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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Explore newsroom innovation with USA Today and Axios

July 7, 2022 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

DCN’s editorial director Michelle Manafy interviews Nicole Carroll, the Editor-in-chief of USA Today and Aja Whitaker-Moore the Executive Editor of Axios on Newsroom innovation: What’s the future of storytelling at the Collision conference, which was held in Toronto, Canada June 22-24, 2022.

[Full transcript below.]

WATCH/LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW

FULL TRANSCRIPT

Michelle Manafy

I’m back! But I’m in good company. I’ve got some terrific speakers here joining me to talk about newsroom innovation. If we could, I feel like the topic is just huge. If maybe you’d like to kick us off with what the heck does it even mean?

Nicole Carroll

You know, I think innovation now, in the olden days, it was always tech and what’s the next product? And what’s the next thing? And I think now honestly, it’s about engagement is like how do we truly authentically engage with our audiences. And that could be tech that could be in person storytelling, that could be, you know, lots of different ways. I also think innovation always is just about to keep moving forward, you know, every generation of journalists is going to do it a little bit differently. And I think we’ve got to find our way. So, I think about innovation, not just in a technology sense, but literally everything we do in hiring, and how do we fund our journalism? How do we connect with our audiences? We’ve got to keep moving forward.

Michelle Manafy

Aja, anything you want to add to that?

Aja Whitaker-Moore

No, I mean, I think you’ve covered a lot of it. And from the actors perspective, you know, we’re a startup. And so everything that we do is kind of innovative, in our opinion. And we were born of, you know, we thought a problem, which was, there’s too much information, and people don’t know how to keep up with it, they don’t know how to access it. And, you know, we think that our promise is innovative in the sense that we came up with a new format, came up with a new delivery mechanism, and are coming up with new ways to reach an audience on an everyday basis. So that’s our version of innovative, I think.

Michelle Manafy

So let’s go back to Axios then for a second. How do product and editorial work together in your organization, and how do you drive innovation in that relationship?

Aja Whitaker-Moore

Yeah, I mean, pretty closely, because, you know, like I said, you know, we are focused on smart brevity and packaging things in a way that people want to digest them. And that means that we’re mobile first. And that means that everything we do has to be looked at from a product perspective, how are we delivering lists in a mobile friendly format? How is our app working? How are we delivering products to people, you know, in the way that they want them. So we work really closely together with a product team that I think understands journalism and understands news in a way that is really important.

Michelle Manafy

I mean: easy for you to say, “built from the ground up.” But let’s talk about USA Today. Like, is there a tight integration of product and editorial, editorial, huge,

Nicole Carroll

we’re, you know, we’re one of the OG startups, but we were actually smart, brevity 40 years ago, and we’re pretty, you know, made fun of because of that. So I’m you know, I’m glad to see the world has, you know, come around to that you can get good information in smaller amounts of words or video. So I, I’m really proud of the work we’ve done. But yes, we are really tight with our product teams, the fact that we just want to call with them this morning. You know, we’re constantly looking at not here’s what we should do. But what is the outcome you’re looking for? And then working together? How do we get to that outcome? We try not to go into it with the solution you go into it with what’s the outcome you’re looking for, and what do we need to bring to that equation?

Michelle Manafy

So one of the things you touched on in like your “what is innovation” was: staffing, diversity, leadership, those those issues… Can you tell me a little bit — let’s start with USA Today — about how you’re approaching leadership and recruiting with an eye to fostering innovation to fueling it.

Nicole Carroll

It’s never been more important to recruiting and what we’re doing right now. And I don’t know if how many of you are in the industry. But there’s the great journalism shuffle going on right now. I mean, everybody is moving somewhere else. Right now, there’s a real fight for talent and leadership. And I think people want to be part of authentic companies, who are really trying to again, I always say our job is to spread truth, you know, to engage with our audiences. And so showing a path having mentorship programs showing an opportunity for leadership, showing industry leadership is really important to creating the culture that will keep people in our organization. We’ve made the pledge at Guenette, that we want our newsrooms to reflect our communities by 2025. And we measure ourselves every year against that benchmark around racial diversity. I measure it every quarter at USA Today and report that to the staff. I think it’s really important we hold a mirror up to ourselves and be really honest about how we’re doing.

