Eight Washington, D.C.-based media companies shared their stories, strategies, and best practices with participants in an INMA study tour to kick off the 88th-annual INMA World Congress of News Media in the American capital. With vivid descriptions, top executives talked priorities, philosophies, and differentiators during personal visits that captured a spirit of innovation.

More than 50 media executives visited Gannett/USA Today, Politico, Atlantic Media, National Geographic, Vox Media, U.S. News & World Report, CQ Roll Call, and The Washington Post. 

Here are some highlights and key takeaways from the study tour.

Gannett | USA Today Network

The visit to Gannett/USA Today Network's headquarters in Northern Virginia was a three-hour briefing with 10 top executives who touched on strategy, innovation and risk-taking, audience development, content development, the role of technology and media platforms, marketing, and more. 

Nicole Carroll, editor-in-chief at USA Today, says the company focuses on the things that matter and lets go of the things that don’t: “We know that we have to innovate our way to the future.”

Ray Soto, director of emerging technologies, shared that the Gannett strategy for innovation operates on four themes:

  • Platforms: Gannett starts with evaluating the platform, determining how it might be able to use it and whether it has value.
  • User experiences: Design, how to build a foundation for the audience to experience and learn from the story.
  • Storytelling: Soto’s team understands the technologies and platforms, but he said it really comes down to strong, narrative experiences.
  • Audiences: With each project that Gannett works on, the team uses it as an opportunity to learn and adapt — wanting to activate its audience’s passions through storytelling.

Gannett was very early in creating experiences in Virtual Reality, Soto said. “What was exciting for us was that the platform was very young and there was room to evolve. We wanted to build out experiences that folks actually want to return to.”

Liz Nelson, vice president/strategic content development, talked about Gannett’s “passion brands.”

“We know how to reach people with our news brands. But we are aware that people define community in very different ways,” Nelson said. “So we’re thinking about different ways of serving these communities with these passion brands.”

The USA Today Network has expanded its portfolio beyond core news brands to include a number of niche brands, particularly in sports and lifestyle.

Scott Stein, who oversees Reviewed.com (a consumer product review site of Gannett acquired in 2011) explained how sites such as Reviewed are helping the company diversity its revenue streams. The niche business pivoted away from being primarily supported through advertising to driving affiliate revenue growth.

“We think we have a service journalism model that helps people do two things: find the right product and get the right price for it,” Stein said. “Last year we sold hundreds of thousands of products. We clearly disclose on our pages that we may get a small percentage from these sales.”

Judy Vogel, vice president of strategy development, spoke about Gannett’s strategic approach to audience research:

  • Understand the landscape.
  • Segment consumers to surface motivations and drivers.
  • Understand their relationship to our brands.

“We’ve been able to develop a much clearer road map and deeper understanding of our audience, and how we can build a relationship with them,” Vogel said. “We now know what they want from us, how they want to consume our content, the storytelling formats that will most resonate with them, and how to build engagement.”

INMA members visiting Politico on the World Congress Study Tour.
INMA members visiting Politico on the World Congress Study Tour.

Politico

The challenge of innovating in this moment is front of mind for Politico, CEO Sudeep Reddy told the INMA study tour.

“If we don’t find a way to tell our story and reach our audience, then the outlets that just grab their content out of thin air will find them,” Reddy said. “That’s a responsibility we take very seriously.”

A big part of the Politico strategy is newsletters. The news media company publishes two dozen newsletters every day, each written by beat experts who are very knowledgeable about each specific vertical.

“They’re vital to how we engage with our audience,” Reddy said. “The newsletter strategy has been built around ‘what are the people in each particular space thinking about each day.’”

Politico Pro is a separate part of the company, offering premium memberships on very specific niche topics. It’s 7 years old, and started during the Obama health care reform to address readers who were interested in deeper coverage of that. It started as a free newsletter, then converted behind a paywall.

The Healthcare version followed its success with Energy and Technology versions. Politico Pro now has 15 total newsletters, with 30,000 individual subscribers. The average cost is US$14,000 for a two-year subscription, and Politico has a 90% retention rate.

Vox Media

Ryan Pauley, vice president for revenue at Vox Media, began the INMA visit by sharing that the general mission at Vox is “Go Deeper.” As an example, daily Vox podcasts delve deep into a specific subject each day; reporters also do independent, original investigations.

