How The Miami Herald is getting to know its audience again
MIAMI — On the outside, the headquarters of the Miami Herald looks like any building in any part of town filled with wide warehouses, beige office plazas and chain restaurants. Inside, though, the values of the Herald are written on the walls.
On one teal green wall in slim white letters:
"Publish! Journalistic cowardliness is as evil as censorship." — Gene Miller
On another (from the adjacent newsroom of the Spanish daily El Nuevo Herald):
"El periódico es una espada y su empuñadura la razón." — José Martí
A few months ago, something new appeared on the big screen TVs hanging from cobalt blue walls in the middle of the newsroom: Chartbeat.
Newsrooms and journalists around the country have had access to real-time analytics for years. In March, the Herald joined in and gave everyone access to Chartbeat.
Then, every reporter was asked to raise total traffic to their stories by 7.5 percent. They got training in headline writing and search engine optimization. They started forming teams to function like startups, responsible for covering subjects such as Cuba, local government and food.
Change didn’t hit the newspaper industry in one big wallop. It has come, instead, in relentless small ones. The Herald didn't just start making changes to adapt to digital, either. But for Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, the Herald's executive editor and vice president, this year's about accelerating those changes.
All of the shifts have one thing in common: They require everyone at the Herald to pay attention to its audience.
WELCOME TO MIAMI
In the middle of the newsroom, the big screens with Chartbeat tick along like departure boards at a train station. They serve a similar function, too. This story's stalling, this one's taking off, this one needs fuel.
The Herald is one of four legacy newspapers in the Knight-Temple Table Stakes Project, a $1.3 million initiative aimed at pushing regional news organizations toward the digital future. Here, analytics have been integral to that process.
But the Herald (and other McClatchy papers) didn't wait until Table Stakes came along to get started. The company began working with the American Press Institute almost a year ago to try and get to know its audience better.
The institute's Metrics for News program helps newsrooms figure out where their journalists are spending time, where their audiences are spending time and how to get the two to align more closely. Contrary to the typical notions of clickbait and virality, API has discovered that readers value actual reporting — enterprise work, local crime reporting and long-form journalism, among other things.
The Herald, for example, has found a strong and engaged audience for its local government coverage. But not every story resonates.
"It’s wonderful to say, we value enterprise, our focus is on enterprise, but if you’re a beat reporter, hey you make sources by going to meetings," said Rick Hirsch, the Herald's managing editor. "Part of this work is showing up."
Add to this that Miami-Dade County has more than 30 municipalities, plus a big county and city government, and the Herald's five local government reporters can't possibly cover them all, even with a stable of freelancers. The challenge: How can the Herald structure coverage to build sources, keep track of what's happening and make sure people find and read it?
In part, it's about being less city-specific and focusing on topics everyone in the area cares about, Hirsch said. Should one reporter cover six cities, or should that reporter focus on transportation issues across them all? Should another focus on corruption? Another on spending and accountability?
"Are there ways to approach local government coverage that looks across city lines?" Hirsch asked. "I think there are, but it requires a little bit of a change in how we go about doing what we do, and it certainly means more of a team approach than we’ve had before."
In the last few months, editors at the Herald began to see a way they just might be able make that happen.
The Herald has launched several initiatives as part of the Table Stakes project. But one in particular ties in with all the rest: the formulation of "INCs," (short for incorporated.) Basically, they're meant to be self-contained startups within the newsroom.
"It’s a really different way of working," Hirsch said. "The idea behind it is to develop a team approach with a leader who's responsible to really focus on audience, to work with a team to develop coverage that responds to areas where we know there's high engagement and at the same time look at other ways to reach people that aren’t just writing stories."
The people running INCs aren't just in charge of coverage, but also getting that coverage to spread on social media. And that means thinking digitally.
So far, INCs include Spanish and English coverage of Cuba and the Herald's food coverage. Other areas that will become INCs are crime and courts, local government, entertainment and coverage of sports that appeals to the Herald's local and international readers.
Carlos Frías, food editor, is a one-man INC.