Michelle Manafy

How about Axios? What what what is the approach? How are you thinking about like, what is this newsroom? What is the staffing what does the leadership mean, to our ability to be innovative?

Aja Whitaker-Moore

Yeah, I mean, I think we we agree at that at the start the diversity of our newsroom should reflect the diversity of our audience. And that will then you know, result in diversity of coverage and that’s really what we’re striving towards. You know, our founders are committed to that goal as well. You know, in the fall, we’re releasing a smart brevity book. And they dedicated the proceeds the advance from that book to fund a fellowship program that we’re really proud of where we’re focusing on hiring from diverse communities in underrepresented backgrounds, to mentor them into Axios. And focusing on developing a beat developing the next generation of leaders that we think is, you know, missing from journalism right now. And it’s something that is a part of, you know, our newsroom recruiting our newsroom leadership. Axios is led by two women of color. And myself, and our editor in chief, Sara Gu. And it’s something that we you know, walk, talk, live, breathe and think, is the future of innovation at our company and everywhere, so we’re really focused on it.

Michelle Manafy

Alright, so let’s shift gears a little bit. We there’s been a kerfluffle, of late around the social presence of journalists online, rather spectacular, blow up, in fact, quite visibly on social media. For for Axios, let’s start there. How are you balancing the desire for reporters to have a social presence to leverage that social presence? With your standards?

Aja Whitaker-Moore

Yeah, and when I think we’re, we’re not like, any, you know, we’re similar to every other media organization out there, that’s figuring out, you know, how to balance that, but we’ve been really proud of our track record so far, you know, in the past five years, you know, we we’ve really just said to our staff, we trust you. You arer adults. Represent yourselves represent Axios the way that you, you know, would expect to in public. And that’s actually what’s happened. So I think we are, you know, proud of how we’ve done it so far. And we’ll continue to act accordingly on social platforms, and still be able to share our journalism with the world engage with people in a responsible way. And I think we’re all doing that.

Nicole Carroll

I know that at USA Today, the social presence is a big part of the work. So how are you setting your standards and communicating to your staff that this is important? But you still have to represent our brand.

Right? I mean, we know that, you know, our integrity and our fairness. And all of that is just the bedrock of what we are. And so we want to make sure that we represent our way ourselves that way. On social, we tell people, we want you to bring your authentic selves, we want you to bring your lived experiences. But obviously, we can’t slip into advocacy. And I say this all the time: The power you have as journalists, to choose stories to tell stories to spread stories, is so much more power than you’re going to have in that tweet. And so you know, again: Bring your true selves, bring your authentic selves, but but let’s not tip into advocacy that could harm the integrity of our brand.

Michelle Manafy

So I think another issue digitally in particular is the 24 hour news cycle, right? We’re all facing this kind of pressure to constantly be online, constantly be informing our our consumers. But how are you balancing the 24 hour news cycle with your again, with your standards and your goal to provide actual, trustworthy news?

Nicole Carroll

Well, we’re really lucky and that we’re spread across the country from, you know, Washington all the way to LA. And then we also have a London bureau. So, we really are on 24/7, which, which makes things a little bit easier. But you know, I tell people 100 times out of 100, I’d rather be second than wrong. 100 times out of 100. So if you’re ever in doubt, don’t do it. Double check it triple check it, I’m going to be fine. If we’re last as long as we’re right.

Michelle Manafy

I see a lot of scoops and exclusives at Axios. So how about you? Is there a difference there? Is there pressure?

Aja Whitaker-Moore

Yeah, Imean, I think that our philosophy is a little bit different. We’re not there to deliver you every piece of news. We’re there to deliver you what you need to know, and the things that are important. And so I think that our model is a little bit different in that we package our version of the 24 news cycle into a newsletter suite. So if you’re getting Mike Allen’s AM, and PM and Finish Line newsletters, that’s what we call our daily essentials. And he’s set a really diverse kind of breakfast table for you in the morning. Happy Hour, four in the evening. And he’s telling you the stories that you need to know and so we’re curating that and packaging that I think in a different way than you know, a news wire or or a news organization that’s giving you breaking news 24/7.

