Since 2004 almost 1,800 local newspapers have closed their doors in the U.S. alone. Oddly, though — and despite an economic downturn — it appears that a slew of new local news outlets have emerged online. Unfortunately, one needs to take a good look under the hood before celebrating this trend.
In October 2019, the Lansing State Journal uncovered dozens of websites branded as local news outlets throughout Michigan that posed as local news but instead were outlets for political messaging. Again in 2020, The New York Times reported that the local site, Maine Business Daily, is part of a network of 1,300 questionable websites. They look like local-news outlets, but the stories are directed by political and corporate public relations firms. Algorithms create much of the content on these sites.
While investigative reporting uncovered these sites, little is known about their impact on readers. The Tow Center’s new report, Reader perspectives on local partisan news sites, examines how local news audiences assess and interpret these so-called news sites. In particular, the research explores whether news consumers infer any bias in the reporting of these sites, how they navigate and respond to these pseudo-local news websites, and how this affects consumer trust in news.
The Tow Center recruited 90 participants to assess these local news sites.
Participants completed an initial survey about their local news consumption habits and needs and assessed their assigned local website.
They completed a daily diary exercise to detail their experience of using their assigned website and other local news outlets over five consecutive days.
Participants offered a final reflection about their assigned website, addressing issues such as how, if at all, it improved their understanding of local issues and assessed trustworthiness.
Local site general assessment
Two-thirds of participants recorded an initial negative impression of their assigned website. Reasons for a negative response included the lack of updates and relevant content. The remaining third reported a positive impression, they noted a favorable impression of the sites’ layout and design, lack of paywalls, and mobile responsiveness. Interestingly, only one-third of participants claimed there was conservative bias in their assigned outlet’s editorial coverage.
The most common response from participants throughout the five-day diary exercise was frustration at the lack of new content and the prominence of outdated content on the homepage. Upon repeated visits, they found the content mostly irrelevant to their daily lives and communities and noted it as “odd,” “weird,” and “bizarre.”
Supplied with automated, data-filled stories, these local sites offered few articles with reporter bylines. Most participants found the automated stories to be disconnected from their communities. In addition, respondents reported that the sites were all about politics and little of anything else.
Perceptions of trustworthiness and bias
While most final impressions were negative, the question of these sites’ trustworthiness and potential bias was somewhat mixed. Many participants excused the sites for their low-cost, algorithmically generated output. While most participants rated the outlets as untrustworthy, there was a narrow majority rating the coverage as fair and balanced.
A strong majority did not look for information about site ownership until prompted and said it did not cross their minds to investigate even with an unfamiliar news source. Only a minority of participants investigated the ownership of their assigned site and describing the lack of transparency as “shocking,” “unsettling,” “odd,” and “worrying.”
Despite the industry’s emphasis on fake news and misinformation, some participants accepted these sites at face value, despite the site’s clear lack of objectivity and partisan status. Consumers do not seem to focus on identifying who owns and operates a news source. Unfortunately, their opinions of this sort of site will affect the broader industry as they fail to distinguish between these partisan sites and legitimate news sources. With the 2024 elections approaching, the news media must address consumers about the importance of considering the source of their information and reinforcing the value of trusted, reputable local news brands.
The January 6 hearings demonstrate a significant opportunity for streaming services – SVOD, AVOD, FAST – to provide public service and to engage new and existing audiences. Most people can’t take two hours in the middle of the day to watch the hearings in full. But they can time shift, binge, or play the hearings at 2x speed on connected devices. And in my experience (which includes running CBS News Digital and CBSN for more than five years) they will. This is: they will if video is available and easy to find.
In fact, at this point in the streaming evolution, it should be easy for viewers to find most major breaking news events live and on demand within each of the major streamers. Unfortunately, it is not easy enough. And, in some cases, it’s nonexistent.
Most of the major streamers either operate news divisions or incorporate numerous news streams into their products. Based on the numbers and the research, it’s well known in the streaming industry that live, breaking news is both in demand and an expectation among viewers. In addition, there are no significant technology or distribution issues blocking these companies from streaming live, breaking news coverage.
So, it’s a major miss for the streamers that, when there is a major, scheduled news event in which it’s in the public interest to provide access, they continue to make it hard to find news within their services. It seems that most choose to continue to heavily promote tentpole entertainment properties – even in the middle of the day – rather than promoting scheduled news events that their properties already are covering.
The January 6 hearings have been among the most riveting live news events in recent memory. The testimonies of Georgia election official Shaye Moss, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, and former Oath Keeper Jason Van Tatenhove were dramatic, compelling, and newsworthy. Yet the major streamers are generally opting out of the opportunity to serve their viewers by making the hearings accessible live and on demand.
The good news is that it’s not too late to fix this. Here’s how streaming services can make it easy to watch critical scheduled news, such as the January 6 hearings, using four simple, inexpensive tactics:
Use front door promotional “marquees” to drive in real time to the live hearings and to communicate the upcoming schedule.
Showcase on demand video of the full hearings prominently within said marquees and other promotional space.
Re-run the hearings on streaming news services and in VOD sections after hours and on weekends.
Use their vast promotional and marketing capabilities including emails, mobile notifications, social, promotional trailers, etc. to put this coverage front and center.\
Audiences are intelligent, curious, and interested in making up their own minds. They want facts and are hungry for knowledge, not just opinion. Offering them the opportunity to easily consume these kinds of news events more easily provides a satisfying solution.
Delivery and growth
Every time CBS News streamed a major live news event, it increased our viewership base. When we made the full video of major news events available on demand, our viewers watched in large numbers. We created loyalty by delivering service and meeting viewers’ expectations for trusted news coverage.
Simply by focusing on, and delivering solutions for these needs and expectations, our CBS News team grew the live streaming news service to more than 1 billion views in both 2020 and 2021. As the digital audience grew, we saw no evidence of cannibalization of the linear audience. In fact, we saw brand loyalty strengthened in multiple research studies conducted during a period of six years, starting in 2015.
Major streamers can do the same by showcasing news when viewers expect it, such as during major live breaking events such as the January 6 hearings. Considering the investment that these organizations are making in their content and delivery optimization, it is an oversight in terms of serving consumers’ information needs. In an increasingly competitive streaming environment, streamers who take the opportunity to engage and grow audiences interested in breaking news will experience a payoff in long-term loyalty.
The annual Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is a must-read for anyone in the news, media and digital publishing industries. Clocking in at 164 pages, the latest study, which came out today, covers a cornucopia of topics, informed by an online survey of more than 90,000 digital news consumers in 46 countries.
DCN members will want to read the complete report when they can, but ahead of that, we wanted to share some of the most relevant findings for digital content companies. To do this, I read the full report, identifying key trends and corresponding with the lead author, Nic Newman, to discuss these areas in more detail.
