Not ‘Just Chasing Flashy, Shiny Objects’

Participants in the News Leaders Project recognized the need to find new ways to serve audiences and gain financial stability, but often seemed uncomfortable with the mantra of “innovation.”

We’re really always looking for new things, but not a shiny object. We want to make sure that if we are going to try a new project, that it makes sense for our readership, that it makes sense for the staff time, and that the return on investment is there.

Karen Andreas Publisher of the North of Boston Media Group

A.G. Sulzberger. Publisher of The New York Times, said the news business was suffering from innovation fever, where there’s a sense of innovation for innovation’s sake, new for new’s sake.

I think the word innovation has in some ways been a real distraction to the industry, Sulzberger said.

“It’s really important for any organization that’s gone through a period of radical change, like the Times is, like our industry is, to understand what's the core, what's the thing you're changing in service of?” Sulzberger said. “Because if everything is up for grabs, if you can change anything, then you really don't have a reason for being. For us the core is original, expert, underground, reported journalism that's independent, fair, and accurate. That's the core, and then everything else is in service of that.”

Doug Phares, CEO and President of the Sandusky Newspaper Group, was skeptical of “innovation.”

“I want to bang my head against the wall when people tell me that innovation's going to make the difference,” Phares said. “The innovation almost has to come from how people, the average consumer, accesses and processes information.”

Meanwhile, constant innovation is central in the approach of CEO Blake Sabatinelli's Newsy, which is a leading digital video news network. Once focused on desktop and mobile, it has shifted into a streaming, on-demand service that aims for the biggest screen in consumers' homes.

Fear of change is perilous, said Sabatinelli.

“Everyone’s sitting right now at this crossroads of do we stay the same and keep the same business model or do we change and pivot and try something new,” Sabatinelli said. “Now, I can’t speak from a local perspective because that’'s not my business, but you can’'t be afraid to change. Otherwise you’re just going to die.”

Texas Tribune’s Emily Ramshaw saw it this way:

“I think we have a responsibility to constantly be thinking about the next platform that we’'re going to be on, the next way that we’re going to present our content to our public, the next way we’re going to engage with our audience, I think, but, for me, innovating isn’t just chasing flashy, shiny objects. It's not being on the latest platform or social media tool for the sake of being on that platform or using that tool. We don't have to be the first at the Texas Tribune. We have to be the smartest.”

Some industry analysts think innovation is more talked about than accomplished.

“We don’'t see much product experimentation or differentiation in the newspaper experience,” said Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor.

“I don’t look at a TV newscast and say it’s a shadow of what it was five years ago, but neither does it seem especially innovative or ambitious,” said Poynter’s Rick Edmonds..

Tribune Media’s Larry Wert sees lots of transformation in TV.

“We have more and more newsgathering techniques that are bringing efficiencies,” Wert said. “We have more reporters and anchors being multimedia journalists. ... We have more technology capability to bring real-time video and storytelling to air. We're quicker and faster and more capable.”

Among the key points raised in this section:

  • Podcasts are a hot platform for local news, but news outlets should beware of “passion detached from knowledge.”
  • The big tech companies that disrupted the local news picture in the first place are now offering assistance to local outlets trying to find their future.
  • News organizations are moving well beyond simple page-view counts as they find more relevant metrics to help them shape their news products.
  • The proliferation of smart speakers has news outlets asking how Alexa and Echo can help them find new audiences.
  • Texting seems rather low-tech now, but some journalists are using it for engagement and even as a reporting tool.


The enemy of innovation is denial.

“There's a time, I think, when people go through disruption in any field where you don't want to believe it's a significant as it really is,” Advance Local’s Randy Siegel said “And you get conservative pretty fast, and you try out a more incrementalist approach. I think, what we did in 2012 without having a robust digital playbook ready to go was to rip the Band-Aid off, jump into the pool head first, then really test and learn, try a lot of things. Instill a culture where people are not afraid to share new ideas and insights, and try new things even if they're not successful, because it's a very humbling experience to work and field like local media that's been disrupted so tremendously.”

Siegel said listening is vital for innovation.

“I've learned early on in my career that the best innovations, the most profound insights, come from people are actually out in the field and the market and in the community every day. And, we're a company has several thousand people, spread around 10 markets, but for us, at corporate, at the enterprise level, we don't come up with the best ideas. We recognize really great ideas when you hear them from the out and about, and talking to our people. So, Innovation is really a shared responsibility, but there is a decided bias that those great ideas are amongst our people. We have the obligation to go find them and empower people to share.”

