting on our website, are not random ads that are offensive and distracting to the journalism.  If you go to our website, you will see right now the ads are very relevant to someone interested in Texas, for example.

Salz: That is very important because relevancy, as you said, it is the entire experience, and it has to fit together. What are the systems I am even interacting with or working with in the first place? It goes far beyond CMS is what I’m hearing.

Tran: It is, and I would say we have a great tech setup here, our CMS is homemade, so that is our engineering team’s biggest product, and that powers our website.  We have our data visuals team who are doing one off projects that we can test and learn from.

So we have a way to experiment with new products and a nice process to build it into the broader systems to make it easier. It is this nice feedback loop of experimenting, learning, and then integrating it into how we just do our work.

So our journalists and editors can also make these things easily because that also informs the work product at the end.

Salz: I want to get back to the whole idea of delivering a product, a product is the new marketing. We said that at the top and it is a success when it either acquires audiences or deepens the connection with existing ones. What is it at The Texas Tribune? What is your audience approach? Is it acquisition or retention or maybe, something else?

Tran: That is a great question.  I think it has to be both acquisition and retention.

One of our big strategic priorities right now is double and diversify.  Doubling our audience and making our audience reflect Texas, be more representative of Texas.

I often think about our membership. We want to grow the number of people who are supporting us through small dollar donations. The way to increase the members is to either have more people come to your site and then you have this natural conversion flow.

A percentage of our total readers are members so there is this natural conversion flow already. So you get more members by increasing the number of people who come to you or you increase the effectiveness of converting them.  So at every point, do they come back, do they potentially sign up for a newsletter? We have seen that newsletters are our most effective channel in membership conversion. So: getting a reader to donate to us.  I think it is about putting both of those things into a framework that helps you understand the costs and benefits of each at every point.

So, I think it is about having all the data, putting it in a model and framework that helps you balance all of these things.  I don’t think you can just choose one or the other. Having that broad view will help you make better decisions.

I said that is a quantitative framework and to loop back to what you said about product is the new marketing. I think people subscribe to things. They support organizations, they support brands for reasons that we can’t always quantify.  It is really important also to understand the emotional connection that someone has to your product and your organization, your brand.

I think in addition to having that quantitative framework, you need a way to understand why people are supporting you.  I think that goes back to an organization’s mission and values.

Something that I am really proud that we do is have our journalism free to publish for kind of any news organization.

When you support us, you support Texas overall having a better news ecosystem.  I think people, that resonates with people. I think understanding that resonates with people is really important, even if you cannot quantify it in that model I just talked about. To your question it is balancing the acquisition and retention, but also balancing the measurables and immeasurables.

Salz: I like that because that is exactly it, it is very holistic. It is about looking at what you can measure, and we will talk about that in a moment.

There are events, there are metrics, there are things you want to optimize too, but you also want to optimize the experience. That is thinking about the people, the audience, what resonates with them, what did they appreciate?

Now I would love for you to unpack that. Maybe you can give an example, walk us through the homepage because that is where the conversions happen.  That is where the conversations happen.

Tran: Yes, so let me just pull up my homepage for you. This is The Texas Tribune homepage. There are two things on here already that I can talk through that we just launched within the past year during my time at the Tribune.

So this navbar is something we launched and what you’re seeing here, by the way, these little green numbers are live audience data. We use Parse.ly for this so we can see in the last 10 minutes or whatever time period, what people are clicking on. We can see what is of interest, what is resonating with people, that will inform, not necessarily decide, what we choose to feature.

Going back to what I was saying, about our two teams, the data visuals team, which is in the newsroom and then the engineering team.  This navbar was code that was in a previous, I think it was in an election page, a way for us to highlight different topics on that page. We ended up pulling that code and the engineering team made it a part of our core CMS.

So we took something that was a one-off, we learned about how people used it and then saw a need for it.  There are so many coronavirus stories that we did not know how to surface all the different lines and angles. We knew that we had the code. We took it and then the engineering team built that feature into our CMS. Now editors can just choose their own topics each day and highlight the most important.  I think that is a great example of the culture of experimentation, it is a culture of learning and iterating.

When the most people are on our homepage, we want to optimize for the most important things that they should see.

That was one quick way that we did that. Another way is this coronavirus in Texas model you will see here.

I think the beauty in all of this again, is the flexibility and adaptability. It’s actually not a coronavirus in Texas model.  It is a model to feature any kind of series that we choose.

You can imagine this not being here. If you are scrolling through, it would take so long to see all the relevant stories in one place. This in itself is such a great product because it does a lot of things. It gives you the latest coverage in a very skimmable way.  So you are not having to scroll so deep because most people don’t, and again, that is understanding the audience behavior and making it a better product, given that information.  We also have feature coverage, so it is not just chronological, it is our editorial priorities.

