Göteborgs-Posten, Het Nieuwsblad share their journeys to a reader-first mindset

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


When Greg Piechota, lead for INMA’s Readers First Initiative, heard Christofer Ahlqvist and Anka Verhoeven talk about their content and newsroom transformations, he was excited to share their experiences with INMA members.

During this week’s Webinar, Ahlqvist, editor-in-chief of Sweden’s Göteborgs-Posten, and Verhoeven, the head of content performance at Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium, provided insight into how they helped shift the newsroom culture to a readers-first mentality.

Piechota moderated the discussion, which he began with a poll to find out what members considered the top challenge in transforming a newsroom to a readers-first mindset. “Breaking down silos” and “changing mindsets of veteran journalists” topped the list. When asked where the transformation should begin, “leadership” overwhelming took the top spot and Ahlqvist agreed.

INMA Readers First Initiative Lead Greg Piechota led a discussion with Christofer Ahlqvist and Anka Verhoeven talk about their content and newsroom transformations.
INMA Readers First Initiative Lead Greg Piechota led a discussion with Christofer Ahlqvist and Anka Verhoeven talk about their content and newsroom transformations.

“You have to get that set straight first,” Piechota said. “And then I would say clear goals and metric is a good No. 2 of what you should do next.”

Göteborgs-Posten was “at the bottom” when Ahlqvist came on board in 2017 and had never recovered from the print drop-off in 2003-2004. Staff layoffs had been going on for over a decade.

“So many talented journalists had left and the ones that were left weren’t that happy,” Ahlqvist explained. As a result, the journalistic product wasn’t that good either: “They did the best they could, but it was broken and the compass strategy was a bit unclear as well.”

 The company was coming out of Chapter 11 and had a new CEO, which Ahlqvist said they leveraged to make a fresh start. The organisation created a new vision to create unique, powerful journalism that readers would be willing to pay for. That began with strengthening the newsroom by hiring new staff and changing the KPIs from pageviews to conversions.

“When you change to conversions, it’s easier to sell to the newsroom,” he said. Convincing writers to create journalism that people are willing to pay for instead of people being willing to click on made for a smooth start and the company saw subscriptions increase.

But that upward swing was short-lived and it changed again in 2019: “We had focused so much on conversions that we were becoming irrelevant for a larger crowd,” Ahlqvist explained. “Our reach was starting to drop and … then the conversions started to drop and we were losing subscribers again.”

Scrolling through the Web site with a critical eye, Ahlqvist said he didn’t find enough interesting content to engage him — so he knew it was time to try something else. The company created an editorial data team to help analyse the content and make suggestions. And instead of looking at the traits of high-performing articles, Göteborgs-Posten took the opposite approach.

“We analysed all our articles one year back and segmented them into articles with less than 1,000 pageviews and articles with 1,000 to 3,000 pageviews in different segments. And then we really looked at the patterns within the articles below 2,000 page views.”

Clear patterns emerged that the company acted on. That meant some of the more routine stories (such as municipality coverage) would be approached differently — i.e., given less coverage or written in ways that people might find more interesting, Ahlqvist said.

“In literature reviews, we could think about how to do this in the culture section; maybe we make a list of five books that could be interesting for the readers instead of just doing one review for one book, for example.”

Building a content performance team

Verhoeven did something similar at Het Nieuwsblad. Although she isn’t a journalist — her speciality is marketing — she was chosen to lead the news team because of her vision for how the content could perform better. One of the roles she added to the newsroom was a conversion editor, who looks at the articles being published daily and how to improve them.

“He looks at titles, he looks at introductions, he looks at what kind of links do we need in that article, what kind of images do we need to use? All those different aspects of an article have an impact on what we focus on — conversions,” she said.

The team recently added a content performance specialist who looks at bigger trends in the data that need to be acted on.

“He looks at the data from yesterday, for example, and sends out a daily report,” Verhoeven explained. “He checks [things like] did we put enough effort in every republishing channel? Did we miss any chances? Did we miss important premium content we did not publish or distribute well enough? So he zooms out enough to tackle certain challenges.”

The role includes looking at a week’s or month’s worth of data and seeing what needs to change and what should be tested.

That approach has allowed them to see data trends in different types of stories. For example, consumer and service journalism pieces will continue converting several days after publication because of their evergreen content. Verhoeven said the team used this information as a jumping-off point to try new ways of promoting the content, such as giving it more attention throughout the week or picking it up again the following week because it could still relevant.  

“That’s the kind of thing that our content performance specialist does,” she said. “Test different things and see if it has an impact on our goal. If not, then we stop doing it. If it has an impact, we try to integrate it into our way of working.”

Göteborgs-Posten and Het Nieuwsblad have found success with a readers-first approach in the newsroom.
Göteborgs-Posten and Het Nieuwsblad have found success with a readers-first approach in the newsroom.

The power of communication

While Ahlqvist and Verhoeven have taken different approaches to how they drive revenue for their companies, one key element they agreed upon was the importance of communication. That includes understanding the challenges journalists face in understanding a new approach and keeping them informed of the “why,” Ahlqvist said.

“What’s been really important for us is to update the newsroom on how were doing financially and the trends and whats happening, so they understand where the money comes from and how the trends are going,” he said. That way, “they are really aware about media economics and it’s much easier to understand why we have to make certain changes.”

Verhoeven agreed, adding that it can be “quite exhausting and frustrating” to get everyone on board. But taking the time to make sure everyone understands what is being done and why, they invariably agree to the new process.

“It’s about having that conversation,” she said. “It’s about letting them challenge you and challenging them back. But have that conversation and explain to them what is in it for them. That works quite well for us.

Greg’s Readers First newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. INMA members may subscribe here.

About Paula Felps

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