Emphasis on digital results helps newsrooms transform

For Eric Ulken, digital transformation of a news publishing operation is best treated not as an end in itself but rather as a means to an end.

by Anton Jolkovski | April 5, 2018

Photo by Rasmus Flindt Pedersen for WAN-IFRA.

The ultimate goal, for instance, might be to increase revenue from digital subscriptions within a certain timeframe. In most cases that goal cannot be achieved by the existing operation; reaching it dictates restructuring the newsroom, adapting new technological platforms, and revamping internal communication.

Ulken, now a consultant, who as a managing editor helped oversee dramatic transformation at the Philadelphia (USA) Media Network, says starting with the desired results – an approach known as performance-driven change – has numerous advantages over the common “culture change” technique, which focuses on the transition.

“To frame the change in terms of a concrete goal with a time parameter – ‘By this date we are going to do X’ – makes the change a lot clearer and gets everybody rowing in the same direction,” Ulken told us in a phone interview leading up to Digital Media Europe.

Performance-driven change is a key tenet of the Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia University. The approach was adopted by the Knight-Temple Table Stakes project, which brought together four leading newsrooms to act as testing grounds for new mobile and digital practices.

Ulken became coordinator of the Philadelphia Media Network’s (PMN) participation in the Table Stakes project. Table Stakes (which has been renamed the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom initiative) “is basically an effort to bring together primarily regional publishers with a need to adapt and transform for the digital age,” Ulken explained.

Two years ago, PMN found itself not only “playing digital catch-up,” but also facing the daunting task of integrating the editorial operations of its three properties: The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and the newspapers’ joint web portal

The following is an edited version of our interview with Ulken, who was in charge of digital editorial strategy and operations during PMN’s critical phase.

WAN-IFRA: How long did the reorganization of the PMN newsroom take, and what was the biggest challenge you faced?

Eric Ulken: We were a little weird because we had three newsrooms, but that mirrored the situation in a lot of places, where there was a digital newsroom and a legacy newsroom that had to figure out how to come together.

We took a lot of inspiration from our colleagues in the first round of the Table Stakes program, The Dallas Morning News, which had been through a full re-organization in which everybody was asked to re-apply for their jobs, all of the job descriptions in the newsroom were rewritten, and the senior editors, in concert with the rank and file, redefined what the newsroom would look like.

In Philadelphia – especially given that we were trying to bring together these three cultures and erase years of underperformance in digital – we needed to do a pretty dramatic re-organization of the newsroom. On the reporting side, based on a lot of audience insights, we changed the definitions of a lot of the beats. We made them, in many cases, less about institutions and more about issues and topics.

We changed the way we were organized on the production side. We isolated a lot of the print production functions into a team that was somewhat separate, and brought digital more into the center of the operation.

The whole process took six or seven months. The most difficult thing was probably the last part. Once we had defined the structure, once we had the vision and were ready to execute on it, moving people around, moving reporters who had been doing one thing for a long time to a different beat – there were a lot of logistical challenges in that.

In the third phase of the re-organization, which is ongoing, there was a round of buyouts late last year and there have been a couple of rounds of hirings to specifically fill some digital skills needs that we just didn’t have.

To what extent did you try to integrate editors and developers in the newsroom?

At we had hired a couple of developer/designer people to do some of the complex digital news story forms. That team now works with pretty much everyone in the newsroom on various projects. They are also hiring a news lab editor whose job it will be to take that team to the next level.

As economic pressure on publishers has grown over the last decade or so, the barrier between the editorial and commercial side has been put under more stress than ever before. How can editors be constructively involved in the commercial side of the business without putting editorial credibility at risk?

We knew we needed to get a lot better not only at the executive level, but at all levels of the organization, in having journalists and folks in the other departments working more closely together.

For example, we shared some of our digital storytelling tools with our advertising team, for the use of the team that was building native advertising content, so that they were able to leverage some of the tools that we had developed and refined in the newsroom.

We had an editor engaged in the definition of native advertising content types, so it was clear that native advertising was clearly labeled. Basically, the newsroom approved how native advertising would show up on the site.

Also, in the newsroom, I think most people intuitively understood that in order to get people to subscribe, we needed a stronger product. A lot of the changes in the role definitions were done in concert with the folks on the analytics team, who were able to help us understand what the audience actually wanted.

Then there was a lot of conversation and consultation between our circulation department and the newsroom about how the digital subscription process was going and what needed to change in order to improve performance.

There is quite a bit about digital subscription revenue in this Table Stakes document, but there’s nothing here about other revenue streams, like events, for instance.

