Aspectus PR's Alastair Turner analyses the emerging trends and how newsrooms
are responding in the era of digital first
Image credit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NYC_Top_of_the_Rock_Pano.jpg
The aftershock continues to reverberate across the media following last month's leaking of a strikingly frank New York Times (NYT) report.
Originally intended as an internal document examining the challenges faced at the NYT, the report's content, and the circumstances surrounding its leak, have proved divisive. Some call it a key document, others argue it could be a disaster. Just a day after the leak, the paper's chairman and publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. fired editor Jill Abramson citing on-going management issues.
While these two events certainly won't go down as the finest days at the NYT, the travails outlined in the 92-page report raise some big questions being faced by many companies - and not just those in the media: namely how to innovate and remain relevant in the digital age.
Somewhat ironically, the NYT has a relatively strong track record of digital innovation, from being one of the first to create an uncluttered 'news first' homepage, snaring nearly 800,000 paying digital-only subscribers, to its lauded long form feature Snow Fall about the 2012 Tunnel Creek avalanche.
However, as the report points out, putting a lot of resource into big projects is not something that can be easily replicated or consistently produced. So, despite pockets of brilliance, the NYT is seemingly yet to find an effective way to put a cross-organisation digital strategy into action.
While the answers are far from simple, several nascent trends appear to be establishing themselves as conventional procedure, in an industry where the 'digital first' mentality is starting to dominate.
Continuous delivery is a technique that has been employed in software development for many years to streamline and improve the deployment of updates. It is well suited to the digital and online age, where website and app users quickly get to experience updates in features, functionality and appearance. Many of the big digital hitters including Facebook, Google and Amazon have adopted the methodology, and the Guardian makes its view clear on a dedicated developer blog.
For the media, it is probably the mindset of continuous delivery that is key. The notion of continual evolution in an un-pausing environment (the internet) means that nothing can ever be considered as being complete. As the NYT report states, it will become necessary to "push back against our perfectionist impulses".
In the digital world, it is possible to publish brilliant content but promote it via what proves to be the wrong channels, or at the wrong time, and therefore not achieve the pickup anticipated. Moreover, unlike with print, 'mistakes' can be rectified more rapidly and, with analytics and actionable reporting, a trial and error method enables publishers to pursue successful procedures more quickly.
A long established technique in the PR world, rapid response involves monitoring breaking or current news and adding a 'this is what it means' angle for a target audience. Arguably the basis of Buzzfeed, Upworthy and other 'newsjacking websites', the ability to continually repackage current content for an audience to share has seen Buzzfeed outstrip the BBC for website traffic.
The NYT's report features the chart below that shows how the Huffington Post - one of the first big digital only news aggregation and blogging sites - dominates website reader traffic in the US.
Irrespective of whether or not this proves to be a passing trend, it is clear that speed, timing and creativity are crucial to news delivery. While there's no substitute for great journalism, such as breaking the big story (the scoop), the ability to publish, promote, and rapidly repackage or repurpose to grab the attention of new audiences is one of the main challenges facing newsrooms.
Digital channel innovation
Arguably, there is no single brand or publishing entity that has yet to create a fully formed 'multi-channel' approach to its digital offering, but the statistics in the NYT report are particularly illuminating. Only 10% of its website traffic comes from social media, despite more than seven million 'Likes' on Facebook and 12 million followers on Twitter. By comparison, the report estimates that 60% of Buzzfeed's traffic is generated by social media.
Given the New York Times' reach, it is surprising it cannot generate a greater share of social traffic. The report details how its most effective newsroom social media users honed their skills in marketing or commercial roles, and emphasised the need for training for all editorial members involved in the publishing and promotion of content.
Although this issue may not be sequestered to newspaper and media publishers, the need for a coherent strategy that organisations can put into action when a story goes live is apparent.
Multi-screen media consumption
Here, Google's Gmail may be a useful example. When a user checks their email using Google's mobile app, the desktop or mobile website version updates almost simultaneously. Essentially, any actions taken in Gmail will be reflected across all versions a user can access.
News and media sector publishing also employs a similar concept.
For example, the BBC's sports app contains a stream of important news feeds that can also be found on its website, together with additional functionality such as linking to iPlayer so that programmes broadcast over the internet can be streamed directly through many portable devices. This multi-platform and multi-screen environment demonstrates the breadth and reach of digital publishing, where a story or event can be repurposed rapidly for consumption almost anywhere.
Design and user experience are also crucial. The trend of responsive websites that can render content intelligently to meet various screen sizes is likely to continue. The key challenge, however, is coherently linking all these properties, to build an effective platform for print and digital media.
Ultimately, ensuring that the necessary infrastructure is in place is absolutely crucial to being able to publish the right content in the right places at the right time.
Alastair Turner is Global Director at Aspectus PR.