Michelle Manafy

It’s interesting. We used to call those “newspapers” where we curated what you need to know i the course of a day. I do think it’s interesting. The last panel was very much touching on this deluge; this fire hose, and how we can discern. And of course you know, I advocate for trustworthy sources like y’all.

Nicole Carroll

 Yeah, absolutely.

Michelle Manafy

All right. So, innovation in delivery and formats. I know you specifically mentioned Axios being mobile first. And I think that’s for a little while there that was almost a cliche industry. But I think it’s, it’s a given, is it not? Are you thinking a lot about innovating in terms of say, Tik Tok? Let’s just throw out like, are you looking at new formats?

Aja Whitaker-Moore

Tick Tok? Not so much. Not yet. I mean, we have experimented, I think on all the platforms, you know, we do Twitter spaces, we do curated videos on You know, on Instagram, I think Tik Tok is an amazing platform. And a lot of I think publishers have figured out a great way to do it. But I think it actually is we, you know, right now, you know, we really are interested in podcasts, we’ve found a way to tell long form stories in smart brevity, through audio, which, you know, is is challenging, but we’ve done it with our How it Happened podcast series. It’s got, you know, 3 million downloads, and it’s really resonating with the audience. And we also have, you know, a daily podcast that we think is, you know, really innovative and how we’re telling stories in, you know, 10 minutes a day, and our audience is telling us, you know, they can’t get enough of it. So, I think that’s definitely interesting to us. You know, we just hired our first SEO editor and we’re really focused on you know, packaging our stories for social and, you know, making sure we’re we’re meeting people where they are.

Michelle Manafy

I know that social audio has been really good for you guys too. How about USA Today. What do you do?

Nicole Carroll

Well, it’s funny: I was just checking or TikTok I think we’re just checking to see how many followers I think we’re over a million somebody check me so we’re over a million and when we you know, I love it. My son’s 16 He gets all his news on Tik Tok. So whenever we show up in his feed, he’s really proud. He’s like, there’s my mom. So I mean, we’re gonna be in the spaces where people are, we’re doing Twitter Spaces, we were on Clubhouse, we were doing all the things. Really, it’s because we just want people to know that we’re there with the information they need, again, whether it’s Instagram, or Tik Tok, or a newsletter, or a podcast. And it just helps the overall reach and hopefully, you know, to your point about trust and media, if they see us enough, if they see that we’re right enough, if they see that we’re responsible enough, I want to develop that trust. And so I think it’s not just about the audience. It’s about developing that relationship and trust and like, Oh, I’ve seen you three or four times now. You know, I I know your real I know, you’re a trustworthy news source. And that’s really important to me.

Michelle Manafy

Yeah and that’s interesting, because you both mentioned, you know, being where they are.

Nicole Carroll

Yeah.

Michelle Manafy

 But then your values like perpetuated values and your ethos there to build that trusted relationship.

Nicole Carroll

Well, it’s funny when the last join some of the January 6, and we made some decisions about, you know, we didn’t errors, certain of Donald Trump’s speeches, because I did, they were misinformation, and we chose not to air them live. We would go back and we would package them so we could fact check them before we did it. I actually went on Tik Tok. And I told people why we were doing that. And I did a video like: Hey, here’s we may be hearing about this. And this is why we’re doing that we think it’s important to fact check before we put information out there. So it was kind of fun to be able to talk directly to that audience

Michelle Manafy

Addressing that that demand for immediacy. Head on,

Nicole Carroll

Right, exactly.

Michelle Manafy

We want it now. But here’s why we’re not.

Why don’t you tell me each of you just very quickly, a project or product that you’ve done recently that you feel is particularly innovative?