It is a decade since the first Digital News Report was published. Newman reflects that, since then, we have seen a relentless decline in consumption of traditional news sources such as TV, radio, and print and the growing importance of digital and social media.
“This has brought [a] greater variety of sources and perspectives than ever before, especially for educated and interested news consumers,” Newman says. “But at the same time,” he adds, “we see those that are less interested [in the news] often feeling overwhelmed and confused.”
It is against this backdrop that major themes emanating from the latest report — including growing news avoidance, as well as declining interest and lower levels of trust in the news —need to be considered. With that in mind, here are four developments publishers cannot afford to overlook, and recommendations to help tackle them.
1. Respond to the implications of news avoidance
One of the biggest topics explored in the report is news avoidance. “Selective avoidance” is on the rise globally, with growing numbers deliberately steering clear of content that is often seen as difficult and depressing. Long-running and recurrent stories — such as those covering politics, the war in Ukraine, or the COVID pandemic — are also driving audiences to disconnect more frequently from the news.
Implications / Solutions:
To avoid audiences checking out, publishers need to recognize that some approaches in practice can be off putting. Therefore, they may need to offer a different content mix and tone. Addressing this is challenging, Newman says, because audiences also want — and expect — the media to cover difficult stories. Nevertheless, Newman identifies three areas where journalists and publishers can tackle several core reasons people often give for news avoidance: accessibility, negativity and bias.
First, he argues, we need to make news content more accessible and easier to understand. “This is one of the reasons why young people and less educated groups selectively avoid the news.” He also notes that content is typically produced for avid news consumers.
“Avoiding jargon and insider speak will help,” he says. More explanation, directly asking for — and addressing — audience questions, as well as producing fact-based content for video and podcast formats, could also be useful.
Secondly, telling stories differently might mean embracing approaches such as solutions and constructive journalism, as part of a mix of formats and content styles. Newman suggests outlets consider “finding more ways to cover difficult stories that provide hope or give audiences a sense of agency around stories like climate change.”
Lastly, we need to rebuild trust and credibility. Over a quarter (29%) of news avoiders believe the news is untrustworthy or biased. That rises to nearly four in ten (39%) in the United States.
“Some of that is about partisanship,” Newman says, “some is about sensationalist chasing eyeballs and clicks.” Potential remedies include “signalling opinion more clearly,” as well as “not labeling everything breaking news when it isn’t,” an approach CNN has recently broached.
2. Double-down on revenue diversification
Increasing reader revenue is a key strategic goal for many publishers. However, much of the digital spoils generated by subscriptions are enjoyed solely by the biggest national brands. In the U.S, around half of paid subscriptions go to just three titles: New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. More widely, fewer than one in five digital news consumers (19%) in pays for content.
Implications / Solutions:
This “winner takes most” dynamic can make it difficult for smaller and local publishers to compete. Furthermore, the rising cost of living may also mean that some audiences will look to cut back their expenditure on paid-for content.
That’s a development Newman says news providers are alive to.
“More publishers are recognizing that subscription on its own will not be enough,” Newman says, “especially as further growth is likely to [be] constrained by rising prices and the squeeze on household budgets. Developing multiple revenue streams will provide resilience and help publishers weather the coming storm.”
This impending subscription storm is not unique to news publishers, but all media players. A chart on page 21 of the report outlines this tension. It shows that while 14% of digital news users in the U.S. think that they will have more media subscriptions in the next year, a further 14% of users believe they will have fewer subscriptions in the same period.
3. Ensure you have an effective first-party data strategy
However, news consumers appear to be wary about providing personal information, such as email addresses, to publishers. Just under a third (32%) of the report’s sample indicated they trust news websites to use their personal data responsibly. This drops to fewer than one in five in France (19%) and the USA (18%).
Implications / Solutions:
Most publishers understand that they need to develop their first-party data capabilities. But knowing you need to get to grips with this, and effectively doing so, is not the same thing.
“The low numbers (28% average) who have currently registered with a news site show that most news websites simply do not have a clear enough value proposition to get people [to] give up their data,” Newman argues.
This principle aligns with the subscription challenge publishers face too. It is hard to convince audiences to pay for content if the same material is available elsewhere for free. In these circumstances it seems not even inclined to hand over their email address to access it.
To remedy this, Newman suggests, “publishers will need to use a mix of competitions, events and special features to get those numbers up. They also need to persuade people that they will treat personal data responsibly.”
4. Do things differently if you want to reach Gen Z
As we outlined recently, Gen Z is a demographic with its own outlook and media habits. The Digital News Report reinforces this, with Dr. Kirsten Eddy, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Reuters Insitute, commenting on the growing gulf seen in the media behaviours and preferences found among many younger audiences compared to other demographics.
Implications / Solutions:
This cohort is less interested in traditional news subjects like politics. It also has a weaker connection with news brands. “They are also more skeptical of traditional sources,” Newman advises. “They are also shaped by social aspect of news ‘who is telling the story’ and what others think about it.”
As a result, this is a demographic more likely to seek out diverse voices online. They are less concerned about impartiality and more comfortable with journalists expressing opinions on social media. A preference for more visual social networks has meant that across all markets the use of TikTok for news consumption has jumped among 18–24s from 3% in 2020 to 15% in 2022.
“But they are not simply all TikTokers,” Eddy cautions, recommending in a dedicated essay (found on pages 42-45 of the full report) that publishers connect with the topics young people care about, and develop content that is aligned to the style and tone of specific platforms. Publishers should do this, in preference to “expecting young people to eventually come around to what has always been done.”
The big four (and much more)
These four issues – reaching younger audiences, addressing issues of news avoidance, ensuring you have an effective first party data strategy and the need for revenue diversification – matter to publishers large and small. As a result, these were the topics that emerged as most critical upon first read of the Digital News Report 2022.
They are, of course, just a fraction of the actionable insights that can be gleaned from this weighty annual research study. Readers may also want to delve further into issues such as trust, polarization, as well as data related to the consumption of podcasts, online video, email news and attitudes towards coverage of climate change.
Mental shortcuts, snap judgments, gut feelings: everyone uses these to some degree while navigating an increasingly overwhelming news landscape. However, new research finds that these instant reactions are even more prevalent among the 25% of the population with the lowest trust in news. Low trust audiences are more likely to receive the bulk of their news incidentally while engaged in other online activities such as socializing, shopping, or searching for specific information pertinent to their daily lives. Significantly, low trust aligns with low interest. These individuals are unlikely to visit news sites on purpose. They are also the least-studied segment of the population when it comes to news-related behavior.
It is important that content providers understand the impact of snap judgments because they occur upstream of further engagement with news material. Research from the Trust in News Project out of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford offers insights based upon an exploration of the behaviors and habits of this audience segment.