Melissa Bell, Publisher of Vox Media, seconded the notion that the insularity of leadership is a problem.

“One of the things that I know I don’t get right all the time is that I’m not hearing from the people who are coming up with the next crazy idea because we sit far apart from each other, they’re hard at work on their day-to-day and so I try to think about opportunities for us to try to come together and share ideas across different groups and make sure that those conversations are happening pretty regularly so the company can invest in those ideas and they don’t get lost sort of in the system.” While news leaders must listen to their staff, Newsy’s Blake Sabatinelli said all of them must pay attention to the customers.

“Our audience is everything,” Sabatinelli said. “I’ll tell you what doesn’t matter: what a consultant says based on their research generally doesn’t matter. What our audience says matters.”

To that end, Sabatinelli said, “We have a consumer group called the Newsy Insiders; it's over 4,000 people … who are diehard Newsy fans and who get early access to look into everything we do.”

Bill Church, Senior Vice President/News for GateHouse Media, said newsrooms have been slow to address basic structural problems.

“It's a reflection in many ways of what’s happened to our industry for, now, more than a decade,” Church said. “Our industry has continually lost jobs, even at an accelerating level, and yet at the same time the basic structure of newsrooms hasn't changed. ... It is frightening in its consistency over the years that as the number of jobs have lost, what hasn't changed is the percentage of editors, the percentage of reporters, and the percentage of journalists filling a number of roles in that newsroom.”

And there’s a lack of variety in local news, said Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor.

“There’s very little difference in terms of editorial strategies,” Doctor said. “It’s kind of a one size fits all. ... You don’t see the kind of things that, for instance, the New York Times is doing with cooking or crosswords, they're going to do it with parenting. They're not recognizing niches. There's a couple of sports verticals that have been tried; those were also tried 10 and 15 years ago. But very few, and part of it is a lack of imagination and part of it is simply there are not enough resources to test new products.”

Innovation is risky, and minimizing the cost of failure is important, according to some news leaders.

“If it doesn't work, we're going to move on very quickly to the next thing, but we want to make sure that we are trying things that are based in ... that have a pretty good chance for success, both in reaching a new audience and being attractive enough to be sustainable,” said Jim Kirk of Crain’s Chicago Business. “It’s not like we're just throwing everything up against the wall. We're just, we're being smart and trying to understand if there's a marketplace for it, both from a readership standpoint and an advertising standpoint, that can support it.”

“We often wish to do a lot of things,” said Tribune Publishing’s Tim Knight. “But I think you, in an era of very finite resources, you’ve got to be really smart about what bets you make.”

The advice of the Texas Tribune’s Emily Ramshaw: Be selective.

“We don’t have the staff, or the resources, or, candidly, the stomach acid, to be the first ones out the gate on every new trick of the trade.” she said. Vox Media’s Bell offered another piece of advice: When you’re trying to innovate, let other people help you:

“I think one thing that I see oftentimes is that a lot of organizations feel that they have to own every solution, either they're spending a ton of money on their own CMS [content management system] or they are hiring in people to do very specific tasks and I think that there's a lot of like free tools and capabilities out there on the web that sometimes I think organizations don't necessarily take that step to do a more low-fi version of something and then spend their money and energy on the thing that sets them apart from everyone else.”

The Washington Post’s Jeremy Gilbert said successful innovators are not afraid to fail but instead accept the fact that they will fail in some ways.

“Experimentation has to be just that,” Gilbert said. “It can’t be that we have committed to a course, that we’re sure that it will work and we'll be disappointed if it fails, but rather that we’re going to try something, we’re going to see if it works, and as long as we learn something we’re going to consider that a success.”

Staying at the forefront of innovation and riding out the rough spots can pay off for news organizations.

“The companies that started experimenting first with metered access or paywalls are many of the companies, not all, but many of the companies that are in better positions relative to offering subscriber member experiences today,” Gilbert said.

But not all companies can withstand the immediate market pressures and think ahead.

“It becomes very difficult in a business that is otherwise struggling and trying to deliver its core services to leave enough room as to create a culture where you can really value some experimentation if the outcome is going to be unknown,” Gilbert said. “And I don’t believe that you can be innovating and experimenting if you already know it’s going to work. So, you have to leave room for some of the experiments not to work out, and for some newsrooms, they might not have enough resources to take those risks.”


Are podcasts innovative? They’re really just radio shows available on the listener’s schedule, right? But their popularity as a news product for outlets that have been print-reliant is one of the major journalism product changes in recent years.

