Maribel Perez Wadsworth has journalism in her blood. She grew up listening to the hum of printing presses and taking in the smell of ink in the printing room of The Miami Herald, where her father started working the year she was born.
She now stands at the helm of Gannett Media, one of the largest media networks in America, owner of the nationwide newspaper USA Today and more than 200 local news organisations.
Wadsworth, INMA president, spoke before a sold-out crowd of media leaders at INMA Media Innovation Week. She described what she considers a unique moment in time for journalism. The in-personal conference in Copenhagen, Denmark — INMA’s first since the pandemic — is sponsored by ArcXP, FT Strategies, Google News Initiative, Meta, and Piano.
“The very fiber of democracy depends on vibrant journalism,” she said. “And to enable that, we need to make the business of journalism work. I believe our newsrooms can power that.”
Business strategy anchored in data
It is obvious to Wadsworth that business leaders and newsrooms must work together to complete a journey of digital transformation using data as their guiding light.
She is leading a series of data-based initiatives that back up the three pillars of Gannett’s overall strategy:
To grow new audience segments.
To convert viewers into subscribers.
To deepen their relationship with their existing audience.
Focus on doing less: Feng Shui for newsrooms
One of the most important aspects of Gannett’s strategy was understanding what content performed best and learning what readers want from online media. To do that, they needed to understand what wasn’t working.
They undertook a Feng Shui-like exercise to remove the clutter from the pages of their online editions and put focus on what was driving subscriptions.
After examining the data, it became apparent that 20% of their content was generating 80% of the audience. This would be a daunting figure for many media professionals, but Wadsworth saw it as an opportunity.
“It was important for us to know what to stop doing,” she said. “The mantra for our teams is to do fewer things, far better.”
What they found was that most of the underperforming pieces were the stalwarts of traditional print editions such as event listings, police reports, and want ads: “All these things were taking up space, cluttering up discovery, and not doing anything for us from a digital perspective.”
Once Gannett understood what performed best, they reduced the amount of content they were producing online by 40% in the space of two years. As a result, subscriptions increased, viewership went up and so did the number of return visits to their sites.
Audience data drives decision across the entire organisation
Every level of Gannett’s extensive organisation is involved and invested in audience data as it relates to the stages in the subscriber funnel.
Each team looks at how their actions contribute to expanding reach, building engagement, converting viewers to subscribers, and retaining loyal readers.
Wadsworth was quick to point out that data is by no means the only driver of editorial policy, but it does create a sense of ownership of business results and builds healthy competition among journalists.
Optimising for premium journalism
Gannett Media offers a mix of content that is free to the consumer and premium content that is behind a paywall. The ballpark goal is to have 25 to 30% premium content.
They have found that premium content is the No. 1 source for driving subscriptions, and that is where data has proved especially helpful.
“Sometimes the things we think should be premium are not what the readers think are premium,” Wadsworth said. “And so we are constantly looking at the data and making changes and optimising.”
More than fluff
The drive for more premium content has also helped newsrooms optimise content and gain a better understanding of what items will drive the most value for readers.
“Readers want more than fluff,” said Wadsworth. “It has been very affirming for our newsrooms to know that our more exclusive work, where we add value through greater analysis, is driving greater audience viewership and subscription rates.”
Transparency and equal access to data build a sense of connectivity
Wadsworth believes transparency and sharing of data has played a large part in the success of Gannett’s business strategy.
To find the sweet spot for premium content, dashboards showing what content is performing best are a central feature of all newsrooms. Information is then shared across the organisation so all outlets can see what themes are the most successful.
Journalists have a custom view of data called beat maps, which helps them understand what angles are driving readership of how their stories stack up against other pieces.
“We are constantly sharing data throughout the day and giving constant shout outs for what’s working best,” Wadsworth said. “I believe this has fostered an incredible sense of connectivity. People can see that the work they are doing is truly driving results.”