News, cues, and clues
The report, Snap judgements: how audiences who lack trust in news navigate information on digital platforms was based upon a qualitative study that involved participants from four countries: Brazil, India, the United Kingdom and the United States. One hundred individuals were interviewed in depth via videoconference as they used one of three platforms: Google, Facebook, or WhatsApp, between December 2021 and January 2022.
Six types of cues were found to serve as as shortcuts for evaluating news:
Pre-existing ideas about news in general or particular news media brands, including reputation and perceived reliability of the news outlet.
Social endorsement cues, especially from friends and family.
Tone and word choice of headlines, with a skepticism for headlines that seem sensationalized.
Visual cues, with a preference for photographs and videos perceived as recent and relevant, as well as numerical data and links to other sources.
Presence of advertising or indications of sponsored content are often seen as indicative of bias and profit-driven motives.
Platform-specific cues such as Facebook likes and Google search engine rankings. (insert cues graphic)
Comfort and control
The study found low-trust individuals have much more favorable opinions of Google, Facebook and WhatsApp than they do of professional news sources. They consider these platforms valuable tools used in everyday life, whereas many stated most news is irrelevant to them. In fact, some perceive news as an attempt to manipulate them; many stated that politicians control major news sources. In “shoot the messenger” fashion, low-trust users tend to conflate content they dislike or find upsetting with news journalists or brands.
News reports on hot topics such as politics and issues that have become politically charged such as the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic are viewed with particular skepticism by the sample group. Participants indicated that content providers have more incentive to be untruthful about such topics.
Low-trust users are more likely to look favorably upon information presented in a manner perceived as enabling them to make up their own minds. Some participants cited the presence of numerical data or links to other sources as indications that news was reliable, while others praised Google search results as such a resource.
Addressing the audience gap
While some of the 25% have overtly hostile feelings towards news organizations, indifference is more to blame for lack of engagement. Lack of knowledge in how journalism works is also a factor. Those aware of their limited knowledge may be less confident in their ability to decipher content and more likely to ignore it altogether or rely on opinions of trusted social contacts.
Trust-building strategies employed by digital news organizations tend to focus on the behavior and practices of the savviest news consumers. This makes sense if the goal is to solidify one’s base. However, expanding outreach requires more understanding of the less-engaged 25%. Building relationships with new user groups requires deeper understanding of how they engage with their platforms of choice.
This research is significant for digital media providers because it represents data from the least-studied segment of the population, and because the findings are not limited to this group. While some of the cues relied on by these users are under exclusive control of digital platforms, others can be utilized by news providers. The study has compelling implications for how information can best be conveyed to those hardest to reach.
Audiences are spending more time than ever consuming content. Still, even an explosion in digital subscriptions couldn’t prevent massive job cuts across the nation’s newsrooms. Any argument that closures hit companies that churned out poor quality journalism or fake news falls flat when looking at the data. Of the 10 newspapers that have earned Pulitzer Prizes for local reporting in the past decade, all but one were impacted by cuts in the last year.
Why is online news in a crisis? There are lots of theories. Many point to the impact of the Google/Facebook duopoly. The two behemoth companies gobble the bulk of ad revenue, leaving scraps for news organizations. Others suggest that the digital media industry itself is to blame. Ethan Zuckerman points to the “original sin” of building the entire Internet around advertising, putting algorithms, not audiences, in control.
New research confirms that media organizations need to do a critical rethink, but not just of the business model. It appears that media organizations are relying on a faulty content-creation and evaluation formula. The good news is that there’s plenty they can do to rethink storytelling to better engage and monetize audiences.
The findings, part of the Clwstwr Policy Brief project, reveal that audiences prefer “inclusive and reflective” storytelling models that help them understand and navigate their world. This, the research says, “challenges the perceived – and long-established journalistic principle – that the inverted pyramid model of news storytelling is the most efficient way to deliver news.”
The traditional approach for news — arranging facts in descending order of importance — lacks creativity and flexibility. What’s more, the research says this style alienates younger audiences that crave a “more thoughtful, considered and purposeful approach” to online news. They want it to reflect the reality of their lives, rather than industry norms.
Media organizations have an opportunity to rethink the way that they report the news. And, with new formats, they can encourage consumers to engage more actively with content.
Continuing with our series of video interviews, I talk to the lead author of the report, Shirish Kulkarni, an award-winning journalist and researcher. He makes a case for a complete rethink of news storytelling models. He shares the “seven building blocks” that successful news stories have in common. These include a linear narrative, personal context, and transparency about where the information comes from in the first place.
Kulkarni also walks us through the “narrative accordion,” a prototype model that gets high ranks from readers because it allows them to sort and skim through the key elements of a story on their terms. Finally, he discusses how news organizations can drive meaningful engagement and revenues by harnessing AI to “individualize” content at scale.
WATCH OR LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW
Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst of Mobile Groove interviews Shirish Kulkarni, a researcher focused on identifying and prototyping innovative forms of news storytelling.
Peggy Anne Salz: Mainstream journalism is in crisis. Now we may think it’s due to a lack of trust or a lack of interest, but new research suggests people aren’t consuming news because the wrong stories are being told in the wrong way, by the wrong people. Now, new storytelling models, provocative prototypes, new building blocks.
They may offer the answer and we get the inside track on this and more today on Digital Content Next. I’m your host as always Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant, and frequent contributor to DCN. My guest today is an award-winning journalist and researcher, who’s going to share eye-opening results of his latest research project that goes to the core of what is broken in online journalism and how to fix it. Shirish Kulkarni welcome to Digital Content Next. It’s great to have you.
Shirish Kulkarni: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.
Salz: Now you’ve got our attention with these results, the wrong people, doing the wrong thing, in the wrong way. That is something pretty provocative. You spent the last two years asking these fundamental questions about journalism, and now you’ve come up with a construct for a model of what you call reflective journalism. Now it’s not just, you. It’s had global impact. You’ve presented it at Reuters Institute, World Association of News Publishers, and many more. Tell us what is reflective journalism.
Kulkarni: Yeah. So I think we have…well, I have two reasons really, for calling it reflective journalism. Firstly, I think it’s important that we, as journalists, reflect on what journalism is for, right? What the needs of audience is rather than our organizations. Because that’s something that’s really been missing a lot in journalism. And we need to take the time. We’re in a crisis, as you said, and we need to take the time to stop and think, what are we doing wrong? What could we do better?
The second reason is that it also is super important that our industry is much more genuinely reflective of society. So, largely, if we’re talking about Western Europe or the U.S., this is a very homogeneous industry. And frankly, it’s driven largely by white, middle class, Metropolitan men, for the most part. And actually, when you think about it, that is a really small proportion of the population. And they don’t reflect, or frankly, understand the experiences, the day to day lives of most people in society. And as journalists, I think it’s our job to reflect what’s going on in society. And I don’t think as an industry, we’re actually structurally prepared to do that. So, two reasons for calling it reflective journalism, because we need to reflect both on the industry and also reflect society.
