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Learning the right lessons from digital news leaders

The best formula for building a news site continues to elude some publishers

I’ve been applying for online news jobs the past few months, which means evaluating a lot of news sites and mobile products. And I think I’ve put my finger on what separates the smartest digital news companies from the ones trying to learn from them.

It’s not about content (not really, more on this later). It’s not about writing shorter, blogging faster, user quizzes, providing context, data projects, “Snowfall” presentations or any of the other usual suspects raised when newsroom leaders start discussing being digital first or Web focused.

What the leaders in digital news understand is that success depends on the connection between mobile, social, design, workflow and CMS.

If any one of those is out of alignment with the rest, you’re limiting your ability to grow your audience.

Here’s what I mean.

Mobile: This is the growth area for digital traffic. People are spending more and more time on their mobile devices, sites are seeing majority mobile traffic. I think this one is pretty much understood. However, what seems somewhat less acknowledged is that your mobile strategy is almost entirely dependent on your strategy for …

Social: During all that time people are spending on their mobile devices, once you subtract the time they’re spending watching videos, shopping, using dating apps or listening to music, the chance for them to find your content comes while they are on Facebook, chatting, on email or on other social platforms (Twitter, Pinterest, you know the list.) So how do you maximize that chance and then keep them on your site? One important way is through …

Design: How prominent and clear are the share buttons on the mobile version of your content? Do you have suggested sharelines like the L.A. Times? Can users highlight and share a passage like they can on Medium? Do you need bullet points at the top of the story to draw in readers? Does the page load quickly over a mobile connection? Are users encouraged to register, “like” your site or sign up for your newsletter? Is there an endless scroll or related content on the page that’s relevant to the user, that they will ideally go to and also share?

In other words, are you doing everything possible to cater to the social+mobile user? (Soon to be known simply as “the user” as the social+mobile part will be understood) Is this a primary goal or an afterthought?

Of course, you can’t do this without …

Workflow and CMS: Does your staff have the time and means to associate related content, to add accurate tags to stories, to write bullet points, to craft appropriate messages for your share buttons (instead of just defaulting to the standard headline) and to preview the mobile version of the content? And are they working at the right time of day to have maximum impact on social and mobile audiences?

Taken together, you have your workflow and CMS enabling your design to maximize your social sharing, which leads to more traffic, which leads to more sharing, thus creating a virtuous circle of delicious audience-growing goodness.

Forgive my primitive flow chart skills, but you get the idea

The news orgs that we look at as innovative (Buzzfeed, Vox, Quartz) by-and-large realize this and keep each of these elements working together smoothly.

I think you’ll find that the newsrooms that are trying to catch up are lacking in one or more of these areas. (And I don’t just mean newspapers and other traditional media, but Web 1.0 operations like Yahoo! News and Gawker, as well.)

And I’m not sure they realize it’s a problem.

News as a service

GigaOm’s Matthew Ingram recently wrote an article, One secret to the success of Quartz, BuzzFeed and Gawker: They look at news as a service, that helped me come to this realization.

Several people on Twitter asked Ingram something to the effect of “hey, don’t most journalists consider journalism a service?”

In the traditional sense, sure. Reviews, breaking news, investigations, advice — that’s all a service to the reader.

For innovative newsrooms though, service also means you’re reaching people where and when and how they need to be reached.

In a world where everyone can create the same content and is fighting for the same attention, the sites that use effort and design to show their users they understand how they live and work have a pretty significant advantage.

But what about content?

I’m overly fond of the phrase “culture swallows strategy” when discussing the traditional news operations that have been in the process of switching to digital for the last decade or two.

I used to think it meant that even if a company’s strategy is sound, it won’t be able to overcome an ingrained culture. Now I’m starting to wonder if, more often, it means an ingrained culture prevents a company from formulating a successful strategy.

In Fungible, a 2012 essay, Stijn Debrouwere writes about challengers to journalism from outside of journalism and how “People just don’t value journalism as much as journalists do.”

His recommendations on how to survive include concentrating on storytelling and personality, like This American Life and the Awl; relieving people of boredom, like Gawker; focusing on people’s passions, like MacRumors; and doing stuff that matters like ProPublica and the Texas Tribune.

Here’s where the leading digital newsrooms also excel — they make the value of their content immediately clear. Vox is for explaining the news. Buzzfeed is for when you’re bored. Grantland is about personality and storytelling. Quartz is for topics people are passionate about (hell, it even groups its stories by “Obsession”).

How many established newsrooms do you hear talk in those terms though?

So while I think its great that traditional publications are willing to learn from the upstarts, there’s a difference between “willing to learn” and “learning the right lessons.”

Publishers and editors who understand, on a fundamental level, how everything they do relates to the user’s experience will be the ones in the best position to succeed.

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