Aja Whitaker-Moore

Sure. I mean, I think Axios local is probably our biggest project of the year. And, you know, talking about rebuilding trust, we want to meet people in their communities, and talk to them about the economic situation where they live, the lifestyle opportunities, where they live, also, the political landscapes where they live. So we’ve stood up in 17 cities, and we’re going to be in, I think, another 25 by the end of this year. So, we’re really proud of that expansion and trying to recapture some of what’s been lost in the local news landscape. And, you know, it’s really resonating with audiences, we’ve had over a million subscribers in those local markets, generated, you know, 5 million in revenue last year from loca. And so we think that’s, you know, a really big part of the future of Axios. And hopefully the future of restoring trust and journalism in America.

Michelle Manafy

No small feat.

Aja Whitaker-Moore

Yeah, just a little, just a little project.

Michelle Manafy

Just a Tuesday. How about at USA Today?

Nicole Carroll

Sure. Well, I really hope you guys will check out some of the AR we’ve been doing. And again, this leans more into the tech, but it’s really cool tech. So you can we did a series this past year on 1961 and the importance of what happened in 1961, around voting rights to what’s happening today. And our AR team built this amazing experience where you could actually ride the bus as it was being attacked by rioters and you can hear the story and you can you can you can hear we brought in historical video and audio. And you really feel like you can see the flames around you and you are really immersed in that experience. So, you know, again, we’re trying to bring the truth to people and help them understand news that empathy that you get from immersive storytelling is really important. Not just reading it; you’re experiencing it. So really proud of some of the work we’ve done on AR.

Michelle Manafy

That’s a great example. Just before we’re done here: How about something that you think that everyone is talking about in media right now, that maybe is hype or that maybe you’re a little skeptical about?

Aja Whitaker-Moore

Just in general?

Michelle Manafy

In the digital media industry. Hype cycle?

Aja Whitaker-Moore

I don’t know,

Michelle Manafy

Alright, we can do NFTs? [laughter]

Aja Whitaker-Moore

Well, we do have a newsletter that covers crypto and I think we do talk about that, you know, quite a bit. And NFTs have their place in the crypto world.

Unknown Speaker  15:48 

Oh ho ho. No, it doesn’t have to be NF T’s. Metaverse can do another one. You guys bullish?

Aja Whitaker-Moore

I mean, I think the Metaverse is interesting. If you think about it from the standpoint of like, we’re just building it now. You know, we don’t actually know what it’s going to be.

Michelle Manafy

Is it going to be the Facebook-averse. Is that? Or is it going to be an open platform?

Aja Whitaker-Moore

I guess it depends on who you ask.

Michelle Manafy

We’re not going to ask Mark. Apparently, he didn’t want to talk to us about this.

Nicole Carroll

Which is weird. So weird. I mean, I think we just have to keep moving forward. Like I said at the beginning in all these spaces, and here’s the cool thing, we get to invent them, right? We get to say what they’re gonna be. So that’s awesome. We’re like, you know, I know, there’s a lot of stress in media right now. But I’m really excited about where we’re at right now in media, we’re, we get to invent the future. And that’s pretty cool.

Michelle Manafy

All right. The very last thing: leadership, like if you are looking out into the industry, and you want to just impart one piece of wisdom about leading an innovative team, no pressure. Aja: pressure.

Aja Whitaker-Moore

I mean, I think it’s really just about having a culture of activation and being able to experiment with an idea and nurture it from experiment, you know, to fruition. I think we do that, you know, every day at Axios. And really, every day in media. Every day, we’re writing a story. It’s like, you know, where’s this going to take us at? Where’s this gonna go? And just continuing, you know, to do that?

Michelle Manafy

I love that.

Nicole Carroll

Yeah. I think it’s all about the people. No matter what you do, you’ve got to create the culture. You’ve got to believe in people you’ve got to have, I think I call realistic optimism. We are in a tough world. But you realistically have to think “we can do these things.” And you have to impart that to people. You have to have a culture of “yes, let’s try it.” What can you do? What can you do in a month? What can you do in two months? We have to keep moving forward.

Michelle Manafy

Love it. Well, thank you both. I sincerely appreciate this. It was a great conversation and went to fast.

Aja Whitaker-Moore

Thank you.

Nicole Carroll

Thank you.

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