I think digital subscriptions are called out specifically because the newspaper industry in the USA is quite a bit more dependent on advertising revenue than in other parts of the world, and as a result the downturn in the advertising business here hit newspapers a lot harder. As a result, the emphasis on building viable digital subscription models has been greater in the USA than it has been in other places to date. That may change.

I also think we had gotten away from the notion of really serving the reader. So much of the revenue came from advertisers that, particularly in digital, publishers had forgotten about user experience – and the importance of delivering a clean and easy-to-use product that surprises and delights.

All of that is very much part of a successful digital subscription product today, which is why I think you’re seeing newspaper websites getting better.

Some surveys indicate that readers want finite products, ones that have a beginning and an end. For instance, a printed newspaper has the advantage that you can go through it and say, “Okay, I’ve finished the newspaper. I feel informed,” as opposed to the constant “fire hose” that the web provides. How can newsrooms provide that product digitally? Are e-mail newsletters one way of doing that?

Definitely. Newsletters have become a really important piece of the “funnel,” when news organizations talk about how to take casual, fly-by users and turn them into loyalists. Newsletters are a big piece of building the habit and the brand loyalty that needs to exist before anyone’s going to subscribe.

Also, I think the design of websites can help readers understand what is essential, what they need to see. I think one thing we’ve learned over the years is that constantly updating content on our homepages is not necessarily that productive. Sometimes it’s more helpful to have the very best stuff out for longer, so that people have more chance to see it.

The Table Stakes document recommends that publishers publish on the platforms that their audience uses, which of course makes sense – but in the meantime there are so many platforms. How do you avoid getting stretched too thinly when publishing to all these platforms, which often involves manual labor, reformatting, editing, changing the tone of voice, and so on?

I think it’s important that publishers continually reassess which platforms they need to be present on – both from the perspective of where the people are that we reach today and where the people are who we want to reach – and adjust their work accordingly.

To give an example from Philadelphia, Kim Fox, managing editor for audience, observed that we were spending a lot of time and effort on Twitter as a platform, but we were actually getting quite a bit more engagement and traffic from Facebook. She decided to reduce the amount of effort that we put into Twitter, to even automate some of the Twitter feeds, so that the team could spend more time focused on Facebook.

That’s an example of the kind of juggling that I think is necessary in news organizations to be present on all the necessary platforms.

How do you think Facebook is best dealt with? It has a lot of potential, but it also has a tendency to constantly shift its algorithms and priorities.

I think the shift in the logic of the Facebook algorithms suggests that over-reliance on Facebook as a traffic-driving platform or as an attention platform is done at the peril of news organizations.

Yes, Facebook is an extraordinarily important piece of the audience puzzle. But as we’ve seen, also with the so-called pivot to video, many publishers went overboard in trying to optimize for Facebook’s algorithms, only to be burned when that algorithm changed.

That’s one of the reasons it’s important for publishers to continually reassess how they are approaching platforms.

Publishers get a lot out of the audience that they reach through Facebook, in terms of both attention on the platform and referral traffic. Those things are very important, but what we’ve asked, especially since the advent of the digital subscription program, is how many of those casual users can we convert into regular readers and eventually subscribers? Most of that still happens away from the Facebook platform.

Newspapers tend to be rather tradition-bound entities. How do you make them quicker to react and move along with the pace of digital developments?

A concept we learned in the Table Stakes program draws on the work of Doug Smith, who is a former consultant who’s worked in a lot of different industries on change initiatives. He says to set the stage for change, what needs to be present is dissatisfaction with the current state.

That is actually a simple concept, but it’s surprising that in news organizations some people just don’t know enough to be dissatisfied. They’ve done things a certain way, they know how the organization operates, and even though they see the decline, they don’t see specifically how it affects them.

I think it can be very valuable to paint the picture of why people should be dissatisfied with the current state and why it’s important to want to change. That’s because no change that is imposed from above or from the outside is going to be as sustaining and compelling as change that is deeply felt by the people whose work actually needs to change.

It needs to be said, as was the case with one of our Table Stakes partners, “The companies that used to be the mainstays of advertising in our newspaper have literally gone out of business. The retailers that were the biggest advertisers no longer exist, in many cases. That has eaten a deep hole in our revenue. So if we want to keep doing what we do, it is imperative to find new revenue.”

That’s actually really powerful, to help people understand where they fit in the broader economic context. Not to scare people, but to help them understand how we need to move forward together.

It’s surprising to me how many journalists in a lot of newspapers have no idea what their print circulation is. Or they quote numbers that are years out of date, because companies haven’t been sharing those. It’s not good news, so companies don’t share those figures with their employees – but it’s important to know what the circulation is and to understand where the audience is moving.

It’s a matter of being transparent with even the bad news. Bad news is actually helpful in setting the stage for change.


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