As brands start building digital newsrooms, what do they need to succeed?

Thanks to social media, we’re getting used to big companies talking directly to us instead of just advertising next to what we’re reading.

When you’re consuming content in a stream — as we do when using Twitter, Facebook or one of the many other social networks — a story from The New York Times, an update from your crazy uncle, and a link to a cleverly captioned photo from Oreo all flow in the same river, and get equal weight.

Today, tools such as Twitter and WordPress have led to an explosion of brands producing and spreading content, competing with traditional media for audience attention and employing journalists as creative storytellers.

If all the content marketing statistics floating around the Web are to be trusted, brand publishing is now a staple of the modern marketing diet. This is why the term “brand newsroom” has been floating around advertising circles in 2013 — brands have recognized that in a social-media world, telling true stories is a better way to win hearts and minds than interrupting people with ads.

Traditional media have known for a long time that good publishing requires not just talent but also smart organization. But the new wave of brand publishers are starting at zero. A company whose business is helping people file taxes or making the world’s most-dunkable cookie rarely knows how to create a publishing organization within itself. Moreover, for many of these companies, the word “newsroom” conjures up images of a TV studio with out-of-focus people behind a pontificating anchor, or a cigar-smoking J. Jonah Jameson yelling at frantic print reporters.

The fastest-growing newsrooms of the 21st century couldn’t be more different than such cliches. I wanted to know how brands that have built successful newsrooms have learned, and so I decided to ask some of today’s hottest brand publishers questions about how they’ve organized themselves for the digital age.

Here are some of the answers:

How should a brand newsroom be structured?

The Verge, one of the fastest-growing media properties of the last two years, breaks its newsroom into a three-pronged battalion: a real-time newswire team, a reports team and a magazine-style features team. Each team has reporters, writers, a designer, and editors.

“We model each team after a real-world analogy,” Nilay Patel, The Verge’s managing editor, said in a phone interview. “We need to do the news in real time; that’s why people come back to us. They also want really in-depth news and analysis and reporting, and they love our big features.”

The Verge’s newswire team constantly monitors and reacts to industry news as it happens, while the reports team chases stories, conducts interviews, and goes to events, producing stories with a one- or two-day lead time. Meanwhile, the features team spends months producing big, beautiful long-form stories and videos, which go through multiple design and edit passes.

“As we got larger, we started to hire more specialized talent,” said Adam Ostrow, chief strategy officer and former editor-in-chief of Mashable, which shot from obscurity to become one of the top-trafficked news destinations on the Web in a few short years.

As Mashable’s audience grew, its need for focused reporting and storytelling expertise increased. “We now have senior editors running our Tech, Business, and Watercooler channels and managing small teams of writers that own a respective area of our coverage,” Ostrow said via email.

Despite fears that we live in a “post first, correct later” world, the leaders of these new digital newsrooms repeatedly emphasized the importance of editorial layering — having multiple people review every piece of content. For them, that usually means staffing up with editors who can review stories for style and fit, then having a separate set of eyeballs look at grammar and presentation.

“The staffing will vary depending on the kind of company, but one key role is essential: someone in charge,” said Neil Chase, former New York Times editor and senior vice-president of content for Federated Media. (Disclosure: He also works with me at Contently as a consultant).

That person must be the defender of the publication’s message and voice, the arbiter of quality, and a decision-maker with the power to choose and optimize “the technology, tools and partners needed to produce and distribute content effectively,” Chase said via email.

In a traditional newsroom that would go without saying, but it might be the most-neglected thing I’ve seen among brand publishers that say they want to run a newsroom.

What sets great digital newsrooms apart?

1. Great talent, and a strong, unified voice

There’s no getting around it: great stories are told by talented people, and even the most-talented people tell better stories when they work together. That’s why the best newsrooms invest in talent.

“The most important thing that we’ve found is you have to hire people that have really strong voices,” Patel said. “It’s really about filling in that structure with talent that is native to the platform, native to the audience, and ready to be passionate. They understand that there is right and wrong and the big narrative of news all adds up to something that means something important.”

2. Technology

Look at the fastest-growing media properties of the blogging era and you’ll notice most of them made heavy investments in technology. Huffington Post, Business Insider, BuzzFeed, Bleacher Report, The Verge and others built their own powerful content management systems, while sites such as Mashable scaled up using highly customized versions of WordPress and strong social-media platform integrations. And each has dedicated tech and design resources for maintaining its system.

The main benefit of strong technology is the ability to eliminate repetitive tasks inherent to publishing, such as scheduling, reporting, revising, tracking, composing and post-production. Additionally, companies such as Huffington Post and Upworthy have boosted traffic strongly by split-testing headlines, a process that’s arduous by hand but can be automated with technology.

“One of our advantages has always been that we’re all power users of the tools we write about on the site,” Ostrow said. “Everyone on the team understands how to craft stories that readers will want to share, and how to use social media for newsgathering, collaboration and content distribution.”

3. Data

Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff said in a phone interview that the best way to operate a newsroom is to be “data informed.” That means striking a balance between monitoring results and chasing the kinds of stories that have done well historically, and trusting years of publishing experience to predict what things people should be interested in.