Salz: And it’s interesting Shirish because you’re making this point that. We need to reflect, and we’ve done that in a way you could even say we’ve been forced to reflect. Let’s put it that way. So we do know what is broken in principle at the core you’re stating it’s all about new forms of narrative. We need new forms of narrative. This is actually very good news because we know what is broken. We know how to fix it. And this is where your policy brief, your news storytelling, storytelling research hits upon the answer. You propose linear narratives. Now, how does this differ from what we’ve been doing? Because what we’ve been doing is the inverted pyramid style. So what makes linear better?
Kulkarni: It helps to start by thinking, why do we do the inverted pyramid, right? And actually, the kind of prosaic reason for that is because of the telegraph, the original news wire. But actually, the telegraph, when it was used widely, was expensive and unreliable. So people thought, let’s put all the important stuff right at the top, because then it’s cheaper. And if it drops out, then we haven’t lost too much of the important stuff, we’ve lost some of the boring stuff, right? So, technology has clearly moved on by about six generations since the telegraph. But largely, we are using those same habits and formulas, which come from the telegraph era. So that is strange in and of itself. So that’s why we use the inverted pyramid now. And actually, there’s not really a reason for it anymore.
When I talk about why writing linear stories is better, or producing stories of whatever kind, whether that’s text or whatever, in a linear format is better, we just go back to what are stories for? And stories are there for a kind of evolutionary, anthropological, there’s a neuroscientific basis for storytelling. They help us navigate the world. If you wanted to bring in kind of modern day techniques, they’re like a virtual reality simulator for the world. That’s what stories teach us. And I’d really recommend a book by Jonathan Gottschall, called “The Storytelling Animal.” And in that, there’s a really beautiful quote, where he says, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
And so, we know that to be true, right? But those stories aren’t told in inverted pyramid style. They’re told as a linear narrative. Starting at the beginning and ending at the end. And that is what we’re hardwired for as human beings. But as journalists, if we’re writing in an inverted pyramid style, we’re essentially going against what we’re hardwired for. We’re putting up a barrier between the storytelling and the engagement with a story, from the get go. And that, again, is not logical. It’s not rational. It doesn’t make any sense.
So actually, just on that kind of linear storytelling, we built a bunch of prototypes. But actually, what I was really interested in testing, for exactly the reasons you’re interested is, what if it was just linear storytelling, there’s no other formatting, would people find that interesting? So we did a prototype, which we just called kind of a plain text, dramatic prototype. And that was literally plain text, writing a story, sort of casting it quite badly, in my own opinion, because I wrote it, in a kind of three act dramatic structure, like we were just talking about. And the results from that were absolutely startling.
We tested it with more than 1300 people, against options of news which were currently available to them. And what we got the people to do was essentially, say whether they thought that it was more engaging, more informative, and more useful. And we created, I guess, a net approval rating. So on the kind of engaging axis, people have found just a plain text narrative more engaging than a BBC story, or an ITV story, or Sky News story here in the UK. The rating for that was plus 57, not 57%, plus 57, of the positives against the negatives. On informative, it was plus 41. And on useful, plus 37. So those are big, big numbers. And in some ways, you’d say for news organizations, they’re a no brainer, right? If you can, tomorrow, do something which is more engaging, more informative, and useful by big margins, just by essentially changing the structure of your story, why wouldn’t you do that?
Salz: Now we’ve had some companies here on Digital Content Next, they have been sharing what they’re doing and they are already taking a more modular approach to news and to storytelling. So there are companies moving in this direction. They understand that just by encouraging readers to skim, they’re not really driving engagement. And they have to do it in a different way. They need to break down the stories. How can news organizations further improve what they do to draw their audiences in? What is it that you’re telling them?
Kulkarni: So the very first thing is clearly thinking about what the audience, what citizens want, right? So when I was writing my prototypes, really, the first thing was to blank my brain. I’d tried to forget all the conventions of journalism, and ask myself the question, what do I actually need to know about this story to help me understand this? Rather than, what would a journalist normally write here? Because those two things are actually surprisingly different. And I think it’s where I think the kind of practice of journalism has become quite disengaged from the purpose of journalism. And as you say, there’s lots of hand wringing over, you know, people in newsrooms looking at analytics, when they are looking at analytics, and probably not enough people are sort of hand wringing over, well, people only spend 10 seconds on our page. Well, kind of, of course, they only spend 10 seconds on your page if you write an inverted pyramid style, where you’ve put in the headline, and in the first paragraph, something that looks like everything you need to know about that story. And then people think, well, actually, it gets more boring, and less interesting as I go down.
Now, actually, the truth is, it’s not everything you need to know about the story, because we all know, headlines don’t represent a story. They’re largely used as a sales technique. And the first paragraph often is a kind of one side of the story or just a really quick summary. But actually what people are telling us they want routinely, and not just me, in lots of research, they want more context around a story. What we tend to do is drop people into an on the day story, just on the day. And not everyone consumes news in the same way as journalists, right? They don’t read the news necessarily every day or every hour. We need to explain to them what’s led up to this point, and actually to some extent, what’s going to follow from this point. And so, actually providing all those things as a service, because yeah, journalism is a service, again, something which we forget. Then all those things are going to help people engage.
Salz: News as a service, you’re absolutely right here. And you’re also talking about what news organizations need to do to embrace the linear approach. Fortunately, it’s something they don’t have to do on their own because your research also shows that it’s really about collaborating, co-creating whatever you want to call it with AI to keep reader attention, as the story unfolds. Even determine the best starting points in the news. Ways to draw the audience in. So how does this collaboration working with AI? Look, what is the role of AI to get people to come into the story and stay?
Kulkarni: Lots of journalism organizations are using AI very well now, already. And so this is going to be the future of journalism. The next stage of journalism will be driven by automation and AI. So we have to be in that space. And I think the starting point is, look, right now online news is largely just newspaper articles put online, right? We’re not using, we’re not taking advantage of all the digital and technical storytelling tools that are available to us.
And I think what we’re seeing is that we should be in a post-article world, right? We can’t provide, or we shouldn’t be providing exactly the same article to everyone, right? We can’t be all things to all people. And where that leads to is personalization, essentially. That actually, we can provide news, information, in a way that is personalized to meet individual user’s needs in a really efficient way. So that might be, for example, I’m based in Wales, where we have quite a big immigrant community as well. If I’m a Chinese person living in West Wales, accessing BBC Wales’s news, wouldn’t it be interesting if I could access that in my first language, even though it’s news about Wales? That’s going to be more accessible to me. Working in that modular way, where we’re taking out a lot of interstitial language, we’re building short modules of information, which we’re putting together in different ways for different people. That, for example, takes out a lot of translation problems. It actually takes out a lot of inherent bias that exists within us as journalists. So it’s more accessible and more inclusive in that way.
