At Newspaper Association of America conference, content — and passion — make a surprise appearance

I went to last week’s NAA mediaXchange conference in Denver anticipating I would hear plenty of talk of big data, native advertising, mobile apps and social media. And I did. A less expected discovery: the concept of focusing coverage in a given paper’s print editions and website on a handful of “passion topics” particular to that community is picking up steam.

Make no mistake. Advertising sales and revenue are still the main event when 1,000 business side execs and vendors gather. But having attended many an NAA or investors conference where news and journalism made only a cameo appearance, I am heartened to see distinctive content given its due as a strategic investment in the industry’s future.

Also, like so much else in the business now, choosing what coverage to feature can be substantially driven by data rather than past practice and an editor’s hunch.

It is early days still, but the rather murky “big data” mantra seems to envision, among other things, serving communities and individuals with demonstrably appealing content, which in turn will support better targeted, higher value ads.

I first heard about “passion topics” 18 months ago as Gannett described very detailed audience research it did in advance of installing digital paywalls and big price increases for print and print + digital  subscriptions at its 81 community papers. Investigative reporting scored well in those surveys along with more predictable favorites like outdoors or the arts.

The program and paywall introduction evolved, and as I described in a post several weeks ago, Gannett found that at its 35 largest papers, a section of USA Today content (with concurrent local coverage expansion) helped with subscription sales and retention.

Briefly at the conference itself and at more length at a workshop the next day, the American Press Institute, NAA’s research affiliate, offered a soft launch of a program it is calling “a new, audience-focused approach to news.”  API’s prospectus explains:

Local news publishers in the age of digital abundance must build brands differently.

Today, offering a little of everything — rather like a general store — is not enough. A better source for any kind of information or service is potentially always a click away.

Publishers must now develop centers of coverage excellence — specific areas of indispensable content that connects to citizens’ needs and passions….

The American Press Institute offers publishers unique tools for this kind of empirical, modern news strategy.

API has piloted with the Pioneer News Group, a collection of nine small papers in the Pacific Northwest. The program involves quantifying what kind of news is being covered, detailed research into what readers care most about and then creating a new strategy including improved coverage of key areas.

Once these “tent poles” are in place, stories in the targeted areas can be tagged, generating a measure of how much news effort they are receiving and facilitating goal setting for the newsroom.

For instance, editor Colette Weeks of the Skagit Valley Herald in Washington, said outdoors news and other chosen topics accounted for 19 percent of stories, just below her goal, in each of the first two months figures were kept. She plans to take the target up to 25 percent.

In another Pioneer community, Klamath Falls, Ore., the paper helped developed an economic index, including such exotic data points as salmon flow and the number of trucks driving through town.

The program is so new, it cannot yet be called a proven success. But API is ready to collaborate with many more newspapers and chains over the next several years.

Mizell Stewart, vice president/content of the newspaper division of E.W. Scripps, was in the audience and said the 11 Scripps dailies have been working on a variation of the idea called “franchise topics” — three or four for larger papers like those in Memphis or Naples, Florida, two at smaller papers.

Stewart said that editors and newsroom teams have used consumer research to identify “what can we do that no one else in the market can do” and that the detailed tracking system API proposes promises a clear way to measure results..

I also learned at a breakfast with two executives of Star Tribune in Minneapolis (a font of good business and editorial practices these days) that the organization is in process of introducing expanded topic coverage, including an outdoors supplement one day a week and a health/medical report another. Each has a single advertising sponsor.

The Deseret News and Boston Globe have been practicing variations of a what-we-do-best news strategy for several years now.

If passion topics are indeed a trend with legs, that could be significant in several ways. For starters, as Stewart put it, such initiatives give editors “permission to stop trying to be all things to all people.” The topics approach recognizes the reality of much smaller newsrooms and print news holes and, at the same time, puts organizations back on the offensive capturing reader interest.

I don’t think anyone is saying that data science will fully replace “gut” calls on what to cover and play prominently.  But as leading practice on digital-only sites shows, hard real-time evidence of how stories perform  is both a valuable supplement to old-timey news judgment and a check on bad choices.

Bob Dickey, head of  Gannet’s community newspaper division and incoming NAA chairman, joked about the latter, in a conference presentation. The day is at hand, he said, when an editor sending a reporter out to cover the water board may hear in reply that the story only got a dozen views last time out — and maybe we need to do something different.  

(Disclosures: I was a paid consultant in planning the NAA conference and moderated three sessions, though not the ones treated in this post. API executive director Tom Rosenstiel is a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board, and deputy director Jeff Sonderman is an adjunct faculty member.)

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