It took awhile for him to realize that it's all about workflow. Now, he aggregates. He works on getting headlines and social media language right. He spends his time on in-depth features. And when Frías sees a story he can't get to, he reaches out to other departments. Could a suburban reporter cover it? Someone in sports? He's curating work from the rest of the Herald that makes sense for his audience.
"Before, I was kind of just shoveling coal, but now I’m at the point that I realize that the beauty of this INC idea is you can leverage the resources that you have at the paper," he said.
In the past, for instance, a story about National Doughnut Day that wasn't ready for the print edition wouldn't have been published at all. But when Frías heard about a new doughnut shop, he contacted a suburban reporter and editor, published the story online that day and promoted it heavily on social media. It ended up running in the newspaper on Sunday. A story that previously had limited reach instead got the star treatment with an audience that loves food.
Not all the INCs are as clear or as straightforward, however. In Cuba Today is one of those. The Herald and El Nuevo Herald's coverage of Cuba has readership in English and Spanish, and became a standalone site in each language in December, before the INCs debuted.
Now, it's gone from a vertical to a startup within the newsroom.
The team, led by editor Nancy San Martin, has four staffers devoted to coverage of Cuba. Two are reporters, two are producers and translators. The audience for both sites are heavily bilingual. Original content does best.
The challenge, San Martin said, is maintaining two sites in two different languages as well as providing coverage for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald in print and for digital. She's considering combining them into one Spanglish site (using a mix of English and Spanish).
Fundamentally, INCs aren't meant to be verticals but to harness the Herald's audience, Marqués said. They start by figuring out who the audience is, how to reach it and how to help it grow. They all include aggregation and a strong focus on social media. They also all ask — what else? Beyond advertising, is there anything to monetize? Events? A custom database? A newsletter?
As with real startups, though, each INC has different needs, different expectations and different possibilities. Just like there's really not one audience, there's not one formula for reaching them.
NOT THE HUNGER GAMES
When Nicholas Nehamas started at the Herald two years ago, reporters weren't paying attention to what people were reading, where they were reading it or for how long.
"Now, two years later, I look up and there’s a big monitor with Chartbeat on it," said Nehamas, who covers real estate, which will eventually become an INC. "And that makes a big difference in the way we think about our coverage and the stories we write, so that’s been a big impact, I think."
That's also resulted in something a lot of newsrooms are already doing — deciding what they'll stop covering. In the past, the business desk covered quarterly earnings reports from banks. No longer.
"There are things you have to cover, even if not many people read them, but this is not one of them," he said.
Saying no to those reports means more time for enterprise. For Nehamas, that enterprise included being part of the team that investigated the Panama Papers.
One of his fears, when reporters were asked to figure out how readers were responding, was that their efforts would all boil down to clicks. And sure, if he spent all his time writing about J-Lo's latest home sale, he could meet his traffic goals. But that's not what's happened.
"I think reporters are seeing that it’s not going to be 'The Hunger Games,'" he said. "We’re not going to be out there finding the grossest stories we can to report. We’re still fulfilling the old mission."
"Listening to your readers doesn’t mean that you lose your journalism values," she said.
It does mean making lots of adjustments, however. Here are some other changes happening at the Herald that focus on audience:
—The morning breaking news team started working a digital schedule
"It sounds basic, but you can’t have a morning breaking news effort without moving people to the morning," said Jeff Kleinman, day news editor.
Now, the team works from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., (and their work includes a daily Facebook Live morning update.) They're not thinking about print packages or print space, but updating stories as more information comes in. When a reporter recently asked Kleinman how long a story should be, it took him a minute to answer.
"I’m not thinking length first thing in the morning," he said. "I’m thinking speed and video and how this story can develop."
They're trying to detach themselves from the print monster, he added, "and it’s a monster that we all love and that’s baked into our newsroom, but it sometimes can hold you back."
The Herald's sports desk is toying with the idea that its vast out-of-market readership will read coverage of sports in Spanglish. Instead of launching it as an INC or starting a new vertical, however, they're testing to see if there's an audience for it by using a Facebook group.