So providing fact-based modules of journalism, that can be put together in different ways, by AI, to match the personalization preferences of users, citizens, audiences, has to be one big part of the future of journalism, I think.
Salz: That’s fascinating Shirish because we did start with personalization in news. It was about the categories asking audiences to choose the categories they wanted. Now it’s about personalization taking that personalization to a next level, a new level. And we agree it’s about the audience. It’s also about context, transparency, diverse perspectives.
Now these are the guiding principals, but it also comes down to the experience and that’s where your research also offers some answers. You’ve come up with ways to allow a different experience for different readers. The linear story is the concept, but you have accordions, timelines, videos. What can you tell us about the best on-ramp right now for organizations listening in, they want to know what is the best way to make the biggest difference in their stories and their metrics?
Kulkarni: The narrative accordion is really my favorite prototype. And actually, the favorite generally, with users. And what we’ve done here, essentially I’ve gone back to the basics and asked myself the question, what do I need to know about the story? What’s going to help me understand it? And I put these kind of expandable and collapsible questions, which means that people can either read them from top to bottom, so they make a linear story from top to bottom. Or if you’re interested in a particular question, such as, is this a green solution? I can go straight to that and check out the answer to that first, and navigate around exactly how I want it. Because what audiences really told us they wanted was some agency in storytelling. They wanted to be able to decide how they navigated the story. And we all understand that, don’t we? Like, when we go to find something out ourselves, we remember it better. We understand it better, because we feel like we’ve been part of that investigation process.
And as I say, the narrative accordion overall, in our testing, did really well. So basically, 75% and upwards, comparing the narrative accordion to options which are available to them in the general market, said it helped them understand the story better, and was more engaging.
Now, again, going back to the commercial needs or publishers, if you can do tomorrow, this doesn’t take a lot of kind of tooling or engineering, you could do tomorrow, something which more than 75% of people say helps them understand the story better, and is more engaging. Now, that, in a commercial sense, to me, is a no brainer, right? If you can do that tomorrow, why wouldn’t you?
Salz: That makes perfect sense. Absolutely. It’s a no-brainer and there’s no reason not to pursue that, but you’ve also found something else interesting in your research. You’ve found out that we are hard-wired, literally for the hero story or the heroine story. We want to have that arc of the story. Now, how can organizations apply that to journalism and still keep a credible balance? Because of course, drama can quickly become melodrama. It can become exaggeration very easily. So how do they approach this to give us the story? But again, also the engagement, because that’s the way of generating revenues.
Kulkarni: So, I see the tension, I’m all for kind of fact-based journalism, which sometimes, we get into kind of click bait stuff, which is about creating a particular kind of drama, right? When I’m talking about, this kind of hero, heroine story, it’s that fundamental evolutionary need for a particular kind of story, which you might describe as essentially, a fairy tale, is a great example of that. It’s why they’re so popular and successful. And that could be by just thinking about who are the characters in this. We don’t have to go off into kind of writing “non-objective,” but I’m going to put objective in quotation marks there, “non-objective” stories. What’s the sense of character, a resolution as well, because fairy stories always have a resolution. And new stories very rarely have a resolution. And actually, at that evolutionary level stories which don’t have a resolution leave us feeling uncomfortable.
So actually, that’s where we get into kind of news avoidance, because so much of our storytelling is inverted pyramid storytelling. Leaves us feeling uncomfortable and unresolved. So that’s a really important point as well.
Salz: So the answers here are context, narrative, linear narrative, AI, imagination, innovation, engagement, but achieving this, internalizing, this can take time, maybe even other talents. So what would you leave us with here? Give me a few steps news organizations can take right now to change the old habit.
Adopt the new model, adapt the new prototypes that you’re proposing such as the accordion, and also integrate AI more into this process. What can they do that they’re not already doing?
Kulkarni: When I started doing my research, I think people wanted me to come up with some kind of nonlinear gamified piece of storytelling, innovation, right? And I quickly realized that’s like putting a $100,000 kitchen in a house which doesn’t have a roof, right? We need to sort out the fundamentals. It’s journalism which is broken, and we need to fix that.
So, that comes down to understanding the user need, the audience need, remembering that journalism is for citizens, it’s for people. It’s not for journalists. So our audiences shouldn’t be other journalists. They should be what people really want from journalism. And so we need to listen to that research, not going with preconceived ideas of what we think journalism should be like in the future. We need to listen to what people actually want from journalism and then action that. And in terms of the storytelling, yeah, I think it’s using personalization, meeting people where they are, meeting their needs. And to do that, we need to leverage AI, essentially. Because to do that at scale, we need to use automation.
People want that information, they do want to understand the world, they do want to engage with it, but they’re feeling let down by journalism at the moment. So there’s repressed kind of need for that, which we can tap into. And actually, yeah, people are willing to pay for that if they get something which meets their needs. I talk about it in terms of, if you were working at Procter & Gamble or Unilever, and you never listened to your customers needs, you just carried on doing what you’ve always done without thinking about what you need to change, then you wouldn’t work at Procter & Gamble or Unilever for very long. But actually, in journalism, that’s what we do. We just carry on doing the same thing we always did, because we like doing it and we know how to do that. Regardless of the fact, we know people aren’t engaging with it or consuming it. So, there’s a really clear, hardnosed business model for doing storytelling better.
Salz: Shirish, I can’t thank you enough for sharing and, yes, for being exactly like your research, open, transparent, a bit provocative. It’s been great to have you.
Kulkarni: Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure.
Salz: Thank you. And of course, thank you for tuning in taking the time.
Of course, more coming in the series around how media companies are taking charge of changing their business and also increasing revenues. And in the meantime, be sure to check out digitalcontentnext.org for great content and including a companion post to this interview. And of course, join the conversation on Twitter at DCNorg until next time I’m Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Digital Content Next.
In conversation with Digital Content Next’s Michelle Manafy, Flipboard founder and CEO Mike McCue and Washington Post managing editor Kat Downs Mulder explore the evolution of digital media, serving the audience “where they are,” and leveraging emerging technologies to better meet their needs. Their talk, which was part of Collision Conference 2021, covers the challenges and opportunities of social media news distribution and consumption and the rise of Substack. They also talk about the challenges facing local news in particular. Their discussion explores AI and other technologies that increasingly impact news creation, delivery, consumption, and user experiences.
Last Friday marked 100 days since Donald Trump officially left the White House as U.S. president. His departure ended a chapter crammed with chaos and controversy for hundreds of millions of Americans, and many more around the world.
