Innovations In Online News: Key Takeaways from the ONA Conference

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In the world of online news, a lot changes from one year to the next. Amidst non-stop news cycles and hectic workdays, it’s all-too-easy to lose sight of the trends and developments steadily transforming this industry. That’s why it’s valuable to step back occasionally for a broader look at the fast-evolving news ecosystem. And, at the recent Online News Association (ONA) annual conference, held this year at the Sheraton New Orleans, that’s what I did.

ONA structured its three-day conference ‘tracks’ around these topics: audience metrics and development; emerging technology; leadership development; revenue, business models and entrepreneurship; innovative news storytelling; mission, ethics and work culture; product design and development; and reporting and verification tools. Here, I focus on a handful of sessions that illustrated this general theme:

Online news organizations are fast becoming innovative, strategic, and sophisticated in experimenting to produce valuable content that supports viable business models.

Session #1: Newsroom Workflow — Tools and Tactics to Simplify and Iterate

Angela Pacienza, Head of Experience at the Toronto Globe and Mail, ably moderated this informative session and served as a panelist. Her overview included a comment that stuck a chord with attendees:

“If you have a good workflow, you don’t even talk about workflow. And if you have a bad workflow, you swear every single day at work.”

Takeaways

In revamping a newsroom workflow, planning is important, but some insights are only derived through action. Get started now and this workflow-development process will be iterative.

Make the workflow process visual, so participants can appreciate the broader context of the organization and see how their particular contribution fits in.

Use a notifications system (not email) to automatically push relevant updates to everyone involved in a developing story.

Expect every change in your organization’s workflow to be unpopular with someone in the system. Nevertheless, keep your eyes on the prize and give people time to voice opinions and adjust to the changes.

Take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Predictive analytics tools can illuminate what your readers want and show how their preferences change at different times of the day.

Kill emails — and the unhelpful practice of creating a new email group for every project. Instead, shift team communications to a tool such as Slack, but be explicit about why you are employing these new methods.

Make your workflow tools accessible to reporters via mobile phones. Critically important!

Session #2: Editorial Experiments to Develop and Refine Your Digital Audience Strategy

Everdeen Mason, Senior Audience Editor at The Washington Post, presented a well-considered session that reinforced this vital message: Hypothesis-driven editorial experiments foster informed strategic choices — allow newsrooms to take educated risks as they seek to expand digital audiences.

She cautioned attendees to remember two things when reviewing experiment analytics:

  1. Analytics measurements incentivize behavior from the people to whom you report them.
  2. Understand clearly which metrics tie back to reader behavior. Ask: exactly what did the reader do that brought about the changes in these metrics?

Takeaways

These are the recommended steps Ms. Mason outlined for creating an editorial experiment:

  • Find the right idea
  • ‘Interrogate’ the idea
  • Form your hypotheses
  • Ask ‘How will we measure this?’
  • Understand what metrics tie back to reader behavior
  • Take stock of your resources.
  • Execute!

Worth remembering: You can conduct experiments retroactively using data captured in the past!

Session #3: The Readers You Have Or the Readers You Want?

Given the ever-present pressure to both increase reader quantity and to enhance reader quality, newsroom strategists are known to have wandering eyes . ‘Sure, our longtime readers are nice; but take a look a these other demographics!’

With this dynamic in mind, newsrooms must walk the line, adjusting content to attract new readers, while remaining loyal to a current base. ‘Dance with the ones who brung ya,’ as the saying goes. This session offered guidance on finding a sustainable answer to this common dilemma.

Takeaways

Here’s a thought experiment to put your newsroom strategists in a consumer mindset. Ask them to consider a situation where they are the target, rather than the hunter. Ask:

  • What’s a publication you’ve heard about, but never read?
  • How could this publication reach you with a story customized to your particular interests?
  • How could it persuade you to subscribe/sign up for additional stories?

Session #4: Design Newsroom Experiments to Test with Analytics

Shirley Qiu, Audience Engagement Strategist at American Press Institute (API) , a nonprofit journalism think tank outside Washington, DC, directed this Saturday session.

Ms. Qiu and her colleagues led a practical session that gave attendees first-hand experience of getting started with hypothesis-based newsroom experiments using an ‘If-Then-Because’ format. Here’s API’s example:

  • If: We add videos to our Board of Governors coverage
  • Then: We will see local audiences engage more
  • Because: Local audiences are more interested in videos than in text.

Takeaways

Timeframes: Choose manageable timeframes (8-10 weeks, for example) for your content experiments.

Metrics: Determine which metrics (conversions, scroll, time on page, social referrals, etc.) can best test your hypothesis. Employing multiple metrics provides an opportunity for in-depth learning.

Serendipity: Be open to unexpected learning. Even when your experiment fails to confirm your hypothesis, it may provide information that leads you to actionable insights for a strategy that will bring desirable results.

Session #5: A Journalist’s Guide to How Newsrooms Generate Revenue

Social-and-digital marketing expert Apryl Pilolli presented this session aimed at helping newsrooms innovate for new revenue opportunities.“Everyone needs to know how we make content — and everyone needs to know how we make money,” Ms. Pilolli said. Her remarks focused on advertising revenue, as opposed to revenue from subscriptions and/or memberships.

Takeaways

Create a ‘playbook’ with your sales team. Say: “Here’s what we can do. Here’s what we’re great at. Here’s what we should avoid.’ This structure provides a foundation for productive collaboration.

Put yourself in the shoes of your advertising sales staff. Since they work on commission, many sales people naturally focus on the content that is easiest to sell. So provide them with compelling talking points to sell what you have created. Show them why a client wants to associate with your content.

Note: It bears repeating that ‘exclusive’ content is always attractive.

Closing Thoughts

2019 marks the Online News Association’s 20th year. (Two decades of online news! Where did that time go?)

If you had the good fortune to attend its recent conference, I’m confident that you’d confirm my observation: ONA continues to foster fresh perspectives on the topics most relevant to digital news professionals.

Although I’m still drinking from the information firehose of ONA-2019, I’m already looking forward to ONA’s next annual conference: Sept. 30 through Oct. 3, 2020 at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.

Get it in your calendar now!

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