I talked about newsletter subscribers and having that module there is really important to us because if we can get people to subscribe to our newsletters, they can become part of our email universe and therefore eventually hopefully become a member.

Salz: Absolutely. You can re-engage with them and talking about engagement you have some other modules that you were showing me in prep that I was very interested in. How you turned a news story into a module. Can you walk me through that as well?

Tran: Yes, absolutely.  This is a story that we did, late last year about how Texas has made it easier and harder for people to vote in the pandemic.

You will see if you notice the order here.  This was not the original order and what we did was make sure that we were tracking what people were clicking on, so we can get a sense of what people needed to know most.  We ended up moving that question about when was the last day to register to vote first.  And again, I think that’s just being responsive to reader needs, working with our newsroom, working with our engineering team, working with our data visuals team to really have an integrated news driven, but reader informed product. And you’ll also see here there’s fiscal support, right?

So April Hinkle who’s our chief revenue officer was able to take it to market and get funding for it.  Again, this is just one way that we really tied in, the newsroom, product and revenue.

Salz: You more than doubled your views to the homepage in just one month.

So you went from 400,000 in February to more than a million in March, obviously breaking news, very important. We’re all talking about COVID, but that number is also consistent. So you keep them coming back.  We talked about how that works when there’s news, breaking news, but of course it’s not a static world out there.

So I’d like to understand how you adjust to make the changes in the editorial product accordingly to keep that number as high as it is.

Tran: We found that our readers who visit the homepage are just also more engaged with us, right? They’re more loyal. They visit an average of 2.3 pages versus 1.4 of all visitors on site. They stay on the site for longer to 2 minutes, 45 seconds compared to 1 minute and 10 seconds for all visitors.

So they are more engaged. They’re reading more, they’re staying longer. So I really want to retain this audience. If this goes down, that would be a huge red flag to me because there are people who have come to, I would say, depend on us.

So I think it’s one, meeting that editorial promise and mission.  And then two, it’s about making that experience better. And that’s all the things we talked through about making the homepage, you get more information in one glance, it’s fast. Speed matters in page loads.

And going back to your very first question about alignment between news and products, that’s one way to bring together that news promise and also making the best product experience for that person looking for information.

Salz: Of course, there’s another side to this. There are the challenges, you see it everywhere. Local newsrooms are crunched, even closing down. I’d like to have an understanding about the investment and staffing necessary to achieve what you’ve been able to do.

Tran: I’ll always say that it begins like starts and ends with the journalism, but I think just as important is having the kind of architecture and infrastructure to support that journalism.

So I think it’s really important to invest just as much in the scaffolding around the journalism to enable that journalism, with a continued focus on the reader and I think it’s important to say also the revenue.

And in terms of investment, we’re hiring two people right now for our marketing team because that marketing function actually serves several parts of the organization.

It serves our republishing strategy. It serves our event strategy, which has a direct line to revenue. And it serves our membership strategy, which has a line to revenue.  Thinking about all the things that make things you see at the back end possible is really important. So that’s where we’re focusing our investments for this year.

Salz: I’d like to just think about going forward in a different way. You talk about holistic product and I’m looking at this all the time, what is the next big thing? Although I have to say we have a lot of work to do on the existing products we have.

We haven’t really nailed it in apps, but we are talking about AR, we are talking about voice, both are poised for explosive growth.

So let’s talk about what other innovations you might be looking at or ways you want to make your product or plan to make your product more engaging, more accessible, and increase of course engagement retention in the process. What’s on the horizon?

Tran: You mentioned AR, that’s definitely not in my roadmap.  But voice on the other hand, that is more plausible.

With voice for example we have a pretty robust suite of audio products already. We just rebooted Point of Order which is our podcast with our CEO, Evan Smith ahead of The Texas Legislature being in session again. So I think it’s about aligning what we have currently to build off on and then really sizing the opportunity for us. Again, I’m really laser focused on understanding the ROI of every investment, predicting and modeling the outcomes of that. And I think in doing that you’re balancing high risk with high reward.  And I think not everything will fall into that. But you also don’t want to limit yourself in not taking those risks. So anyway, to your actual question… I’m thinking about all of it and hoping that we can make the smartest decisions that aligns with our strategy, with the information we have.

Salz: I think you will, because of course you have these very specific guidelines. You’re thinking about people, you’re thinking about process, and you’re aligning to create a holistic experience. Some of these will play a role. Some of them, of course, maybe not. But all of it will be very interesting to watch as it goes forward.

Thank you so much for sharing Millie, for speaking about what you’re doing at The Texas Tribune, showing it as well in your homepage and giving us a little peek into where your thinking is going into the future. Thanks again for being on.

Tran: Thank you so much Peggy. This was great.

Salz: Thank you. And of course, thank you for tuning in and taking the time today. In the meantime, of course, be sure to check out all the great content here on digitalcontentnext.org or join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg.

So until next time, I’m your host Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Digital Content Next.

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