While the last few years have seen an obsession with real-time data about page views, both publishers and advertisers are increasingly focusing on metrics such as engagement and sharing as measures of success, and leading indicators of audience loyalty and future traffic.

4. The myth of centralization

One myth about the success of great newsrooms persists because of the word itself: that a newsroom has to be a physical room. That isn’t true: a newsroom is an organization, not a place. Some of the most effective newsrooms today are virtual, and almost every successful publisher — from GQ to CNN — employs remote staff and freelancers for reporting, shooting, writing, and editing.

“A lot of people don’t realize we were a completely virtual company for the first four or five years,” Mashable’s Ostrow said. That virtual newsroom grew to about 15 people before the company got its first office, but Mashable still has remote employees and freelancers.

Truth is, publishing is one of the easiest industries in which work can be done remotely. If magazines and blogs can do it, so can brands.

But that doesn’t mean building a newsroom is easy. Fortunately, modern technology has allowed the cookie makers to tell their own stories without buying printing presses and trucks. And if they start thinking about how the best new-media companies would tell that cookie story, they might never have to design another “takeover” ad.

What do brand newsrooms need to succeed?

1. Put quality first.

In brand newsrooms, “speed is often stressed over quality,” Steve Rubel, chief content strategist for Edelman, said via email. “The latter is far more important. Everyone is competing for the same attention bandwidth and that means brands are going up against media pros with decades of experience.”

Digital publishing today is an arms race, with more and more people getting into the game. With content increasingly spreading — or not spreading — because of what people do on social media, the quality of storytelling has to improve. A story must inform, surprise, inspire and delight the reader — and make him or her look good to friends.

2. Have a strong relationship with the business side of the house.

“I share a lot of people with marketing,” said Mollie Chen, editorial director at Birchbox, which produces a monthly magazine and dozens of blog posts every week to grow its beauty-supply subscription brand. “Everyone is by design expected to understand every layer of the business.”

Birchbox’s newsroom success stems in large part from its integration with the core business; in fact, Chen was the company’s first hire. “It’s important to hire people who know how to tell stories,” she said in a phone interview, but added that “nothing gets created in a vacuum. There’s always a consideration of all three of our stakeholders: the customer, Birchbox, and our brand partners.”

3. Iterate.

Ostrow said survival as a digital publisher — whether or not you’re a brand publisher — requires “doubling down on what’s working and moving away quickly from what’s not.”

“One of the things brands forget is iteration,” said Michael Hess of Weber Shandwick, who helped design Verizon Wireless’s news center. “Regular publishers are constantly adapting.”

In a large organization where change is takes even more time, the best way to past this hurdle is to empower the publishing team to make some decisions on its own, he added.

4. Make sure you have things you can talk about without involving the lawyers.

A typical brand’s legal department is more hands-on than a traditional publisher’s. This can cause bottlenecks in the publishing schedule and hamper a brand’s ability to capitalize on time-sensitive events.

“In traditional publishing, you have legal supporting on the back end,” Hess said in a phone interview. “In brand publishing, you have legal approving on the front end.”

To minimize the disruptions that arrangement causes, he said, “you have to have a road map already” that lets you talk about some things without legal approval, letting you keep a consistent stream of stories flowing to readers. For content that still needs sign-off, Hess added, there has to be a clear approval process.

5. Get out of your own head.

“The vast majority of brands today are still leveraging social media as an extension of corporate communications,” said Ostrow. But, he pointed out, most brands’ efforts to “be the next Oreo” have felt contrived.

“I think the biggest things that brands need to think about are the topics and themes that matter to their customers and how can they be a valuable member of that conversation – not just the conversation that is trending at any given moment in time on social media,” he said.

Birchbox’s Chen said brand publishers must have a “willingness to ignore traditional marketing” in favor of great stories the audience actually wants: “Customers are smart. They don’t want to be talked at. They want to be talked to.”

6. Create original material.

Edelman’s Rubel said his top concern for brand newsrooms is that a lack of originality will dilute their efforts.

“There’s too much emphasis on ‘news jacking’ instead of creating content that fills a true void and enriches people’s lives,” he said. “I am concerned we could be seen as ambulance chasers.”

If the goal of a brand newsroom is to gain the audience’s attention, trust, and engagement with that brand, recycling pieces of other brands’ content or inanely riffing off obvious news isn’t going to work. As I’ve written before, in the world of branded content, original always wins.

7. Be patient.

Newsrooms are marathons, not sprints. Even new-media publications that consistently see their material go viral — such as Upworthy, BuzzFeed, and The Onion — needed months to get noticed and years to build trust.

“We worked our way up,” Weber Shandwick’s Hess said. “And we’re getting to a point where the audience is getting much bigger. It’s allowing us to experiment with the kinds of content.”

Becoming a publisher isn’t like an ad campaign or some other short-term initiative — it’s a cultural change within an organization.

“The key question brands must ask here is this: ‘Are we committed to using this investment to the fullest and for the long haul?’ ” Rubel said. “This means all of it – the technology, the people and the processes. If they are committed and patient, then a newsroom is a worthwhile investment.”

Shane Snow is a technology journalist and co-founder of Contently, a New York City-based technology company that empowers brands and journalists to connect and tell stories. He writes regularly for Wired, Fast Company, Advertising Age, and more.

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