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Each February for the past five years Marty Steffens has taken her University of Missouri School of Journalism business models class to Seattle to experience and hear from entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs who are furiously transforming news media. Seattle has a tremendous range of news outlets, from hyperlocal news sites and traditional print and broadcast properties, to the MSN Web portal and brand newsrooms at Edelman and Starbucks. The startup and innovation culture in Seattle is exciting.

One of the constants of these annual visits has been an in-depth update from The Seattle Times. No two visits are alike. The Times is constantly testing and measuring new strategies, marketing initiatives, content, and audience engagement. There’s an almost insatiable desire to explore new options and opportunities. This year was no different:

Alternate revenue streams

Education Lab grew out of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the Solutions Journalism Network. The funding enabled The Times to add staff and supporting infrastructure to bolster its existing mission of exploring education innovation and engage with teachers, parents, students and the community. Anika Anand, Education Lab’s engagement editor, said The Times also seeks sponsorships for events and email newsletters connected to Education Lab.

Engagement

“Our job is to connect readers to our great journalism,” says Caitlin Moran, community engagement editor for the Opinion section. The Times uses live chat events and a weekly reader Op-Ed page among its engagement toolbox. As an example, she described a “student discipline” initiative that started with an invitation-only event for teachers, students and administrators. Once the issues were surfaced and prioritized, a second, open meeting attracted 250 attendees. The conversation continues on its own Facebook page.

A new weekly readers’ Op-Ed page features community voices that are somewhat shorter than traditional Op-Ed pieces, but longer than typical letters to the editor.

Times social media tools with the most traction are Facebook, Twitter and Reddit.

Marketing

According to Kati Erwert, director of marketing, The Times sponsors quite a bit in the community: music festivals, sports, just about anything the paper and website covers. The Times is now moving into presenting its own events (along with accompanying sponsorship and advertising packages, and face-to-face engagement with the community). Erwert says they are moving slowly into events as it takes a lot of resources (time and staff).

The website has a metered pay model where the company captures registration information from readers. “We’re leveraging our registered users,” Erwert says. One such tactic has been “a very successful” Saturday email newsletter that previews Sunday content. The Times worked with the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and Mather Economics to research and develop dynamic pricing options and packages to appeal to multiple audience segments. The various digital marketing efforts resulted in a 25 percent increase in the acquisition of digital subscribers.

Product development

Senior Product Manager, Traffic Generation and Advertising, Jenny Schultz outlined decision-making criteria for deciding which of the many ideas The Times will pursue.

Decision tree for new product ideas includes:

  • The quality of the content and journalism.
  • Revenue projections.
  • Audience projections.
  • Does it help the brand?
  • Impact of the costs and resources to produce.
  • What and where is the competitive advantage?
  • Outside forces that might prompt consideration, such as adjusting to Google’s changing algorithms or keeping abreast of competition.
  • Development time.
  • Is this the best use of resources, or are there better uses for the required resources?

Advertising

A new native advertising program began at the end of 2015. “We’re learning how best to handle it in social media,” Shultz says. One thing is clear: Native advertising requires clear labeling.

Video

The Times is also working to improve the amount of video and access to this content. The Times trails television stations KOMO and KCPQ in total viewing, but the company is committed to tackling that challenge. A “What’s next” button has been successful in promoting binge watching and thus time on site. That, along with a better video page portal and aggressive tagging effort have resulted in a 50 percent increase in views in just two weeks.

The Times’ efforts are not just directed at new or special initiatives. The staff has worked to integrate all elements of the enterprise, starting with the daily morning news meeting. It leads off with a review of what’s trending on The Times’ website and social media platforms. The runthrough not only surfaces popular Times content, but often points to opportunities for news and feature coverage that day.

On the day we were there, the Zika virus outbreak was tops. Locally two nonbreaking stories were percolating: a weeks-old Community College Guide, the continuing ups and downs of the Puget Sound transit project and morale of Microsoft employees. Surprising, to me anyway, was that Chartbeat identified the Op-Ed page as a hot spot that day.

In upcoming posts I’ll share notes from our visits to Amazon, Starbucks’ new newsroom, NBC Digital’s Breaking News operation and GeekWire’s Startup Day.

Check out 2015’s Seattle’s Best series here.

Brian Steffens  
 
Director of Communications



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