The magic of ‘experiment land’ in legacy newsrooms
Masuma Ahuja and Sarah Marshall had never met before. Once the ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media kicked off on April 12, though, they soon discovered they had plenty in common.
Ahuja and Marshall, two of the 25 women in the inaugural Leadership Academy class, are both tasked with helping their legacy media organizations experiment with new technologies, platforms and forms of storytelling.
That can be a tough proposition in any newsroom, and places as revered at The Washington Post, where Ahuja is a national digital editor, and The Wall Street Journal, where Marshall oversees social media for Europe, Middle East and Africa, pose their unique challenges.
The duo is up to the task. Midway through the leadership week, they sat together for a short conversation about what it takes to push newsrooms to experiment.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity; a video of a portion of their conversation is at the bottom of the page.
Sarah Marshall: So Masuma, we were talking earlier and you were telling me about ‘experiment land.’ That’s where you live, right?
Masuma Ahuja: That’s where I live.
Marshall: It’s fascinating because we’re both from legacy publications that are doing great things in digital. But your job in experiment land is kind of where I’m heading.
One of the things you’ve been experimenting with is Snapchat. So tell me, what exactly you’ve done and why have you done it?
Ahuja: A little more than a year ago, I decided we should be on Snapchat because that’s where all the kids were. We want to reach younger audiences and it’s a new type of storytelling tool. So I got us on Snapchat and had to go in front of the entire politics staff – like old-school reporters who are out in the field with their pen and pad – and tell them that we were going to be on Snapchat. My initial pitch was: These are fun facts you can take with you to happy hour. Then I realized, [it's] not really working so well.
So I tried something different for the midterms where I had three campaign reporters who were out on the trail take over the Snapchat account – a different person every day would show us what it was like to be in their lives.
When you’re on Instagram, it’s like a perfectly curated life, right? It’s the FOMO generation; I want that life. And that’s not what it’s like [on the campaign trail]. They’re just driving around all day long. I wanted to capture the sense of the place and what it’s really like: Unfiltered, un-curated, this is just this moment.
That informed our Snapchat strategy after that. It was successful, people really enjoyed it, readers were engaging with us – they were sending us news tips on Snapchat completely unsolicited, which I had not expected in a million years. And so that’s become what we do on Snapchat now. We hand over our account off to different reporters and they show us what it’s like on their beat, they take us along for the ride as they’re reporting on a story.
Marshall: What do you say when everyone comes to you and says, “Yeah, ok, so you’re engaging with people, but Snapchat’s not about links. How do we bring people back to The Washington Post?”
Ahuja: The answer there is that it’s not about the link. Snapchat isn’t about the page view that you see automatically from there. You’re building your brand, you’re building community there, you’re establishing yourself as a source of news, you’re going to the audience – where they are. These aren’t people who are necessarily going to go to washingtonpost.com; it’s a different kind of storytelling where we’re going to them there and saying, “We understand what you’re doing and we want to talk to you here.”
Marshall: That’s really interesting.
Ahuja: So I have a question for you: The Wall Street Journal has been experimenting with Line, which is a chat app that’s big in Asia. I’m very curious about what’s working, what’s not, and how you decided to get on there.
Marshall: My coworkers in Asia saw this great opportunity. We launched on WeChat and Line right about the same time – both huge apps in Asia – and it was really because they knew their local audience. Like you said with Snapchat, this is where people were hanging out.
So unlike WhatsApp, which is kind of hard for publishers because you have to do it on your phone and it’s tough to create the necessary groups, Line is easier for publishers to feed content into. I think because we were quite early and because we were prepared to experiment, we [now] have more than 800,000 followers. It’s amazing to suddenly reach a new audience of 800,000. You know, it’s really quick growth for us and they’re probably like your Snapchat audience – people who are probably not consuming Wall Street Journal content elsewhere. We’re quite big in Asian countries, particularly through our blogs; we’ve got the China Realtime blog, which is really well known in China, and I think it really helps bolster that kind of stuff.
In my mind what we’re really good at is world news and business and finance. There are young people of course who are really interested in these subjects. I think what is often the mistake is that we divide people up and we’re like, “Ok the millennials, the Snapchat people, they’re not really interested in serious news.” Of course they are! People of all ages are interested in different types of news.
Ahuja: So when you guys decide to do something like that, how do you get buy-in?
Marshall: I think quite often, you just go and do it. Because if you end up talking about it too much you might think of reasons why not [to do it]. You kind of start slow and then you say “we’re doing this,” and then eventually there is something that’s deemed successful – you suddenly have lots of followers or you’ve done the analytics on it and figured out what you’re getting back from it. Otherwise if you try to do everything all at once and just do that one big push for buy-in, the process is often slower.
Sometimes when you’re doing that – trying to work out how to get that buy-in – that’s the point when you ask yourself “why.” I think we don’t do that often enough in news organizations. We don’t ask why we’re doing something. And if you’re asking why you’re doing something in order to write a memo or to tell your boss or to tell somebody else, it allows you to stop and realize “actually, that’s really important for us because it helps tick these boxes” or “actually, we’re doing this because it’s shiny and new and we’re all excited about it, but we’re the only ones excited about it.”
Ahuja: But it takes time to realize that something is shiny and new, right?
Marshall: Of course. You don’t want to stop people from being excited about things. So, how do you get buy-in?
Ahuja: My big thing is that we have to keep experimenting, which is why I live in experiment land. You go and try to reach new audiences where they are; you try to do your thing.
I set a timeline, where I’m going to try this and I’m going to experiment here. If after two months, I’m still in experiment land – I still haven’t figured it out – then we reevaluate: Is it worth it to push further? But once you’re ready to make the case that this is a concerted effort where we’re going to make a deliberate push to do something, then you should have a reason why you want to do it and be able to point to areas where it worked.
When we went to reporters and said that we’re making a big push on Snapchat, I was able to show them other reporters who had tried it and they could see the stories that they were going to get to tell. That was a big thing. You should be able to point to something and say: “This is why we’re doing this.” You have to have the “why” there.
Marshall: So it sounds like the one thing you’re doing there is continuing to take on more new things – more apps and platforms. What’s the point where you hand something off, and how do you hand it off if it’s your baby?
Ahuja: It’s really hard to hand things off. I struggle with that a lot, but I think it’s important. I think when you reach the point where there’s some sense of strategy and you’re no longer in that experimentation phase, that’s when someone else can take over and help you out.
People should always be helping you out. It should always be a collaboration. You should never be the only voice in the room making decisions. There’s only so much on anyone’s plate that you can take on, and I’m always looking to the next app and the next platform and the next way to tell a story.
The way I think of it is: If I want to take one more thing on, then what am I going to pass on to someone else? Or what have I been doing the same of every day? That’s something I can write down and put the process in place. Someone else can take over and I can go explore and experiment.
Watch a part of the conversation as Ahuja tells to Marshall how she got people at The Washington Post to start using Snapchat.