Can a journalism project be both timely and timeless?
As with many news organisations, we at the Financial Times question whether our journalism should be ‘evergreen’ and if so, how we could achieve this.
Most recently, this was the case with our coverage of a possible first US interest rate rise in nearly a decade.
We thought readers would want to know both news of whether the Federal Reserve acted and also why the decision mattered, especially to them. As a result, we built an explainer page which would remain relevant through months of speculation about a possible increase.
We could do this because the Fed’s meetings are scheduled and we know when its announcements come.
However, not all events unfold with such structured timing. What, then, should be your approach to making large-scale ‘evergreen’ journalism?
Here are some of the questions we ask when planning big projects.
Why are you doing it?
It’s an obvious question, yet it’s one worth asking.
Projects such as long-form series and interactive graphics can take a long time to produce and involve many colleagues. There is therefore a temptation to include a timeless or longer-view element to justify this effort.
But is this what your audience wants? Is your project purely focused around a one-off news event? Will people continue to search for and use the resource afterwards? Has your audience shown a particular interest in knowing more about the topic?
Your audience can help to inform your decision-making and direct how you experiment. Through reader comments, and through data, the audience is telling you what it wants to know about.
For example, a site search by analytics of lifetime traffic on items, say, 48 hours after publication, may help to guide you towards your audience’s interests.
If the journalism is pegged to the news, can it still be made ‘evergreen’, or does it risk withering on the vine soon after publication?
Perhaps surprisingly, our experience is that news-led journalism can be timeless.
The clearest examples of this are seminal takes or analyses on political or economic news events, which become a reference point for months or even years to come.
For example, our coverage of the debate about UK grammar schools, published in the midst of a political debate in 2013, continues to draw in readers years later. This is because it is original analysis, almost like a piece of academic research, which is still topical.
The annual FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year award normally attracts attention only once a year when we announce the winners. But by designing our web page as a resource for readers to find recommendations for the best business books, we created timeless appeal, especially for people coming via search. Our audience accesses this archive throughout the year.
Contrast this with our interactive graphics built this year for the UK election, which now get only modest engagement from our audience. Once the election was over, the results became such general knowledge that there was little reason to revisit them.
Can you use automation to make something that is both timeless and ‘always new’?
One way of creating enduring interest is to make something that always has the latest information on a certain topic.
Our economics reporter devised a UK economic dashboard that updates dynamically with fresh data. Using code to automatically fetch up-to-date information is a good way to meet one of the main challenges of evergreen journalism: maintenance. Readers spend an average of 4 minutes and 27 seconds on this page.
What is your plan for promotion and updating the item over the months/years?
If your project doesn’t update automatically, do you have time to do it manually? As your newsroom creates more evergreen journalism, you risk having to spend so much time maintaining existing pieces of work that you don’t have scope to create new ones.
Sometimes there is the additional challenge that newsroom culture can be allergic to journalism that is seen as ‘old’.
In addition, with limited real estate on homepages or capacity for social media promotion, it can be tough to persuade colleagues to feature material that was ‘first published’ months ago.
Despite this, working out how to give a new lease of life to our journalism may become an even bigger part of many newsrooms’ work and planning.
In that way, even the most evergreen of journalism may never really be complete.