As media companies around the world shift toward reader-revenue strategies, quality journalism is becoming a clear driver of business success. Newsrooms are transforming to support high-quality content efforts across the competitive digital media landscape, developing new products to reach new audiences and reinforce value for existing customers.
Leaders at six media companies — Handelsbatt, The Washington Post, Bonnier News Group, Dagbladett, BBC, and NRC Media — shared how culture change and product development are furthering journalistic missions during INMA’s Master Class on Newsroom Transformation in March.
Culture overhaul at Handelsblatt
In his roles as head of digital and now editor-in-chief at Handelsblatt, Sebastian Matthes has been driving the company through some foundational hurdles before real transformation could take place.
Sharing a chart from 2019 that mapped Web site visits and content publication, Matthes pointed to the disconnect between reader visits in the morning and content published between 4 pm and 6 pm. This was a holdover from print deadlines. To shift to a user-focused culture, the newsroom needed to ask: What questions do users have at a certain time. What do readers need to know in the morning before they begin their day?
To achieve this change, Handelsblatt democratised the newsroom’s morning meeting. There are discussions about numbers at this meeting, but even more importantly the newsroom discusses which stories have been doing well, have been quoted elsewhere, and what can be learned from the day before. The newsroom also made data a bigger part of daily life, revealing a connection between content and business goals.
“What we see now is great journalism is causing fantastic readership, especially in a paid environment,” Matthes said.
Cross-functional collaboration at The Washington Post
The Washington Post has also addressed newsroom culture to bolster journalistically driven business goals, Managing Editor Kat Downs Mulder said. For the past five years, the company has transitioned from having a scale to subscription model while becoming a national and international news source.
It was important to build teams that work well together to do this, but Mulder said it has been equally important to empower every department to feel like their ideas matter. Those teams should also combine skill sets so people can learn from one another. A group called The Sub Hub is a good example of this strategy.
“As we grew subscriptions, our organisation had to adapt,” Mudler said. “We had several different groups working on subscriptions.”
This included the marketing team, product team, analytics, engineering, and more. Mulder said these teams were trying to work together, but there was confusion and a lack of clarity about how to do so. It was slowing down progress.
Mulder added that making the effort to connect cross-functional groups like this together is worth it, as this collaboration can accelerate transformation and improve outcomes.
Selective content sharing at Bonnier News Group
There can be pitfalls when a company is zealous in its efforts to encourage resource-sharing to the point of over-centralisation, especially across multiple titles. Lotta Edling, editorial director at Bonnier News, said centralisation cannot come at the cost of uniqueness and integrity of individual newsrooms.
Edling pointed to Bonnier News’ acquisition of MittMedia and Amedia in 2019 as a warning about the risks of over-centralisation. MittMedia was highly profiled, but it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Edling said this was because the company had neglected local journalism.
Editorial functions — including editing, sports and culture coverage, and opinion writing — were shared among regions. This meant that some work was happening up to three hours away from a newspaper’s region. Several titles did not have an editor-in-chief, while 40% of all staff belonged to shared functions. This centralisation strategy ended when Bonnier took over.
Now, Bonnier is testing ways to leverage this ecosystem to boost loyalty and revenue, adding features like travel and cooking from Expressen Lifestyle, and international news from Dagens Nyheter.
Overall, Eding said if an editor believes specific shared content will add value, it is perfectly fine to try and start on a small scale: “Experimenting has never been easier than today, and this is the way we’ve decided to go when it comes to shared content.”
New product development at Dagbladet
As news outlets are realising more than ever the importance of their journalism to building sustainable business models, experimentation, testing, and new product development are key to staying relevant and valuable to consumers. About two and a half years ago, it was clear Dagbladet needed a new strategy to save its dwindling circulation and falling ad revenue.
Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Beverfjord said it was obvious the company had to make a significant strategic shift. Video content and live breaking news coverage seemed to be the perfect opportunity.
“We know if we’re going to cover news today, it’s no longer enough to use text and still images,” she said. “Our users want to see events when they happen and where they happen.”
Despite its position as one of Norway’s leading newspapers, it faced significant challenges: It didn’t have any sort of Web TV presence, and it had not seen any growth either in pageviews or in unique users in quite some time.
Dagbladet’s staff looked to its audience for guidance, examining digital use and popular content areas. The team also talked to readers directly through focus groups and a large survey. In doing so, the company discovered that tabloid breaking news was most important to readers and shifted its strategy in response.
The results, Beverfjord said, were almost immediate. Led by a Web TV initiative, Dagbladet enjoyed a 79% increase in pageviews and a 42% bump in unique users. The 100,000 daily stream starts in 2018 has grown to more than 600,000 daily stream starts today. And, despite a decline in the print edition, the company saw higher revenues last year.
Visual identity at BBC
The BBC also believes news media companies need to be more visual to be successful in journalism, said Amanda Farnsworth, head of visual and data journalism at BBC News. She feels storytelling using maps, charts, and graphics are increasingly expected by audiences, especially those in the UK.
“That’s the main driver of why we are moving in the BBC as fast as we can,” Farnsworth said.
During the U.S. election, the data team wanted to make sure that wherever its content was shared,. it was clear it came from the company. They used the same colour palette, font, and icons to ensure they were telling the story in the same way. Farnsworth said that while having a logo helps, people can make connections between a font and your brand.
“And that is really important in the digital world,” she said. “Where everything is so disaggregated so often, people don’t really know where content has come from. It’s really important to use every tool that you can to be really clear that this comes from your organisation.”
This strategy really worked, Farnsworth said. Social media shares and clicks were high, and traffic to the Web site rose significantly. Wherever a viewer was in the world, it was very clear they were looking at a BBC graphic.
Deepening audience relationships at NRC Media
Building brand identity around quality content goes beyond visual products. Harrison van der Vliet, deputy editor-in-chief at NRC Media, said when considering how to expand the company’s reach to new, younger audiences, podcasts were an attractive, and successful, platform.
“Podcasts are so important,” van der Vliet said. “The most important reason being that we are able to reach a much younger audience through podcasting. Two-thirds of our podcast users are under the age of 35.”
Reaching that elusive target market isn’t the only benefit NRC has gained by adding audio to its strategy, van der Vliet said. The new approach allows its journalists to dive deeper into stories and topics in a way that print or digital doesn’t allow. At the same time, podcasts help cultivate richer, deeper relationships with the audience as the newsroom becomes more transparent and more “human” to subscribers.
“Podcasting has turned our bylines into real people, into voices,” van der Vliet said. “We get feedback from subscribers saying, ‘I now know who I’m reading because I’m also listening to you.’”
See INMA’s list of future Master Classes here.