As the pandemic enters a second year, a deafening lack of Trump has been coupled with a general public malaise from too much news. As a result, the historic ratings bump enjoyed during the Trump administration quickly turned into a slump. Few outlets have been spared.
The Washington Post reported that of the three largest cable news networks, only Fox News has held relatively steady. Its three prime-time opinion shows fell just 6% in viewership since the first weeks of the year. MSNBC and CNN, meanwhile, declined 26% and 45% in the 8-10 p.m. ET time slot, respectively.
But it’s not just cable networks that have been affected. The Washington Post itself saw a 26% fall in the number of unique visitors to its website from January to February. The New York Times experienced a 17% decline in the same period.
A slump by any other name
While the “Trump Slump” is a legitimate reason for the downward trend, it’s not the only cause. Nor is it a universal experience.
At The Atlantic, SVP of growth Sam Rosen says that, “We’ve found even in just the past five or six months, what has really changed is that the motivation to understand this historic moment has decreased and the desire for personal intellectual growth has increased.”
As he points out, “It’s been an exhausting five years for many people and especially the past year. So, it kind of makes sense that the core desire to just understand what’s happening in the world still exists. But people want to invest in their own growth.” And the company is banking on that willingness to invest.
On the retention side, The Atlantic focuses on the fundamentals. For example they’re migrating as many subscribers to auto-renew as possible. Targeted email campaigns are also reawakening dormant subscribers.
Acquiring new subscribers has been more colorful. For example, experimenting with new slogans such as “Read. Think. Grow.,” which are a change from more newsier lines of messaging in the past. Rosen said The Atlantic thinks of its audience in terms of psychographics: people that are curious, interested in the world, willing to consider multiple perspectives, and open to new ideas.
“Looking at the vanguard of marketing technology is one of our biggest priorities right now,” Rosen said. “We’re evaluating a slew of technology partners that do customer journey orchestration, dynamic paywalls, personalization, and content recommendations. So that is where we’re doubling down.”
Not content with the content
Another newsroom building value not reliant on Trump’s hoopla is Axios, which was launched in January 2017. The well positioned itself strategically for a post-Trump world. Though the fall in traffic is unmistakable, Axios’ director of audience and growth, Neal Rothschild, believes this could actually be a good thing.
“I think if you were going to ask the founders of the company [Axios] whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, they would say it’s 100 percent a good thing,” Rothschild said. “Jim VandeHei, our CEO, has maintained that people needed to wean themselves off of politics during the Trump years. It was like fast food and it became very unhealthy. So, we’re starting to see the news landscape kind of clear out and make way for the topics that were core to the founding of Axios. Though it may not have seemed like it just because Trump sucked up so much oxygen.”
Those other topics include the rise of China, climate change, and the gaming industry. For the latter, Axios hired Stephen Totilo and Megan Farokhmanesh from Kotaku and The Verge, respectively, to write Axios Gaming. Their newsletter launched this week and will focus on the multi-billion dollar gaming industry. Rothschild added that the company isn’t limiting its expansion to specific topics. Its strategy of hiring experts to build readership extends to local journalism in news deserts, where just a single outlet currently operates, or where no community newspaper exists at all.
“To stand up a newsletter in each city, we try to hire two experts that can helm that newsletter so that we can speak to the city and have it growing quickly. I think that’s a departure from previous models for supporting local news. Usually, you need more of a physical presence in that city or at least need to invest more on the ground,” Rothschild said. “That’s not a huge site traffic audience strategy. But it is a pretty good growth and revenue strategy. And it is increasing our footprint around the country.”
As important as local news has been to CBS, Trump was an international story. Significantly, the international audience it gained over the past four years remains. While many U.S. outlets have cut their international presence in recent years, CBSN — CBS’ 24/7 streaming news service — last year expanded to almost 100 countries. That global presence was critical in CBSN delivering 291 million streams in the first quarter of 2021, up 30% from the same period a year ago.
Christy Tanner, EVP and general manager of CBS News Digital said her team has only just scratched the surface of its global potential. Through Network 10 in Australia, which ViacomCBS owns, its partner the BBC and its own international bureaus, it’s creating even more international programming.
“With streaming audiences, we do not see what was at one point conventional wisdom in the news business: Allegedly, U.S. audiences are not interested in international news. That’s simply not true from our perspective.” In fact, Tanner said, “We think it’s an important differentiator. It’s important to tell the stories. We at CBS News digital have been extremely fortunate that CBS has continued to invest in international coverage.”
The local news
That said, Trump was as much a local story as he was a national and international one. So, CBS is also taking advantage of the dearth of local newsrooms. It now offers 14 total live streams including 10 in local markets such as the Bay Area, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota.
One new feature Tanner is especially excited about are video push alerts. Launched last fall, the proactive alerts nudge CBSN viewers whenever news is breaking across the U.S. Instead of only watching that day’s White House news conference on the national live stream, viewers could easily toggle over to CBSN Minnesota to watch Minneapolis’ police chief providing an update to the George Floyd case.
Tanner says her team sends out alerts dozens of times a day. This means that viewers are engaged in numerous stories, as opposed to any one story such as Trump or Covid-19.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
The past four years certainly provided newsrooms across the country with a welcome surge in readership. However, the smartest strategists were planning for Trump’s inevitable departure well in advance. As a result, the fall in traffic hasn’t been enough to hurt their bottom lines too much.
For Tanner, who entered journalism as an editor at the AP in 1991, the Trump presidency was just another wild cycle. And she’s experienced many. Tanner says to work in digital media, one always has to be ready for what’s next, and make intelligent fact-based decisions.
“Things are constantly changing and those who don’t adapt fall by the wayside.”
The decline of cable TV is not news. Ever since streaming services offered consumers entire seasons of their favorite shows – affordably, on demand, and ad free – cable has been losing subscribers.
The number of pay-TV households fell from its peak of 105 million in 2010, to approximately 77.6 million last year. And this number is predicted to drop to 63.4 million by 2024. Meanwhile, the numbers of subscribers to the largest U.S. streaming platforms went up 50% in 2019 from the previous year.
There is no doubt Covid-19 boosted streaming figures, as millions of viewers spent their lockdown binge-watching the latest Netflix recommendation. However, cable was in decline long before the pandemic, with new, younger audiences favoring a “buffet style” viewing experience. In fact, more than half of 18 to 29 year-olds who pay for a TV bundle say they stream more often than watch cable.
What is really interesting, amidst all this change, is that cable news continues to make a killing. In January 2021 CNN recorded its highest viewing figures in its 40-year history, beating both Fox News and MSNBC in total viewers. However, Fox News remains the most-watched cable news network in the U.S. And it took in a whopping $12.3 billion in 2020.