“I think the explosion of podcasting is really interesting and also very promising because it's, I think, finally a recognition of the fact that media organizations should not be siloed,” said Nieman’s Ann Marie Lipinski. “And the fact that the leading podcast in the country is coming from a legacy newsprint news organization [The New York Times] is exciting and the fact that that same news organization is growing a filmmaking enterprise within the newsroom is also exciting and at last you're seeing an organization do what we’ve been saying all along, which is that we're platform-agnostic and we're multimedia and all of that. And I think these are words that we throw around a lot in the industry but that are finally, I think, being taken seriously. The problem is that these forms require new sets of resources that not all organizations have, but podcasting, for instance, is something that does not have huge barriers to entry.”

Not all podcasts are successful, of course.

“I think passion detached from knowledge is where a lot of podcasts fail,” Lipinski said. “And I think, again, because they're fairly inexpensive and easy to do, at least in their most basic format, we're overrun now with a lot of podcast choices and there’s a lot out there that’s not very good. But I think the ones that are going to be successful are the ones that you're going to turn to time and time again sometimes for the passion but I think more often for knowledge, for understanding, to have something explained to you.”

Former television and Chicago Sun-Times executive Carol Fowler noted that podcast competition is fierce.

“You can't just launch a podcast and expect people to find it and just start downloading it like crazy,” Fowler said. “Everybody’s got a podcast, and I will tell you in my own conversations with people who do similar jobs at other papers, podcasts have probably been the most difficult area of innovation. To get the scale in a podcast when you're starting flat-footed … it’s difficult to get. It's hard to sell stand-alone podcasts so our strategy more now is maybe you launch a podcast but you also have a newsletter with it; then you sell them both to one sponsor or you make it -- It's easier to sell a product line like maybe the brand but across different things than just a stand-alone product. So that's also what I would say is probably a salient point to this as you're kind of stepping into new territory.”

Erica Anderson, Executive Producer of Content and Partnerships at Recode, which is part of Vox Media, said podcasting remains a potential growth area.

“I see the effort that Vox Media, for example, is making in terms of creating and I presume making quite a bit of money off of their podcasts, and deals with Netflix and HBO. So I think that there is this premium content model that there’s great storytelling inside of newsrooms and that’’s exciting to see really podcasting take off.”


The whole topic of audio journalism is more than podcasts and warrants serious strategizing, the Washington Post’s Jeremy Gilbert said.

“There has been tremendous growth in audio journalism,” Gilbert said. “Some of that in terms of people’s use of public media, the NPR-affiliated stations, public radio stations, those kinds of things. Some of that is about interactive audio devices like the Amazon Echo family, the Google Home, the Apple Home Pod. I am really curious to see how local publishers engage there. … So there's an intimacy that I think is even more intimate than having the local news on in terms of TV, listening to the news while you cook in your kitchen or prepare coffee in the morning or get ready for work via one of these interactive audio devices or listening in your car on your commute, however you commute, to this news, it feels very personal in a way that I think would be powerful and could let people really engage with brands, news brands in a way that would be positive. However, I don't know that enough publishers have figured out how they're going to get into that and how discovery would work finding the podcasts, finding the skill that you could enable. Those are really difficult things to do right now so I think that that's a big cause of concern.”

Goli Sheikholeslami said her public radio station, WBEZ, is involved in a smart speakers project.

“Google News announced sort of a partnership with some major news organizations at the end of the year for their Google Assistant platform,” Sheikholeslami said. “And so we're one of the partners that is working with Google News to really figure out how people are going to want to consume news on these smart speaker platforms, for example. So, that I would say is the most cutting edge because I think it's just ... It's so new. ... What is the news experience in a voice-activated world?”

Jim Kirk of Crain’s Chicago Business said the emergence of smart speakers and increased smartphone use both bear watching.

“Everything that we do really has to work on the phone,” Kirk said. “That’s obviously the most personal technology people have at the moment and are using the most, so everything that we do is really kind of focused on optimizing for that, first and foremost, but I do think the adoption of the kind of home personal Alexa kind of technology, where people can smartly ask for information and have it delivered to them just by asking for it, is something that we have to really look at and take seriously.”

Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor gave most news organizations poor marks on their delivery via smartphone. Doctor emphasized that the top priority is quality content, but “the secondary part of it is 66 percent of reading, of news reading, is mobile, yet the mobile news experience for most newspaper companies is pretty poor. It's a pretty fatal combination when you don't have the content and you don't have the product delivery.”


Two web giants, Facebook and Google, have made billions of dollars by selling advertising associated with local news. Now, they say, they want to give something back.

