The Oregonian newsroom on June 20, 2013, in a photo tweeted by staffer Anna Griffin.

Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News

Ken Doctor predicts the future of news production.

As the man behind Newsonomics, Doctor contributes a column for Nieman Labs and has published a “Newsonomics” book. He also delivered the keynote at the University of Oregon’s 2015 What is Journalism conference.

I caught up with him a few days after his speech and asked him a few followup questions. His answers were gracious and thorough.

You said in your talk that The Oregonian’s experiment with going digital-first appears to be paying off financially and that other companies have taken notice. Do you see this model becoming the standard for all dailies?

Yes and no. No doubt, by 2025, few dailies will be printed and delivered 7 days a week. The question is how this print/digital transition works. Advance is a pioneer, but I think an impetuous one, lurching to digital without having secured digital/All-Access subscriptions. I think that’s a big flaw, and so Advance isn’t a great model.

Can a paper that switches to digital-first preserve its reputation and brand loyalty, especially as it sheds familiar bylines? How bumpy is that road?

Certainly, it can, but it’s a tough trip. Essentially, almost all news publishing is now digital-first — it has to be. The brand value, and recognition, of trustworthy news companies carries over, and is in fact enhanced, but only if it carries the same quality of journalism with it. If “digital-first” is as much as exercise in cost-cutting, especially in jettisoning well-known columnists, it diminishes its brand. That’s not the fault of digital transition; it’s a management issue.

In your talk you said that currently, most dailies get roughly a tenth of their online traffic from Facebook. Can newspapers and other traditional media adapt to incorporate more visual (and mobile-friendly) social media like Snapchat, Periscope and Instagram? How important is that transition?

Humans are visual creatures — TV be our witness — and text-mainly websites must learn to apply all of today’s storytelling tools to be effective.

Last summer, you wrote a very nice report for NiemanLab about The Oregonian and its competition here in Portland. Nine months is a long time in this climate. Did you have a chance to check in on any of the upstarts while you were here? Any updates?

I see — from a distance, I must note — more nibbling around the edges of The Oregonian. News authority appears somewhat more shared, and Willamette Week’s blockbuster Kitzhaber stories certify that trend. Even a diminished Oregonian still has outsized scale, compared to the rest of media, and that poses an issue for competing media. Consequently, I wouldn’t be surprised to see greater partnerships among area news companies.

Is any news organization currently doing a good job making money from publishing on social media?

Buzzfeed — and it is a big news org — understands the social monetization terrain best. Much has been made about its native ad strategies, but implicit in those is its masterful manipulation of social media for its advertisers. Create a viral ad, and get paid (more) for that virality. It’s a model worth studying.

In your talk, you mentioned that apps designed by national names tend to offer a better user experience than stuff made by the littler guys. What can local news outlets do to compete in terms of quality?

They can borrow/copy from the user experiences of top national legacy and digital-only news companies. The models are out there from Vox to Circa to Billy Penn to Guardian. Adapt and then innovate atop these ideas.

Along those lines, it seems to me that one often-overlooked aspect of the switch to online is that it effectively turns news producers and advertisers into competitors. Have you found that traditional print advertisers are looking at digital news media and thinking, “I can put up my own spreadable media, compete with them for eyeballs and be more effective”?

Another yes and no. Certainly, the truism that everyone’s a publisher is real. At the same time, the native advertising push reminds us that even the biggest advertisers acknowledge they have little idea on how to do (commercial) storytelling and really satisfy audiences. That’s why publishers are finding new business in native and content marketing.

-by John Strieder

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