This article recently published in The Financial Times was very flattering for us at Dagens Nyheter. Silicon Valley veteran Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital wrote in regard to Apple’s launch of a news subscription service that “the real story about the resurgence of high-quality and profitable online journalism is being written elsewhere — and with no greater verve than in Stockholm.”

Moritz named Dagens Nyheter as “one part of a widespread digital resurgence for content providers.” He wrote a lot about payment models, which is natural since he is an investor in digital payments start-up Klarna, and a little about pricing.

A heat map for editors shows which articles on the home page have not only the highest click-through-rate (the classic vanity measure for Web sites) but also the highest active time spent.
A heat map for editors shows which articles on the home page have not only the highest click-through-rate (the classic vanity measure for Web sites) but also the highest active time spent.

Those are key factors in all ventures related to digital subscriptions. Making the registration and payment process smoother has been one of the most important steps in lowering the threshold for signing up for news services. Pricing has also been crucial, but maybe in a way different from what many newspaper companies thought a decade ago. It is more about finding a price level well aligned to the market for digital content in general — whether it’s for music, movies, television, or news — than about maximising the net margin.

Moritz also wrote about the necessity of not relying too heavily on platform companies like Google and Facebook. Ironically, his column was published on the same day that Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, mentioned in an interview that he might be willing to pay news companies (a little) to get them to place their stories in a dedicated news section on Facebook. 

This is, of course, an offer from Zuckerberg that seems little more than a desperate ploy following in the footsteps of failures like Instant Articles, Facebook Watch, and other poorly construed and genuinely inefficient “revenue share” models with few purposes other than to make the social platform a “free” one-stop shop for “content.”

So while I naturally agree with Moritz on the importance of payment models, a correct pricing level, and keeping companies like Facebook at arm’s length, I think he failed to mention the most important point on how a legacy newspaper company can be successful in a heavily competitive digital market.

The point? Culture.

Moving the newspaper business into the digital world’s competitiveness has required a lot of transformative processes in how we work, what we produce, and how we market and sell. But nothing has been more crucial than transforming the way we look at the entire idea of what we are doing.

No, it’s not about publishing all the news that is fit to print (obviously). Nor is it about giving the people what they seem to want. It’s about truly understanding your audience and what engages it. It is about building digital loyalty in a world that consumers view as fundamentally disloyal.

One of the problems in this process has always been metrics and definitions. What’s engaging? What’s engagement? Does it really matter? No one summarises this better than my friend Chris Moran at The Guardian in this brilliant piece in Columbia Journalism Review

For many years, back in the dark heydays of the viral economy — oh, hey, that was 2015 … how quickly we forget — we were fooled into believing engagement equaled metrics determined by Facebook’s News Feed algorithm. As late as the autumn of 2017 and early 2018, many of us still attended workshops and seminars in Facebook’s so-called “Journalism Project,” where the company stoically claimed the best definition of “engagement” was “meaningful conversation.”

That may be true, but in Facespeak, that just translated as “many accounts interacting with each other make a lot of comments on each other’s posts.” Many editors in the room, ranging from companies like The Guardian, The Financial Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, The New York Times, BBC, and Dagens Nyheter argued strongly that it was inane to define engagement that way since it was 1) just a way to encourage toxic topics and 2) extremely easy to manipulate.

This is, of course, exactly what happened. This drove Facebook into an even more damaging downward spiral of populism and disinformation over the past year while reducing quality journalistic content to an obscure entity in the increasingly commercialised and manipulated News Feed.

Focusing on total time spent — a combination of traffic and time/scroll depth — has been an important way of showing what really matters for readers and the news brand.
Focusing on total time spent — a combination of traffic and time/scroll depth — has been an important way of showing what really matters for readers and the news brand.

So, what would be a better definition of “engagement?”

The answer must be found in the DNA of each editor. What defines you? What do you want to achieve? Who is your audience? What does it truly care about? What would make your audience willing to make you a first choice? And — the $10,000 Moritz question — what would make your audience members willing to pay for that service?

Of course, there is not one answer to those questions. But it is our duty as editors to constantly try to form our own, individual answers to them.

For us at Dagens Nyheter, this process has primarily been about two things: First, to define our key metrics. And, second, to get everyone to use and involve them in the way we prioritise, decide, and focus so we produce journalism with the right effect. To be data-informed, not data-driven. Uninformed, we have nothing but blissful and damaging ignorance.

I very much believe in transparency. When I visited certain newsrooms a few years ago, I discovered reluctance in sharing too many detailed metrics to everyone in the organisation. There was a fear about populism — a fear of letting numbers, not gut or experience, decide.

Today, the pendulum has swung. More editors and journalists realise it is necessary to understand reader behaviour more deeply. This makes it possible to truly transform editorial culture into one less reporter-centric and more audience-centric.

In our newsroom, we tried to develop a lot of tools to make this easer for both reporters and editors.

We created an analytics tool called Insight, which shows the entire data history of each article in an easily accessible format.

We also created dashboards showing stories with the highest total engagement score (using a weighted index of different KPIs that we chose as being the most important).

Dashboards show the stories with the highest total engagement score, using a weighted index of different KPIs Dagens Nyheter chose as the most important.
Dashboards show the stories with the highest total engagement score, using a weighted index of different KPIs Dagens Nyheter chose as the most important.

Additionally, we created a heat map for editors that shows articles on the home page with not only the highest click-through rate — the classic vanity measure for Web sites — but also the highest active time spent.

Focusing on time spent — especially total time spent, which is a combination of traffic and time/scroll depth — has been an important way of showing what really matters for both our readers and us. It demonstrates that people are willing to engage in what we do, not in the damaging Facebook way but in a real way.

That is a cultural change that really matters — to everyone in the organisation.