“We see ourselves as hopefully being a good partner where we can be,” said Anne Kornblut, Director of Strategic Communications at Facebook. “One of the things we know is that people really like Google News, and not everybody may want to read hard political news, but people really, across segments of the Facebook population, people really, really like their local news. And I believe that's true on and off Facebook. And so, it's important to us that there is local news. It's also, I mean honestly, it's just something that we as a company believe in. News in general, and local news specifically, because we're so invested in the idea of community and helping people build community.”

Facebook announced early in 2019 that it was spending $300 million on news programming and partnerships, with some of that money supporting a local Accelerator effort that is helping local newsrooms refine their business models to attract more subscribers and members, among other things.

“We have a local news resource center at LMA,” said Nancy Lane of the Local Media Association. “It is funded by Facebook, but we operate it independently. And we're working with media companies on growing their audience. And a lot of it is via social networks.”

One of the beneficiaries of Facebook’s Accelerator program is Berkeleyside, a Northern California “benefit corporation,” or B Corp.

“We heard them talk about how their membership actually has grown to the point where it exceeds the population of Berkeley, which is their constituency,” Kornblut said. “... They have a large following, and it's not all people who live in Berkeley.”

Last year, the Google News Initiative announced it was spending $300 million of its own to help news publishers. After the announcement in June 2019 that the Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator newspaper was closing, a new Google-McClatchy lab called the Compass Experiment chose Youngstown as one of its launch cities for a digital startup. Google also is working with the Local Media Association.

“With newspapers, so much of our work and my work is around digital subscriptions,” said Jed Williams, Chief Strategy Officer of the Local Media Association. “We're a big partner at a Google News Initiative program called the Digital Subscriptions Lab where we're working with 10 different publishers to help them optimize their strategy and their tactics in the short term to create digital subscribers and in the longer term to grow them even more so that digital subscriptions can truly be a meaningful and a very big part of their business transformation. … We have corporate publicly traded companies, we have large, we have small and we're working with Toronto and learning and we're working with literally Cape Girardeau, Missouri and Portland, Maine. It's U.S., it's Canada, it's Puerto Rico, it's very much a North American project, diversity of inclusion and diversity of types of companies is very important here so that we can really test out: Can digital subscriptions be a healthy and growing and hopefully sustainable model or at least a big part of a sustainable model for newspaper companies?”

The effort involves on-site workshops and “deep benchmarking of all of their audience data.” The goal: “to basically build a short-term and a long-term roadmap for growth with digital subscriptions.”


Harnessing data to better understand your audience isn’t a new idea. But doing it in a way that provides truly actionable information is vital these days and is constantly being refined.

Only a year or two ago, many newsrooms were obsessed with page views and unique visitors. Now many have moved on to tracking reader behaviors that may lead to subscriber acquisition and retention.

“For a long time, I think journalists conflated the number of people who came to visit an article with a successful piece of journalism,” said Washington Post’s Jeremy Gilbert. “And I think the good news is, at least from the viewpoint of the Washington Post, it's really much more about deep engagement than it is about the total number of people who ever see a piece of journalism. The people who engage deeply, who spend their time, who share an article, recommend it to others, those are the people who are most likely to be subscribers. And so, when we craft the journalism, we need to craft journalism that engages people, not journalism that just attracts people. I think if I were to say what does clickbait look like, clickbait looks like journalism that attracts people to at least glance at a story but has nothing to support deep engagement. And good, powerful journalism, well told, that's the kind of journalism that creates the deep engagement that merits a subscription.”

Gilbert emphasized different types of stories need to be assessed differently.

“We divide stories into critical and fascinating categories,” Gilbert said. “Sometimes they can be both. We talk about stories that are live and stories that are really in depth. Again, they can be both. But we can do a story of the moment, a really live story, where all we have is a paragraph or a couple of sentences, and that paragraph or couple of sentences, it is the thing. So, when people go and engage with that journalism, they're not going to spend a lot of time, but that might be exactly what we need to do when we have the news of the moment that will define the agenda, set what people are talking about.

“So, we need metrics that are flexible enough around engagement that they don't say a longer story is always better, because that is not true. It also has to be that we don't want circulation to be the only metric, but then say, well, wait a second, it was so engaging that you spent seven or ten minutes and that was five or six minutes more than you thought you were going to spend, and therefore, you don't look at a second story, but you still had a very successful engagement with Washington Post journalism. The metrics have to be flexible enough that they can account for the different types of stories we might have and the different moments we might reach people.”

