The venue is the Austin Convention Center during the world’s greatest media conference, South by Southwest (SXSW). On the stage in the largest conference hall, the editor-in-chief of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, is being interviewed by the newspaper’s media columnist, Jim Rutenberg.
The theme is journalism after the election of Donald Trump — a president who calls both The New York Times and other serious media brands “fake news” and journalists “enemies of the people.” The New York Times’ answer is to hire more investigative reporters, more digital spearheads who can develop journalism further.
“We are preparing for the story of our generation. The election of Donald Trump as president is a bigger news story that 9/11,” Baquet says. “The next two years will be a historic moment in the life of news organisations.”
The editor of the most influential news organisation in the world says the United States needs more and better independent journalism. Not less. However, it is not only the case in the United States that journalism is under pressure.
In countries close to Scandinavia — such as Poland, Hungary, and Russia — media are more or less controlled by the state. Independence was swept away a long time ago, and published material is risible, ingratiating propaganda.
In September, there will be a general election in Sweden. The rightist party, the Sweden Democrats, one of the largest in the country according to opinion polls, has on several occasions banned media from its press meetings.
In one country after another, forces are growing that, like Donald Trump, have the idea to question and undermine the credibility of the media with the aim to strengthen their own power bases. The question is how can the editor of an old, established newspaper brand navigate in a reality that is, on the one hand, demanding more resources and initiatives and, on the other, demanding profitability?
Initiatives to strengthen readers’ trust and profitability are required to make necessary investments. The answer is technology.
Let’s go back two years in time. The venue is no longer the Austin Convention Center but the editorial offices of Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) in central Stockholm. A group of journalists are seated around a table, writing on small Post-It notes. The question they are asking themselves is this: “What is a particular piece of news worth on a scale from one to five?”
It may not be so hard to compare and evaluate a traffic incident without casualties to a terror attack in the centre of Stockholm. But all those other things that happen — the news in the middle —where do they go on the scale?
In the spring of 2015, this was precisely what the editorial staff of SvD was discussing. We tested different news scenarios: stock market down 4% (news value 3.5), the prime minister proposes more CCTV cameras in central Stockholm (news value 4.0), a Strindberg play opens at the Royal Theatre (news value 2.5).
These news ratings, combined with a time marker (how long we think the piece will draw interest and be relevant to the readers), are the very basic data in the algorithm that is going to steer our new front page moving forward. It was self-evident that it is journalism and the editors that, also in the future, are going to influence how news stories are evaluated on our front page.
At the same time, we wanted to simplify our editorial processes and get rid of unnecessary, time-consuming elements to create space for journalistic ventures. To put it simply, we wanted to build for the future, both in technical and journalistic terms.
No longer were journalists obliged to move headlines up and down on the front page. The focus was going to be placed on better content, sharper headlines, creative visual solutions, and distribution of content. But above all, simplicity.
Schibsted Media Platform, Schibsted’s own content management system, is built for online publishing with text tools, video, picture search, and external monitoring, all in one view. As a journalist, you learn to use the tool in just a few hours, which facilitates a lot in the digital transformation of the editorial staff.
But let’s not become too technical. The whole point of working with algorithms and data in a newsroom is precisely so the journalists don’t have to think about technical matters.
In the last two years, we have conducted a series of tests and adjustments without the editorial staff having had a clue about it. A/B tests, personalisation of content to specific segments of readers, and automated newsletters that are managed by algorithms are just a few of these.
And we know in the future, we will be testing still more things that can increase readers’ engagement and loyalty. For example, not showing certain articles you have already read and showing more premium content to loyal readers who we think can be converted to digital subscribers.
Our vision is to take care of every visitor, providing the best news experience, and, at the same time, support the business targets of SvD. And we will never be able to do that if we keep on working in with old-fashioned methods, because no editorial staff can manually deliver thousands of individual news experiences every minute, every day. To compete seriously with a digitalised media world, newsrooms must become more data-driven.
Two years later we are studying the results. The altered, simplified processes in the editorial rooms have led to more time for investigative, quality journalism. In this period, we have been awarded more journalistic prizes than ever before in the newspaper’s 132-year history, including “The Golden Shovel,” “Revelation of the Year,” and “Story¬teller of the Year,” to mention a few.
And when Baquet appeared at SXSW, SvD and Schibsted presented the business results for the year 2016. It showed a strong growth in digital subscriptions and digital advertising. Altogether, this produced the second-best result in the newspaper’s history — a growth in results that runs parallel with our endeavors in journalism and technology.
This text is also a part of Schibsted’s outlook on trends within tech, society, and business.