June 20, 2014

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s newsroom shuffle, executed by managing editor Bert Roughton Jr. after editor Kevin Riley charged him with reimagining the newspaper’s digital strategy, hinges on understanding audiences and responding to them.

The newsroom’s 10 “topic teams,” described Wednesday, include “audience specialists” who were previously part of AJC’s separate digital department. And the topics themselves are built around audience research.

Problem is, most of that research, going back to 2008, is centered around what news readers indicated they wanted on the front page of the newspaper, such as transportation, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and local government.

But AJC can’t separate those print preferences from digital completely, said audience specialist Pete Corson, who previously managed the paid site’s homepage. (AJC has a paid site for subscribers, many of whom are print readers, and a separate free site, which includes breaking news and previews of longer, premium content.)

“It seems retro for a news site, but [myajc.com] is our paid online product and one of our goals still is to help transition our print readers into becoming online readers,” Corson said.

Still, the topics AJC focuses on will morph over time as editors apply analytics, reader feedback and their own news judgment. Audience specialists will play a key role for each topic team.

(Photo by Hyosub Shin / AJC Staff Photographer)

(Photo by Hyosub Shin / AJC Staff Photographer)

What does an audience specialist do?

Roughton told me some traditional reporters are “still a little nervous about this whole Internet thing.” So having a digital specialist “in the family,” so to speak, gives reporters intimidated about digital a go-to person for help. “The truth is, I think most reporters are dying to be good at this,” Roughton said.

Pete Corson, one of AJC's audience specialists

Pete Corson, one of AJC’s audience specialists

Corson, audience specialist for the “Hot Topics” team, said his first task post-newsroom reorganization is to educate reporters about digital tools. “A big chunk of what I’ve been doing lately is sharing my knowledge with reporters and editors who have never created their own Google map or their own videos before,” he said.

He pointed to this map and video accompanying an investigation into unethical spending by a city councilwoman. It isn’t revolutionary content, but it wouldn’t have existed before, Corson said in an email: “They don’t push the boundaries of digital storytelling, but they were each conceived and executed by reporter Johnny Edwards, with a teach-a-man-to-fish assist from me.”

Previously, editors or reporters would approach digital staffers like Corson at the other end of the room and ask, “Do you think you can turn something around?” he said. Now there’s more collaboration, and everyone has access to Adobe SiteCatalyst for analytics.

Audience specialists will offer feedback like, “if you did this it would be really hot for this audience” or “this would be really great for social media,” Roughton said. “They work directly in the middle of what had been traditional beat reporters and editors to work through ideas for stories.”

‘Hot Topics’ team adapts to what’s in the news

The most innovative of AJC’s topic teams is the “Hot Topics” team, which adapts to whatever big stories are in the news and finds ways to cover them for its Atlanta audience.

The job, Roughton said, is to constantly keep track of what’s happening in the world and identify stories that will linger for a few days or weeks. An example: during the Department of Veteran Affairs scandal, the Hot Topics team devoted reporting resources to covering it from a local angle and looking into any need for investigation. The size of the staff doesn’t allow AJC to have a full-time VA reporter, but the flexible team means AJC always has reporters ready to become experts in whatever topic is necessary.

The team also has let veteran reporter Bill Torpy loose to cover offbeat local human-interest stories. His tales, like this one about a cyclist who fought back against a pickup-truck driver with a serious case of road rage, have been among the site’s most-read articles.

“He’s not one of the folks who’s going to spend a lot of time on SiteCatalyst or worrying about the metrics of how his stories are doing,” Corson said. “But he can see immediately how well these stories are doing and which topics are working.”

Overall, Corson said, the Hot Topics team allows AJC to “match our daily assignments with what we know our readership is expecting to see. It’s a different way to think about beats. There’s a lot more covering for each other, and a lot more teamwork in getting these stories done.”

The point, according to Roughton, is to be as responsive to audience needs as possible while smartly managing resources at a newsroom that has shrunk from about 500 people in 2001 to about 170-180 now.

“We have to be very deliberate about how we assign people, and we have to use our audiences as our guide,” he said. “I can’t have people stuck on beats that may or may not have audiences all the time.”

Previously: AJC reorganizes newsroom for digital with topic teams inspired by Quartz’s ‘obsessions’

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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