“We think about it in three ways,” Pauley said. “One is vertical scale; two is our audience, the ‘Curious Class’; and three is omni-channel programming. We’ve deliberately launched eight different media brands, each with their own distinct voice and focus.”

Already one of the biggest news brands on YouTube, Vox.com is growing twice as fast as its competitors on the platform. Between 2015 and 2017, Vox’s podcast audience grew by more than 250%.

Vox Media programmes for an audience it terms the Curious Class. Vox reaches 83% of all 25- to 34-year-olds with a graduate degree who are also business decision makers — more than The New York Times and BuzzFeed. Pauley said the Curious Class knows and loves the Vox signature formats and sponsorship opportunities — like The Explainer, which gives in-depth explanations on complex topics such as this Vox video about Spotify’s algorithm, which Spotify now uses in its employee training. 

Growth depends on continuing to grow these specific channels. From blogs in 2006, through social and mobile in 2012-14, to video in 2018, Vox continues to grow its distinct brand to drive reader loyalty and engagement. Audience engagement on The Verge alone, for example, has basically doubled from 2015 to 2017.

“It’s much more complex than it was three years ago,” Pauley said. “It puts more pressure to create the value with what you’re producing. But if you create that value and level of trust with what you’re producing, the audience will follow you.”

Concert is one of the verticals that Vox launched two years ago, a proprietary software that creates beautiful, innovative ads. Concert focuses as much on distribution as content creation, producing TV-quality ads in the online world, said Kolby Yarnell, general manager of Concert, 

Concert ads are built in three categories:

  • High impact, with 12 times industry average CTR.
  • Mobile video, which is its bread and butter with 7.5 times interaction on mobile video versus the industry standard.
  • Native (branded content), which has five times the engagement versus Facebook and 170% lift over standard native distribution CTR.

U.S. News & World Report

“When we decided to go completely digital and get out of the print news, we were absolutely terrified,” said Brian Kelly, chief content officer at U.S. News & World Report. But since the company’s transformation to 100% digital in 2010, the brand has seen tremendous growth — up to 500 million annual visits.

“The reason we were able to do this is because we are a trusted resource for a motivated audience making decisions,” Kelly said. “We focus on information that matters to people, based on seven core areas of expertise.” These areas are education, health, travel, civic, money, cars, and real estate.

Kim Castro, executive editor of Consumer Advice, said that in-depth research is key to knowing their readers. “We’re using first-party and third-party data to really understand our audience — where they’re coming from and what they’re looking for.”

“It’s a certain kind of customer we’re looking for,” Kelly added. “Sophisticated readers seeking quality information.”

A major benefit to in-depth research reporting on key topics of interest to a specific audience profile is that U.S. News can publish something once and it will pay off 365 days a year.

Though the company has dabbled in paid content and paywalls, that model doesn’t work well for U.S. News. Lead generation is a big part of its revenue model, including links from content that goes to advertisers’ Web sites. Another revenue stream comes from selling the data collected when doing extensive, in-depth research for reports, such as Best Colleges and Best Hospitals.

Advertising is about 60% of revenue at U.S. News (display, lead generation and programmatic) and has been the largest growth area of the business. “The diversification of revenue has been the real key for us,” Kelly said.

Atlantic Media

Bob Cohn, president of The Atlantic, said, “The magazine, far from being unimportant as we reinvent ourselves, is both our heritage and still very important.” Cohn acknowledged the company haas become a digital company as well, and that digital is a big part of business today.

Bob Cohn presenting to the INMA study tour at The Atlantic.
Bob Cohn presenting to the INMA study tour at The Atlantic.

In 2006, most of The Atlantic’s revenue was divided between print circulation and advertising. By 2017, only 19% of the revenue was coming from those two sources, even though the company quadrupled in revenue dollars.

“This is really what captures the transformation of The Atlantic over the past decade, and why we’re still here,” Cohn said. “The pursuit of multiple revenue streams and an entrepreneurial presence is what’s kept us sustainable.”

