Two of the three panelists who spoke Monday at the INMA World Congress of News Media in Washington D.C., about best practices to get and keep paying subscribers noted they are former journalists, signaling right off where they feel the nexus is for such efforts in a publishing house.

If there was any question, the third speaker similarly stressed the central nature of newsrooms in any meaningful efforts at media consumer engagement in today’s publishing environment.

The panel consisted of two former journalists, but all three speakers underscored the importance of editorial in consumer engagement.
The panel consisted of two former journalists, but all three speakers underscored the importance of editorial in consumer engagement.

In the end, all the panelists — Josh Awtry, senior director for news strategy at U.S. publisher Gannett; Renée Kaplanhead of audience engagement at the Financial Times (FT); and Kasper Worm-Petersen, head of analytics at Denmark’s Ekstra Bladet — extolled the virtues of deep data diving into their customers’ digital reading habits and using that information to smarten editorial decision-making.

“I think too often we gloss over the newsroom by handing over dashboards and reports and some fancy screens and saying, ‘Oh, good! They’re onboard, too,’” said Awtry, one of the former journalists. “We miss an opportunity to capture what is the biggest sector of our employment. By honing in on reporters — the biggest sector in our newsroom — activating them, and fully engaging them in the process, I think we can radically increase things.”

Gannett’s PressBox dashboard, promoted across the company by Awtry and his colleagues, is custom-designed to provide a reporter-centric view of how a newspaper’s stories are faring with its public in terms of reading interest and time.

But somewhat uniquely, Awtry urges newsrooms to use such metrics to cut back on how many articles they produce — specifically, articles that numbers show probably aren’t worth the effort to publish in the first place.

He said a thought experiment using such data to identify losers, rather than winners, across all of Gannett’s journalism for one sample period found the company would have lost only about 6% of its online traffic if it simply eliminated the worst performing half of all stories. The upside of such a dramatic move, he said, is that it instantly frees up all the time and resources that goes into those stories.

In reality, of course, it’s not quite as simple to know in advance which stories will succeed with readers and which won’t. But Awtry told the INMA audience a practical deployment of the concept had reduced bylined articles by one-third — 60,000, down from 90,000 — while total online views had actually increased.

At FT, Kaplan — also a journalist — said her team of about 10 mostly fellow journalists works primarily to tie their editorial colleagues into all the data made available by the commercial side of the company.

“We’re very much focused on translating for the newsroom and into editorial actions what the rest of the business’s conversion and retention strategies are,” she said.

Those strategies are built around the FT’s engagement metric of choice, which it calls the RFV (recency, frequency, and volume): “The RFV is essentially an integrated metric,” Kaplan said. “It’s a score.”

All FT digital readers are scored over a 90-day period on how recently they accessed the newspaper’s content, how often they returned for more, and how many pieces of content they consumed in a visit.

With all that data streamlined down into a single value, Kaplan said it becomes much easier for various desks in the newsroom to not only understand how readers are interacting with their content but then optimise stories and presentation by platform.

In addition, it means no part of FT, including the newsroom, is operating in a silo disconnected from the rest of the company’s strategies for success and growth.

Despite not being a journalist himself, Worm-Petersen said he benefits from the fact the long-standing newsroom culture at Ekstra Bladet, Denmark’s largest tabloid, is extremely open and innovative. The editorial department apparently not only welcomes but actively seeks out the sorts of reader insights from data that other publishers often feel they have to force down a newsroom’s throat.

Worm-Petersen noted by example a readership analysis overturning some of the anecdotal assumptions made in the newsroom and elsewhere in the company about subscriber preferences when it comes to editorial content. Three key insights, contrary to assumptions, were that:

  • Subscribers did not read longer articles than non-subscribers.
  • Articles from specialised verticals generated much lower churn than standalone articles thought to be of higher value.
  • Ekstra Bladet’s free online content was a primary engagement driver even for paid subscribers.

Editors immediately adopted a new content strategy, Worm-Petersen said, that paid content should be short, niched, or centred around specialised verticals, as well as complementary to free content.