In some cases, quantity is a measure of success. For Nigeria’s Stears Business, however, it’s exactly the opposite.
During the two-day INMA Africa News Summit, sponsored by the Google News Initiative, Yvette Dimiri, Stears’ head of subscriptions growth, said the company established its newsroom with the specific goal of being “Nigeria’s slowest newsroom” — it only publishes one story per day.
Nigeria’s news market is incredibly competitive, Dimiri said, echoing IC Publications’ Omar Ben Yedder’s comments during his presentation earlier in the day.
“We heard from consumers that they didn’t really want more content,” Dimiri said, “so we decided we were going to compete on quality” and to differentiate themselves by focusing heavily on data. It’s the Stears mission to “be the world’s most trusted source for data and insight on Africa.”
Stears is a relative newcomer to the crowded Nigerian media scene. The first article was published in 2017, and it was only in 2020 that they established a full-time newsroom. This means, though, that it’s a digitally native publication.
The newsroom is different in other ways, too. Rather than hiring talent from pools of journalists, they typically hire people who have sector expertise and analysis skills and then train them to be writers. The newsroom itself is often led by an economist. And they’re also completely subscription-driven — there is currently no advertising on the product.
“Storytelling is as much about what is being said as about how it’s being said,” Dimiri explained. Within the long-form content they publish, they use data visualisation to help tell a story. In some cases, the data is even interactive.
The structure of the organisation is important, Dimiri added. “We think of ourselves as putting data first, and we have an internal data management team to help us accomplish this well.” Leveraging internal expertise throughout the organisation, identifying dependencies, and cross-functional communication are all “crucial to producing the kind of storytelling we do.”
Case study: Election coverage
Dimiri presented a case study in elections coverage to showcase Stears’ data-forward approach.
In contrast to the highly produced coverage with engaging visuals that Western democracies may be used to during an election, Nigerian election coverage is essentially live coverage of a computer screen with an election worker entering numbers into a spreadsheet as votes come in. This process can take days.
“We wanted to stand out from that,” Dimiri said, “but we knew that local media in Nigeria is already really good at covering the election season,” with decades of experience and lots of journalists on the ground. To stand out, Dimiri said they focused on the data.
The goal in 2019 was to “create a microsite where anyone from anywhere in the world could access quantitative results data on the Nigerian elections in 2015 and 2019” — a place that would “allow readers to more quickly contextualise election results,” Dimiri saidThis kind of site would also help showcase Stears’ data competence to international clients and investors at the same time.
When this goal was set, Stears still didn’t even have a full-time newsroom — but they were able to pull it off with some help from key partners like CNN and the Opera browser. They got two million visitors on election day alone, Dimiri said, up exponentially from the around 2,000 visitors a day they were used to at the time.
Now, with a team of 35 people (of which the newsroom is the largest, with 18), they’ve set more ambitious goals for the 2023 election:
Deliver on the growth trajectory we promised our investors.
Become a household name.
Showcase their data expertise to a much wider audience.
Build a template for high-leverage editorial projects.
The team has done a lot of user research to learn about problems people had with election coverage, Dimiri said. The product strategy, she emphasised, starts with insights gained from this research. The engineering team is currently working on a new layout for election coverage, updated based on what users said they wanted to see and what information they wanted to get — including increasing voter engagement, helping voters prepare for elections, and putting election results in historical context.
Along with election coverage, Stears is also adding polling data to their coverage for 2023. Tracking polls and exit polls help to build a narrative for storytelling purposes, which can create more opportunities for partnerships. It also helps Stears stand out from the crowd by showcasing their polling expertise.
Revenue implications of data-forward storytelling
“Our data-forward approach to storytelling defines our customers, and it defines our work,” Dimiri said. It means Stears can serve the consumer side as well as enterprise clients and even international clients.
Dimiri also stressed the importance of talking to your users on a regular basis. “It’s easy to not ask the customer what they want until you start seeing numbers go down,” she said, so they have a user research calendar that makes sure they’re in regular communication with readers. “To make better stuff, you need disciplined user research programmes.”
The information gathered in this process is usually the start of what Dimiri explained as a cycle. They get customer feedback, which goes to the product and data team, which then goes to the newsroom. The “newsroom is open to being influenced by what we learn from customers, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to run with it.”
If they do decide to use the feedback, the next step in the cycle is the engineering team. After that, it goes back to the customer for testing and the cycle begins again.
“The newsroom, product, growth, and engineering teams are in constant communication,” Dimiri said. “Editorial independence is essential, but so is ensuring that our content strategy delivers on our business strategy.”
Complete coverage of the two-day summit can be found here.