—They're betting all these changes will bring a valuable audience
Marqués started at the Herald as an intern in 1986. In 2002, she left to work as an editor at People Magazine. There, she found an industry very tuned in to its audience. Editors knew what stories readers responded to. They tested covers. It was still a print-centric business, but it was also an audience-centric one.
When she returned to the Herald in 2007, Marqués started asking questions about readers. Now, she has tools to answer those questions and to show how readers are responding.
For instance, in June of last year, the Herald had 5.6 million total unique visitors. This June, they hit 10.8 million.
And as the Herald's newsroom has transformed during the last year or so, its advertising side has as well, said Orlando Comas, McClatchy's director of sales.
"It’s really less about 'we’re just a newspaper company' and more that we are connecting to our local audiences and our local businesses," he said.
Higher pageviews translate directly into increased revenue from display ads. Indirectly, he said, higher engagement turns into revenue by creating a local audience that stays around and is more valuable to advertisers.
Print is still a focus, and it still brings in money, Marqués said. But the future is digital, "so that’s where we have to be hyper-focused."
"We say in shorthand, 'audience first,'" said Suzanne Levinson, who worked for the Herald for more that 30 years and is now head of digital news at McClatchy. "It’s really about adjusting how we do journalism."
"It’s a new medium. It’s not just a new platform," she said. "And for too long we all treated it like just another platform."
TOWARD THE SUMMIT
Over the years, the Herald has been sluggish in response to shifts in the news business, said David Neal, a breaking news reporter who has been at the Herald for 27 years.
"I feel like we were like the entire industry," he said, "we were slow to respond to a lot of changes that you could see coming on the horizon even 20 years ago."
Chartbeat is great, Neal said. It's a good tool to see how your work is doing. But, for him, it still comes back to instincts.
"You can still figure out what's gonna hit: sports, animals, pets of sports stars, a sex cruise."
Because of all the changes the newsroom has weathered, morale's not great, Neal said, "but there are still a lot of people here doing good work who are still energized and inspired and doing their best."
Nehamas, who's been here for a few years, sees a newsroom more open to change than when he started, and one that's producing high-quality local journalism.
To him, morale seems very strong right now.
Frías is fairly new to the Herald, so he's not sure what it was like before Chartbeat and INCs were part of life here. There's a fear that the newsroom is no longer capable of tackling the kind of journalism the Herald produced 15 or 20 years ago, he said.
"It’s just not true," Frías said. "It’s just you have to pick and choose your spots."
San Martin can't speak for the whole newsroom, but on the Cuba INC, things are working.
"We've created a family-style camaraderie and thoroughly enjoy the challenge of going after an increasing and diversified audience," she said. "There is great satisfaction in knowing that we are attracting national and international visitors to our Cuba sites, including those living on the island."
They're seeing more retweets, likes, comments, mentions and aggregations of their work, and that's satisfying. That doesn't mean it's easy, though.
"For us, the future is like climbing a mountain that we know will provide a breathtaking view," she said. "We just keep working hard to reach the summit."
FOLLOWING THE SIGNS
The biggest challenges facing the Herald now aren't really about what's happening with its audience. Instead, Hirsch said, they're about time, culture and focus.
"I think this is a hard shift," he said, "and it is uncomfortable, and so part of the change that people have to make is working differently, and that’s really hard...We’re taking folks who have a lot of muscle memory and working a certain way and saying, let's do this differently."
Because of that, all the changes the Herald is pursuing are, for now and probably for good, a work in progress. And that's tough for people used to waiting to publish, print and share big things until they're just about perfect.
"I wish it was in our DNA," Hirsch said, "but it’s going to have to be a learned skill for us."
When the Herald first relocated to Doral from downtown Miami in 2013, the inside of its new home was one of cold gray walls, countless hallways and turns. Along with the bright colors and fortifying quotes (which, yes, are just paint and words,) the newsroom installed street signs. They hang from many corners.
Palmetto. Miracle Mile. Calle Ocho.
Now, everyone knows their way around. But early on, those signs reminded them of where they'd been and helped them figure out where they were going. It's not exactly like figuring out a path into a digital future. But it's not all that different, either.