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The hub desk at the Wall Street Journal is the center of the newsroom’s activity. Photo by Laura JohnstonIt’s about the people, people.

Digital trends in journalism often scream that we need to study analytics — which we do — and keep up with new applications. (That’s a given, right?) As I found out in a visit to The Wall Street Journal, the not-so-secret sauce in digital news work is focusing on what people do to collaborate with each other and improve audience experience.

I caught a glimpse of this during the first morning meeting at The Wall Street Journal where the report started with an update on analytics before moving into a look at what was coming later in the day. There was chatter about a story with a new take on the farm-to-table movement and how it could be a new favorite for readers.

I went to the Journal to find out what I could do to improve the practices at the Columbia Missourian, a community newspaper managed by professionals and produced by students at the Missouri School of Journalism. By extension, then, I wanted to improve how we prepare our students for community journalism in the digital age.

Some of the tips I discovered might help you and your newsroom, too: 

1.  Make your entire newsroom literate in its online audience.

The first news meeting of the morning at The Wall Street Journal began with a traffic report detailing how stories were performing over the past 24 hours and what sources were driving traffic. Then editors looked ahead to the day’s news.

Everyone knew the digital focus.

The WSJ made a concerted effort over the past year to train its staff in digital analytics so that everyone knows more about its audience, according to Vivyan Tran, deputy editor for audience and analytics. Reporters and editors now ask questions about who stakeholders are and why readers might care about a story to clarify the reporting and also narrow an audience.

2. Act on the information collected through analytics.

Newsrooms have the capacity to collect mounds of data about who visits their websites, what stories are being read, and by whom. But what are we doing with all that information?

Tran told me the audience team is doing more “acting on the information” instead of just collecting it.

During that early morning meeting, an analytics editor might break stories down by what’s a top read for subscribers versus what’s most read by engaged time, she said.

Engaging newsroom staff in conversations about digital audience and readership helps them understand why they should care about engagement and how to set strategies for improving the reach of their work, Tran said.

One example might be that when a reporter writing about the apparel industry and teenage customers submits a story, the headline might instead focus on teen fashion instead of apparel.

“Editors come to us to ask for help brainstorming ideas,” she said.

3. Collaboration flourishes in a shared workspace.

The workspace setup at The Wall Street Journal focuses on putting all the digital teams together, including those working on newsletters, platform and publishing in addition to content creation. This “hub” setup showcases the energy and work on a digital desk where deadlines come along constantly.

With a range of teams —social and audience analytics, visuals, video and publishing — working in a shared, open space, people learn to be nimble to the daily challenges of “what story comes next.” The hub also allows for greater chances to talk through ideas or share subject matter expertise, in some cases it can broaden the conversation about visuals, said Shazna Neesa, chief visuals editor at the Journal.

In fast-developing news situations, the hub allows editors to share content quickly and talk about how a story should play on a particular platform. Teams working on newsletters or news curations are in close proximity to a social editor to talk through headline ideas or priorities for that content.

Alexandra Kaptik, a news editor at the Journal, said the publishing desk can “take what comes and elevate it quickly” when its editors are in close communication with others at the hub.

There’s also a consistent focus on the apps, website and what’s being read, shown on a newsroom display.

4. Centralize planning and workflows

Changing workflows might be the most difficult part of making a shift to digital-first production. But sharing information about what’s coming up next, which projects are making progress and would be ideal reads for a certain demographic, or what’s ready for peak web traffic is essential to effectively using your digital strategy and reaching audience.

To take advantage of peak traffic, the standards desk might read a big project story early to raise questions about ethics and fair-mindedness while the audience team might do SEO research and suggest headlines or brainstorm keywords that would help a story do well on social.

In-house tools can be as simple as a shared calendar or Google Doc. It helps everyone to think about “how to give opportunity to the right stories,” Tran said.

Don’t waste your good stuff on the wrong timing, she said. 

Laura Johnston is senior news editor at the Columbia Missourian and an associate professor of professional practice at the Missouri School of Journalism. Her visit was funded by the Digital Industry Ambassadors Program. Sponsors include the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Houston Harte Endowed Chair, the Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing and The Community Newspaper Management Chair.



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