“The news environment of the past four years, with Trump in the White House, has given a life extension to cable news,” says Mosheh Oinounou, an Emmy award-winning journalist who went on to launch CBSN, and is now a consultant for media organizations. “More recently, Covid and major political events, such as the storming of the Capitol, have seen record revenue and record ratings for cable.”
On the flipside, news is under-represented in the booming premium OTT arena, particularly that of local markets. Given the habits and preference of younger audiences, it might be time to take another look at the local news.
Streaming news still a rarity
While news is still a rarity in the streaming space, things are starting to change. This month, ViacomCBS launched Paramount Plus, which will incorporate CBSN, as well as livestreams of local CBS affiliates. Fox Entertainment’s streaming service Tubi launched News on Tubi in October 2020. It recently added nearly 80 stations, with 24-hour live news feeds. Amazon Prime is also looking to get in on the news game, adding live and on-demand local news to Fire TV.
ViacomCBS already has a head start in streaming news, as CBSN was the first streaming news service to launch in the United States in 2014. And the company continues to make news part of its OTT strategy. Christy Tanner, EVP and GM at ViacomCBS, believes their “marriage of journalism and technology” differentiates them in the streaming wars.
“It baffles me that news is not a bigger part of streaming services. It’s such an incredible opportunity to reach a highly engaged audience,” says Tanner.
“News has been a really important driver of growth within CBS and now ViacomCBS. And that is the reason it is one of the three pillars of Paramount Plus. We know that news users are loyal. They come back frequently, and they stay for a long time. Now we are expanding on this knowledge to improve our news offering within our streaming services.”
However, creating live news, 24/7, is not without its challenges. There are issues around the nature of news content and the digital development resources required. This could be why few providers offer it as part of their streaming packages.
“Entertainment and news are very different,” says Tanner. “News is a real commitment. And you have to be prepared for what comes with that. Also, providers don’t see the financial opportunities they are missing. They see news as a loss leader or break-even proposition – but what we’ve done is proof.”
Oinounou agrees that some major streaming companies may be reluctant to “get too deep into news game” because of the constant need to feed the news monster with fresh content. “Media companies want evergreen content. But news is ephemeral, it’s only relevant for couple of hours, which is a real challenge,” he says.
Falling off a cliff
However, Oinounou is less convinced by the financial opportunities of streaming news, when compared to the figures cable news commands. Digital news revenue is largely ad-based while cable news relies on subscription and massive advertising income, both of which are hard to replicate online.
“There is revenue there, but not on the same scale as broadcast,” he states. “Streaming services need to ask how they can grow revenue in order to compensate for the cliff they are about to go off, in terms of cable subscriptions. We know that people will pay for sport and entertainment online. But it’s not yet been proven as a revenue source for news.
“We saw this evolution in print. News was free online. But then classified revenue fell through the floor and print subscriptions collapsed, so newspapers realized they had to start charging and put up a paywall.”
It’s only in recent years that news titles have started to generate significant subscription revenue. That said, these tend to be larger national titles or conglomerations of local news brands that have greater resources than most local brands.
However, the trend offers proof that people will pay for a quality product and a good digital experience. Therefore, it seems likely that broadcast news producers are heading in the same direction. But the question is, who goes first? Which company will be brave enough to put digital news behind a paywall?
Fox Nation is one example of how a news subscription model can work. They offer additional content on interesting topics with big names and personalities as a draw. WarnerMedia has also floated the idea of launching a similar streaming channel, with a CNN-based subscription service.
“OTT live streams need to do the same thing, by offering either exclusive content or access, which will add value and persuade customers to pay an extra fee,” says Oinounou. “They also need to make sure content is authentic to the platform. Consumers on new devices have different needs and digital news is more interactive. So content has to be adapted to the streaming space.”
A new business model
Along with great content, creating a successful streaming news channel is also about having the right technology to ensure it’s available on all platforms. This is something Tanner prides herself on. “CBSN’s strength is to enable the viewer to find our news wherever they are,” she says. “The channel is available on more than 20 devices, services and platforms.”
Oinounou agrees if news providers don’t move quickly to adapt to streaming technology and get on all new and emerging platforms “you are going to be left behind”.
Creating a good product is not just about attracting subscribers. It’s also about retaining them. And a key to reducing churn, is to reduce user fatigue and financial outgoings, which are often associated with too many streaming services. One solution is to bundle streaming content, in the same way as cable TV, where consumers pay one fee and have access to all the entertainment, sport, and news they want.
Bundling their own streaming services is a no-brainer for brands. However, given the proliferation of offerings on the market, partnering with other streaming companies could be the service consumers really want. We have already seen this happen with ViacomCBS, who partnered up with Apple TV+ last year.
“There is a lot of experimentation happening right now with all major companies trying to figure out a new business model for news,” said Oinounou. “But media executives are still focused on where the money is, and that’s not in digital.”
However, with the likes of Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei predicting the death of cable TV, the question is not “if” broadcast news will be streamed, it is a matter of how and when. What media executives need to focus on now, is how to make the new model match the traditional pay-TV bundle.
Local news outlets have been on the ropes for a while, and this year is no different. Competition for digital advertising has been fierce, and it is well documented that two technology companies eat the lion’s share of the revenue.
In fact, just this month, HD Media LLC, a news publisher, filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the duopoly, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. The lawsuit asserts that the two companies are manipulating the digital-advertising market, making it difficult for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and others to survive.
Exacerbating the financial implications is the way in which these two tech companies disintermediate news distribution and consumption. Given this reality, how can local news organizations successfully compete and manage a successful audience relationship?
Local news study
Sarah Stonbely’s research, from the Center of Cooperative Media, identifies news ways to answer this question. Stonbely maps local news organizations (LNO) to their coverage area, using New Jersey as a proxy for other local news markets. She then applies demographics characteristics to these maps in a first step to understand which communities are served and to what degree. Importantly, studying the local news ecosystem offers insight into the needs and interaction of information producers, content, and their audiences.
This study includes local news outlets such as newspapers, local television, and radio stations and digital native news outlets in New Jersey. In total, 779 local news providers are part of the analysis.
Stonbely’s mapping of local news outlets shows that communities characterized by less education and located in rural areas are less served. Further, the research also shows that Hispanic communities are particularly underserved by local news.
In contrast, communities with higher income and located in the suburbs are served by more local news organizations. Interestingly, education is not a significant variable. The level of education does not necessarily correlate to whether a community is more or less likely to have a greater number of local news originators.
More affluent municipalities are more likely to have a greater number of local news providers serving them. And, in turn, a community in the lowest income bracket (median household income of $25,000 to $50,000) is more than twice as likely to be a news desert as a news oasis.
It is not surprising that local news organization coverage correlates to a higher median household income. Increasingly, local news outlets are supported by those able to pay for their content. While, the audience-revenue model is key to sustainability, the author’s findings suggests that this model does not serve lower income communities because they may lack the ability to pay for news access.