Cohn said that there are three major challenges facing The Atlantic right now:

  • Facebook: It played a big part in expanding the digital audience growing into the 30 million range, but The Atlantic has seen a major decline in that traffic with the algorithm changes.
  • Advertising: Advertising, which has been reliably growing year over year, was closer to flat in 2017, but is now growing again in 2018. Still, even at 20% annual digital growth, it’s time to reduce our over-dependence on this ad revenue; hence we are pursuing digital subscriptions to provide a new source of income. 
  • Growth: Staff has just about doubled since 2015, and growth at that rate is hard to get right.

“We’ve mostly benefited by just doing what we do,” Cohn answered. “Just writing about this turbulent time and being a source of high-quality, discerning, deeply reported information about what’s happening in the U.S. and around the world about the new administration. We have used the moment we’re living in to amplify the journalism that we do anyway.”

CQ Roll Call/The Economist

Content is king at The Economist Group, said president Paul McHale. Print advertising is still hugely profitable for The Economist, as well as its paid subscriptions.

“You don’t get much for free with The Economist; the basis is if you want it, you have to pay for it,” McHale said. Even though newsroom staff doesn’t have individual bylines, they operate under one journalistic voice. One of the reasons The Economist was recently rated one of the most-trusted magazines in America is because it has a point of view — but it tells you its point of view; it doesn’t try to disguise it.

Paul McHale at The Economist Group talks to INMA members.
Paul McHale at The Economist Group talks to INMA members.

The news media company harnesses the power of an iconic brand, enabling readers to understand and make sense of the world: “What we particularly fix on is that the subscription model can thrive,” McHale said.

The company has used mainly digital marketing to build its audience they are building. As marketing has become more sophisticated, staff has used two measures to determine direction: cost of acquisition and cost per subscription.

“Our approach is that we have a unique position, we’re going to hold onto that position, and we’re chasing the profitable audience,” McHale said. “It’s very clear what The Economist stands for.”

National Geographic

Iconic, 130-year-old National Geographic presented on the topic of “Reverence to Relevance: Rebooting an Iconic Brand.” Its main issue over the past number of years has been how to take an established organisation — one that has been thought of in a particular way — into the modern age.

One way National Geographic has done this is to look at its very recognisable logo — the yellow box — and brand it as a portal. As Jonathan Hunt, senior vice president of digital content and audience development, said, “It’s a way to take you to other places that you might not get to experience for yourself.”

Photography is still the calling card of National Geographic; it’s how the media company really communicate with its audience.

Some of the products that are most engaged with by their audience include Safari Live, On Assignment, and Your Shot. National Geographic also does major custom partnerships with brands such as BMW and Airbnb.

“There’s an acid test that we adhere to every single day,” Hunt said. A piece of content (editorial, video, everything) cannot move forward unless it can answer these four questions:

  • Why us?
  • Why now?
  • Will it perform?
  • What’s our unique editorial and visual take?

Senior Vice President/General Manager David Miller said the team tries to really think through what’s going to work from a consumer perspective, as well as an advertiser or sponsor perspective.

“It’s been very interesting to see the response of the rebirth of the National Geographic brand the past few years,” Miller said. “The majority of the interest we’re seeing right now from our advertisers is around social interaction. A lot of what we’re doing is developing content in partnership with our brand advertisers and then driving those interactions within the social world.”

The Washington Post

Project Manager Alexander Remington described The Washington Post as a 140-year-old newspaper company and a 5-year-old software company. When it comes to its software, the attitude is you shouldn’t outsource your technology to someone else if you can do it yourself.

As the company was preparing for 2012 election coverage, it found that its CMS wasn’t capable of handling it. They needed a different solution. Staff developed ARC, a suite of publishing tools which they not only used for the Post, but began making available to other media companies.

“This is not just an additional revenue stream for us, it’s part of our corporate strategy,” Remington said.

“At The Washington Post, we are trying to broaden our horizons and reach readers on as many channels as possible,” he added. One example of this is AMP Stories: immersive, mobile-first storytelling that is built right into the ARC system.

The Post has also found that the Apple News platform is a huge subscription driver. Even though readership levels are low, the readers have a high level of loyalty and engagement. “It’s vital that our content is on Apple News,” Remington said.

Facebook is another example of a high-engagement platform for the Post: 100% of content goes on Facebook Instant. “Anyone on ARC is able to send content to Facebook Instant Stories if they want,” Remington said.