Newsroom transformation isn’t just about processes and platforms, although that’s often where the conversation focuses.
“It’s about making sure that our content is more relevant to readers, that we’re expanding our audience, that we’re delivering value for the people willing to pay for our news,” Amalie Nash, lead for the new initiative, explained during a recent members-only Webinar.
The first Webinar of the Newsroom Transformation Initiative leaned into the importance of newsroom transformation in the digital age and the challenges facing it. The coming months will address how to create that relevance and will look at topics such as news fatigue, newsroom restructuring, content economics and more.
To kick off those conversations, Nash brought in Alexandra Beverfjord, executive vice president at Aller Media in Norway, and Lotta Edling, editorial director at Sweden’s Bonnier News. While newsrooms have changed dramatically in recent years, adding dashboards and data analytics, it’s clear that more work lies ahead to achieve true transformation from the print realm to the digital one.
Striking a balance
Some of the biggest challenges facing the news media industry, Beverfjord said, are rooted in culture and technology:
“We need a big change in how our team thinks to move forward with our digital transformation,” she acknowledged. “In terms of technology, we have to deal with adding new tools that can manage the huge amount of data and content that we create.”
In addition to learning to embrace new digital tools, newsrooms wrestle with how to find the right balance of coverage. To reach a broader audience, newspapers must be able to offer something to everyone, and that means finding the right balance between hard news coverage, investigative stories, lighter news, and entertaining content that might appeal to younger audiences.
Beverfjord noted that isn’t much different from the way it’s always been; selling a print newspaper required having an appealing mix of content on the front page. But Edling added that the right mix has become even more important than in the past because of the growing challenge of news fatigue.
“It’s a tougher world today, and we have to report about everything that’s happening. But of course, we have to be very humble that more and more people may be a bit news fatigued, which is fine,” Edling said. “It makes sense. It’s just complicating our job because we need to get the hard [news] out, but we also need to keep [their interest].”
Some news publishers are using explainers to offset news fatigue, Nash said, as well as providing more solutions-oriented journalism and inspiring stories as a counterbalance to negative news.
News meets new formats
As more users find information through social media platforms, news media companies must work harder to stay relevant. It comes down to working with both speed and quality, Beverfjord said.
Providing good, reliable information is essential to discrediting rumours and disinformation, and it’s also critical to be there for every stage of a breaking news story — from text alerts to video coverage to a full-blown story, she said: “We have to win every stage on that journey so you can provide the best quality and the best coverage.”
With so many ways to present the news beyond the traditional structure of print, building a newsroom designed for all formats presents challenges.
When big news events must now be covered not just by a print journalist but also with video and audio, oftentimes it requires beginning with reporters who specialise in certain formats. Beverfjord said that, early on, Aller Media had one set of reporters for the Internet and one for the print edition. Companies branching out into areas like podcasts or Web TV should also consider hiring people who already have skills in that particular area.
“But after a while, it’s more reasonable to integrate it into the rest of the organisation,” she said.
Edling agreed and pointed out this is the very definition of newsroom transformation: “It will spread among reporters,” she said.
“Those who from the beginning might say, ‘No, I don’t want to do TV, I’m not good at filming with my mobile’ or whatever. They one day say, ‘Well, I can do that myself.’ So it is really a transformation of the staff in the newsroom.”
Beyond the way that contributes to moving the newsroom forward in innovation, Edling said it adds something else to the environment’s appeal: “My experience is also that people really feel that they’re developing when they learn other kinds of media formats.”
How Mediahuis harnessed technology
Yves Van Dooren, data science business partner newsrooms at Mediahuis in Belgium, provided another example of newsroom transformation with his case study on using Article DNA.
Article DNA is a programme the company launched to help analyse and understand the characteristics of news articles to improve content strategy and audience engagement.
“We tried to analyse our stories and … maybe predict what are the main stories driving subscriptions, new subscriptions or engagement. And it was a very tough job,” Van Dooren said. “The conclusions were really very blurred, and that’s because we didn’t know a thing about our articles, to be honest.”
Mediahuis began taking inventory of everything it knew about its articles and stories, then extracted characteristics using natural language processing (NLP) to see if it could get better engagement.
The early results weren’t stellar, but then Mediahuis began asking journalists important questions — such as why they wrote a story in the first place.
“That’s a very interesting thing because if you look later on in the analysis, you will see stories that ... were [written on the journalist’s] initiative were very much appreciated by the audience.”
Another important question is the “how” — how the story is delivered to the audience.
“We split that up into two things: One is the format, the journalistic genre … and the user needs. It’s all about the intent.”
From there, Mediahuis created firm guidelines for every story: “We cannot publish any story without those elements,” Van Dooren said.
Initially, introducing Article DNA to the newsroom was, in the words of one online manager, “a mess.” However, further training and team sessions resolved early problems, and analysis showed correlations between certain characteristics and audience engagement, such as the success of obituaries and inspirational sports stories.
The project also highlighted the importance of headlines and the potential for AI to assist in generating effective headlines.
Today, Mediahuis has learned more about the ideal content mix for its readers. Certain elements are dictated by the news and events occurring, but Van Dooren said that while publishers cannot choose what news is happening, they can choose how they present it: “You can choose how you bring them, with what intent you bring them, and also in what journalistic genre you bring them,” he said.
“It’s a good idea to think about how to make your product the best fit, not only for your audience, but also for your brand.”