And even for those supported by advertising, more affluent communities are likely to boast more potential advertisers as well as present appealing demographics to those advertisers. In either case, less affluent communities are not able to sustain local journalism, which in turn can expand the economic divide.
Municipalities with the greatest percentage of Hispanic residents are most likely to be news deserts. In fact, the likelihood of having a higher number of local news outlets increases as the percentage of the population that is Hispanic decreases.
As such, the research reveals that New Jersey’s largest minority is underserved (ethnic outlets were not available to map). While there are certainly some Hispanic news organizations, additional investment in local news would better support local markets.
Local news also helps keeps a watch on municipal spending. Stonbely reports that New Jersey municipalities spent $15,1 billion the year this research conducted. Almost half, $7.4 billion, was spent in municipalities with zero to two local news originators. Community journalism’s coverage of municipal spending is important in maintaining a transparent and honest local governance.
Road to sustainability
The findings here align well with the Local Journalism Sustainability Act introduced in July 2020 by Representative Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ), which offers an alternate revenue model to fund local news. The bill allows individual and business taxpayers tax credits in support of local newspapers and media. In addition, the bill allows for philanthropic funding to be put toward local news operational costs.
Stonbely’s work offers a granular and comparative view of New Jersey communities served by local news coverage. The work provides insights into how mapping local news organizations to communities can highlight opportunities for improvement and growth. This study reveals gaps that news outlets can fill to fuel new audience relationships. It also provides a stark look at the realities of finding a model that both sustains local journalism and the interests of the communities these outlets serve.
Social media continues to grapple with the spread of misinformation on their platforms. And consumers know this. Regardless, they continue to use social media as a primary news source. According to the most recent Pew Research Center survey, more than half of U.S. adults (53%) report that they get their news from social media “often” or “sometimes.” The survey was taken by nearly 10,000 U.S. adults.
Facebook ranks highest (36%) as the number one news source consumers use regularly among 11 social platforms. YouTube ranks second at 24% and Twitter ranks third with 15% of adults regularly getting their news there. Fewer consumers say they get their news regularly on Instagram (11%), Reddit (6%), Snapchat (4%), LinkedIn (4%), TikTok (3%), WhatsApp (3%), Tumblr (1%), and Twitch (1%).
Interestingly, despite the fact that they often find their news on social media, consumers question the accuracy of the news they get on these platforms. Approximately six in 10 consumers (59%) say that they expect the news on social platforms to be largely inaccurate. Unfortunately, the data shows little change over the last three years. Even after two congressional hearings, there’s still an abundant amount of vaccine, Covid-19, and the 2020 presidential election misinformation on social media.
Social media does little to help consumers interpret the news. In fact, less than one-third (29%) of consumers believe the information they received on social platforms helps their understanding of the news. Further, 23% believe the news on social media leaves them more confused and 47% report that it doesn’t make much of a difference.
More women than men (63% vs. 35% and 60% vs. 35%, respectively) use social media to access their news. However, Reddit has a distinctly different demographic. Among its regular news consumers, two-thirds are men compared to women (67% vs. 29%).
Consumers use social media as an easy and accessible path to news and information. However, this Pew study clearly shows consumer are aware of misinformation on social media. Increased awareness is a good thing and an important step to expose and defuse misinformation.
Social platforms continue to try to combat misinformation with fact-checkers and other programs. Twitter launched a new program, “Birdwatch,” which allows Twitter users to comment and provide context on tweets that they believe are misleading or false. Unfortunately, none of these programs are winning the fight against misinformation. A recent investigation of Facebook found 430 pages with 45 million followers monetizing misinformation with Facebook tools. Clearly, more needs to be done to stop the dissemination and monetization of misinformation on social platforms.
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.
The news topics driving audience attention look different today than they did in March. Covid-19 affected people in just about every part of their lives. Therefore, it affected the news cycle in almost every ad category.
The initial declaration of the global pandemic sparked a dramatic increase in traffic to publisher sites across the board. That traffic boom has since waned and we’re left with different audience interests.
We wanted to know exactly what those new interests look like. To do this, we dove into readership on the Taboola network of U.S. news publishers.
Taboola’s data includes audiences at more than 1,300 U.S. news websites including national, local, and digital-native organizations. The scope of the network offers a broad view of what’s capturing people’s attention. Here’s what we found:
Coronavirus continues to dominate news in almost every news category
Across all news categories, news about the global pandemic has declined. However, it still eclipses audience attention over any other topic.
Even as traffic levels out, news about the virus is still driving more traffic than other topics by almost a billion pageviews a day. And it’s likely to stick around.
Finance, Business and Industrial, & Real Estate
As the stock market fell, news audiences interested in finance, business, and real estate rushed to learn about investment opportunities, hear advice from the experts, and purchase shares.
Money management advice and the news about the real estate market—specifically whether or not it was a good time to buy or sell a home—came in after investment topics.
Recent protests and events related to racism and the Black community in the U.S .have led to a surge in traffic regarding social institutions, racism, and crime.
These topics previously drove traffic for news sites. However, other topics like work, dating, and the impact of the Coronavirus on our society and wellbeing had been at the forefront.
The impact of Coronavirus created a surge in traffic around May, as states began to roll out plans for re-opening, marked in red in the graph above.
Science, Computing & Technology
Even when they’re staying inside, news audiences still want to hear about the weather. They are specifically interested in major weather events like tornadoes and storm clusters.
Recent news about internet technology companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have also captured their attention. They triggered an entirely new surge in traffic beginning in May, as these companies grapple with how to manage political content on their platforms.
It’s also worth noting that news related to new releases of mobile phones, personal computers, and other consumer technology continues to drive traffic for publishers.
Family and Parenting, Pets, & Home and Garden
For families, Coronavirus meant educating children at home, and in some cases, taking care of them during the workday. In tandem, for many people quarantine provided an opportunity to adopt pets, leading to an increase in traffic for topics related to pet care.
Shopping, Style & Fashion
Fashion companies really had to adapt as sales dropped and strategies shifted. Audiences are focused on clothing specifically, and the impact that the global pandemic will have on those brands.
They’re also tuned in to news related to big retailers. In particular, how their businesses are faring the recession, and whether or not they have plans for re-opening.
Arts & Entertainment
People’s plans to keep busy were entirely digital. And many publisher audiences were interested in the fate of the shows and events they could no longer attend.
Around May, those topics became just as interesting as news about movies and TV shows, a big source of entertainment for people in lockdown.
It’s worth noting the two gaping holes missing from these graphs. Sports and travel news cycles were entirely interrupted as both industries ground to a halt.
While some of these trends are specific to events in the recent months, others could impact publisher news cycles long-term. Keeping a pulse on the topics that engage news readers will continue to serve news publishers in increasing both engagement and traffic with their content.