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Dmitry Shishkin presenting at Hacks/Hackers London on 28 June, 2017

Content is Queen.

Lessons for anyone who publishes news online.

On a recent weeknight, I was at Google’s UK headquarters listening to fascinating insights from Dmitry Shishkin, Digital Development Editor at BBC World Service. I don’t know if I was influenced by the beautiful room, the excellent audio, or the cold beer, but it was one of the best presentations I’ve heard in a long time. Dmitry showed us how the world is changing and what this means for everyone who publishes news online, and I walked out of there wanting to shout from the rooftops what I had learnt.

A whole new audience.

If there was one thing Dmitry wanted us to take home, I think it was this:

“1 billion more people will be online by 2020 — coming mainly from Africa, Middle East and Asia — all on mobile phones.”

This is huge. We have a dramatically expanding audience ready to consume our news, data, information, and they will be accessing it on handheld devices. These changes call for us to pause and consider whether our design and technology choices, as well as our content, continue to serve an evolving audience.

To help us create stories that will stand out from the crowd and find their way to these 1 billion people, Dmitry offered five lessons that he’s learnt while developing new ways to reach audiences across 28 (soon to be 40) digital non-English language news services at the BBC World Service.

1. Content is Queen.

Acknowledging that women are massively underrepresented by the media, Dmitry turned the usual ‘content is king’ mantra on its head to introduce his first lesson of the night. To create content that really stands out, you have to add value—like writing a profile that offers unique insight into someone’s mind, or sharing an analysis that introduces ideas or facts that no one else is reporting. At the BBC World Service, Dmitry has found that profiles vastly outperform ‘update’ style content, and analysis articles perform well too.

I was pretty pumped to hear this because profiles and analysis are exactly what I’ve been writing more of recently, and my efforts are being rewarded with higher viewing numbers and more recommendations —which leads neatly on to the next point.

2. Use data to inform your decisions.

Keeping track of how many views your stories get is an obvious way to learn what content is working with your audience. Comparing the number of views each type of content attracts was exactly how Dmitry determined that profiles and analyses are popular with people using the BBC World Service’s digital offerings.

Data is also providing solid evidence that people are taking the time to read long form articles on their mobiles. The assumption that people on mobiles have short attention spans is a myth. In reality, there is a strong desire for well-written, insightful content. For me, the fact people are willing to read an article that’s 3,000+ words long is an incentive to spend time on the research and investigation that’s needed to craft a compelling story.

3. Take risks and try new formats.

This lesson was possibly my favourite of the night because it encourages me to experiment with new ways to share Vizzuality’s news and insight. At the BBC World Service they have introduced cartoons and satire into markets that don’t have a tradition of using those formats, and bumped up the use of interactive features. What’s more, these new formats are working and the ‘risk’ has paid off. I haven’t yet decided what new formats I’m going to try out, but I’m sure my teammates will have some absurd, yet genius ideas.

4. Find the sweet spot between journalism, technology and data.

According to Dmitry, the magic happens at the interface of journalism, technology and data. I couldn’t agree more! Working with developers, designers and data scientists every day has given me firsthand exposure to the magic that’s created when design, data and technology are used for storytelling. Technology has opened up infinite possibilities, and interactive data visualisations are helping people connect more deeply with the news they are reading. Judging from the number of job openings advertised at Hack/Hackers this month, media outlets understand this too.

Data makes journalism more robust. Together, journalists and developers can design beautiful, informative visualisations that work on mobiles, tablets, and desktops, even if internet connections are weak or patchy. I can’t wait to see what we we’ll be doing in 2020.

A very low-tech visual aid to explain the sweet spot.

5. Use scalable solutions to ensure sustainability.

Dmitry’s last lesson of the day was this: if you want your digital solutions to be sustainable, they have to be scalable to survive the never-ending cycle of both news and innovation. Funnily enough, a recruitment plug from the Financial Times (FT) did a great job of explaining the need for scalability. The FT team makes charts that need to work in print, online, and on social media, and they make them simultaneously so they can meet tight deadlines. To do this sustainably, they’ve developed templates and guides that they use day in, day out. Investing in these internal tools is one of the behind-the-scenes reasons they’ve earned a reputation for being so good at what they do.

Beyond templates, using open source technology and sharing your code with the rest of the community is another way to develop scalable solutions. That’s what we do at Vizzuality, and we’ve found it’s great way to make your products future-proof.

My final thoughts.

Communities like Hack/Hackers are vital to those of us who are working every day to keep people informed and entertained. They provide inspiration, advice, and a chance to meet interesting people. I’ll definitely be returning (partly because I want to check out Twitter’s office) and I can’t wait to find out who’ll be speaking next month. I love that there are experienced people leading the charge on knowledge sharing within the online news community, and though we may compete for views at times, I appreciate these opportunities to learn from and contribute to our collective knowledge.

What I’ve shared here are my takeaways from Hack/Hackers London. Dmitry’s thought-provoking talk prompted questions and responses from the audience, so I recommend checking out #HHLDN on Twitter to see what they are saying. Follow Dmitry too, to keep up with his evolving thoughts on the digital media landscape.

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