So, what are the most important metrics?

“No. 1, it's some way to track what stories, you know, what articles are actually getting people to become subscribers,” said Piano’s Michael Silberman. “So that's probably the most important thing. The other is some sort of measure of how you’re growing user engagement over time. So, the Financial Times uses an index that they call RFV which stands for recency, frequency, and volume. So that's when the last time they came? How often are they coming? And how much are they reading? So how many articles are they reading? And they sort of multiply those together into an index. But it doesn't necessarily have to be sort of more complex metric than that. It's just some sense of how you're growing the proportion of users who are coming back again and again.”

In an industry where innovation is an increasingly important value, measuring results is a priority.

“Always, we want to figure it out beforehand, of course, to make sure we're not wasting our time,” said Karen Andreas, Publisher of North of Boston Media Group.. “But it’s not always perfect. Sometimes we'll launch something and have a pretty good run and then it runs its course and it's time to try something else. So we run a P and L [profit-and-loss] on every single product that we do, whether it's a small health special section, or a large breast cancer awareness project. We really look at different metrics for it. What kind of revenue did we get from it, what kind of expense do we have, what's the readership value, what was the profit, and should we do it again? So we're constantly measuring ourselves that way. We wanna make sure it's incredibly high quality, that it has a lot of reader and advertising value. If it doesn't, we will say, ‘Eh, you know, I’m out. That one maybe didn't work out so well, let's cut that and try something different.’”

Tribune Publishing’s Tim Knight has a team that supports all of the news outlets on metrics.

“We have a centralized group that focuses on it, works very closely with leaders in each of the newsrooms about their key priorities,” Knight said. “The data team shares the data across the organization, with each newsroom leader, and with the marketing teams, subscription team, so that we're all aligned. We talk about our key priorities constantly, and we are putting in the processes to measure and report back to everybody our progress.”

Data is just as important to nonprofits like Chicago’s WBEZ public radio.

“We’ve invested in building out a data warehouse, so that we can really start to understand the behavior of our members, and understand who they are, so that we can do more one-to-one direct-to marketing to our members,” said President and CEO Goli Sheikholeslami. “You know, again mostly for retention purposes. But also for the purposes of getting people to increase their giving over time. So, that’s something that we had never done in terms of really starting to use data, and data analytics to message, and market more directly to our members, and to prospects. And we're also building a prospect database. So, as important as the newsletter is to our editorial strategy, and our audience strategy, it's also critical to our membership strategy. ... Sixty percent of the people that are signed up for our newsletter are not members. So, all of those people are now prospects in a prospect database.”


Bene Cipolla, Executive Editor of the Chalkbeat education news operation, explained her operation’s innovative use of text messages.

“In the past year, we've ... been experimenting with a text messaging platform called GroundSource,” Cipolla said. “That's just been a different way, again, to reach people through text messaging, versus the website or newsletters or social media.”

But it goes beyond engagement. It’s also a reporting tool.

“One of the first instances that we used it was in Detroit last fall,” Cipolla said. “We were doing a package of stories around student mobility, so students who changed schools frequently throughout their academic career. We actually purchased phone numbers, which I know sounds super shady and like a gross marketing ploy, but we bought phone numbers and we were able to get responses from 100 parents about why their children changed schools, and that was actually a really effective boost to our reporting. It was certainly people we never would have found otherwise. We experimented with that number purchasing there, but we decided that's probably not a path we're going to continue down.”

Chalkbeat also uses texting in other ways.

“We use it at events as well so people can communicate with us via text, asking questions and participating,” Cipolla said. “Then we've also used it to do outreach on other stories. We did a discipline package In Tennessee, and people could text in and do a little survey so we could again gather more information. I think we'll probably start to use it more across bureaus in our coming fiscal year.”

With every untested idea, news leaders must keep focused on the goal, not just the glittering technology, said Andrew “Andy” Pergam, Vice President of New Ventures at McClatchy.

“For us, it's important that it be experimentation with purpose,” Pergam said. “That it's not simply experimenting with augmented reality for the heck of it. It’s doing it because we believe that this is what this piece of the future looks like and here's a revenue model around it and here's how we start to sell those components to local advertisers.”

More from The News Leaders Project

About the project

The News Leaders Project Sustaining the Business of Local Journalism

Medill is conducting in-depth interviews with media industry figures and thought leaders to uncover financial innovations that can sustain local media during this turbulent time. The aim: To empower local news organizations with new possibilities. This research will be integrated with the Local News Initiative’s other work to ensure maximum impact.