Conscious commissioning and what (exactly) makes our readers tick
At the advent of digital photography Kodak were reluctant to invest in the new medium despite the world’s first digital camera being created by Steven Sassoon, one of their own employees. Sassoon told the New York Times about his attempt to pitch it to them:
“They were convinced that no one would ever want to look at their pictures on a television set. Print had been with us for over 100 years, no one was complaining about prints, they were very inexpensive, and so why would anyone want to look at their picture on a television set?”
Even when they started to transition towards a digital business, Kodak were slow and reluctant to veer from print as their primary offering on the basis that it was an historically successful format that they believed would be loved for ever. They filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2012.
For The Times and The Sunday Times, conscious commissioning and the Content Review have been part of a transition towards digital to ensure we don’t suffer a Kodak moment.
The way that we present our journalism has changed over the years but the core of what we create has remained the same. Until entering the digital age, our only reader feedback was through print sales and letters to the editor. Now we have access to so much more.
As a subscription business in a world of free news, we must make our value clear in order to grow and retain our subscribers. However as reader growth has led to a larger digital base than print, that value is no longer a straightforward package of stories in a newspaper.
To identify exactly which parts of our journalism result in high digital engagement and to help shape our output as we move into a digital-first world, we embarked on the Content Review: a long-term content science project using deep analysis of our journalism to understand how every small, sometimes unconscious, decision we make impacts the behaviour of our readers. Here’s how we did it and what we found.
We worked with Peder Bonnier and Fredrik Strömberg of KIT, a Swedish online news publisher who created KITCORE. A component of their story engine (which you can read more about here), the KITCORE taxonomy is a world of metadata categories that map the entire editorial process from idea definition through to editorial goals and format options.
Using this taxonomy, we took a representative sample of content across both of our titles (roughly 1,000 articles per section across a 17-month period) and tagged each article with 16 detailed pieces of metadata. This process was carried out by a team of eight over three months, working inside the newsroom and getting to grips with the intricacies of the taxonomy each day.
Aside from the taxonomy being super smart, the fact that it was created by a third party meant that we were forced to categorise our articles against neutral data points without attempting to create workarounds for some of our more traditional quirks. The article tagging was carried out manually by a talented freelance team who, importantly, weren’t already part of our newsroom which meant that the data was clean and free from any previous assumptions.
Tagging our content across multiple data points gave us insights in such granularity that we could pinpoint the effects of each decision taken from commissioning to publication of every article. For example, we could ascertain if a certain tone leads to a higher rate of subscriptions; if our readers engage with news stories from specific parts of the world more than others; and identify themes across articles that lead to a longer time on page, more shares or a higher number of comments. There were a few specific questions that we wanted to answer but we primarily aimed to explore our how readers react to aspects of our journalism that we hadn’t considered in such depth before.
Not only did we require trustworthy and robust data, we had to translate it carefully and efficiently in order to get senior editors on board with the findings. We wanted to use the data to allow editors to think differently about the service we’re providing for our audience and give them the tools to confidently shape our journalism for the future.
Overall, the data presented an idea that we’ve internally termed our “us-ness” — the aspects of our journalism that are uniquely “us”. For The Times and The Sunday Times, that could be Anthony Loyd writing on the ground from Raqqa, Mike Atherton’s cricket analysis or a cutting restaurant review from Marina O’Loughlin. Overwhelmingly, things that we produce that no one else could do in the same way helped us to acquire new readers and led to high engagement with our current subscribers.
This is particularly stark in the Home News section where news stories that we’ve picked up and re-written without adding anything unique underperform drastically. There is clearly a benefit to reporting the news but with the data showing us that news reports with no added value or original content weren’t doing a clear service to readers, we started to cut these stories from the digital run to offer a more curated selection of valuable journalism. It’s still early in our phase of experimentation but encouraging initial reports show levels of engagement with the Home News section have risen despite offering around 15 per cent fewer stories each day.
For World News, we found that our best engaged pieces were from our experts on the ground explaining the world rather than simply reporting it. As a result, the World editors have started experimenting with writing the more “informative” reports from the desk in London, freeing up our foreign correspondents to concentrate on the authentic takes and explanation that our readers engage with so well.
Interestingly, on Business we found that the exclusivity of news mattered less than it might across other desks. Where we could see that people reading UK-focused news would skip over the takes that are available on other news sources, our Business readers read the section more widely suggesting that where we are not readers’ sole source of general news, we’re often the first place they’re reading for Business coverage. We also found that charts and graphs visualising data increased the performance of Business articles most, so we’re focusing on up-skilling our Business reporters to create more data-vis where it’s needed.
It’s still too early in our experiments to say whether these changes are making a substantial difference to our readers and their engagement rates but it’s been an important trigger for discussion around our journalism, the difference between needs of print and digital readers and has encouraged us to think more carefully around our output for the future.