June 19, 2019

About two years ago, the arts and entertainment team at Southern California News Group started covering area theme parks like locals (think interactive maps, FAQs and ride guides.)

“All these people go to these places,” said Vanessa Franko, SCNG’s digital director of entertainment. “Here’s an opportunity for us to write about something that’s here in our backyard. Let’s go write about some roller coasters. Let’s go write about Space Mountain.”

And so they did.

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In late March, Franko and her team launched a theme parks newsletter, Park Life that now has an impressive 38% open rate. (Like many other newsletter operators, she declined to provide any exact number.) Pageviews from subscribers have doubled in the last six months.

SCNG’s A&E team took the same approach to other beats, including music festivals and casinos. Festival Pass, which launched in April of 2018, has tripled subscribers in the past year and has a 25% open rate. And Casino Insider, which launched in March of this year, has a 32% open rate.

The tactics here are replicable:

  • Shift how you cover what’s in your community from observer to community member who just happens to have great access and useful info.
  • Learn and adapt using reader data.
  • Have fun.

“Our approach as a team is if we’re not having fun,” Franko said, “we’re doing it wrong.”

Image via SCNG

Southern California News Group is made up of 11 properties, according to its site, and has physical newsrooms in four counties. Those newsrooms include the Orange County Register. SCNG is owned by MediaNews Group, which is owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which has earned a reputation for its “newspaper-killing model.”

Smaller staffs in those newsrooms have had to rethink coverage. But for the A&E team, a reorganization came not because of smaller staff but in looking at what readers were telling them.

Related: As these newsrooms shrank, they started working together to uncover corruption

Franko works with senior editor Jeff Miller and fellow digital director Erik Pedersen, nine full-time reporters and a stable of freelancers.

Her team found they were already covering theme parks, festivals, casinos, food and TV, but they needed to both narrow and deepen that coverage.

For instance:

  • How do you cover movies and TV when you’re competing with the LA Times and daily trade publications? They decided to take the hyper-local angle. Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Orange County” might seem like a weird thing to cover, Franko said, “but by golly, we’ve got a reporter covering the Real Housewives.” That coverage includes online recaps with emojis that show the number of drinks, tears and bad words.
  • With food, different communities respond to different approaches. Unlike in Fresno, for instance, in Orange County, food reviews have a strong and loyal local audience.
  • The newsrooms still cover fine arts, but mostly through roundups and freelancers.
  • With theme parks, the A&E team now covers Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, Six Flags and Knotts Berry Farm as entertainment, not just news. “There are millions of passholders,” Franko said, “including some in the newsroom.” Franko and her team timed the Park Life newsletter for the opening of Galaxy’s Edge, Disneyland’s Star Wars’ themed addition.

Each reporter’s goal is to grow his or her own audiences. They work on that through weekly — sometimes daily — reports from Parse.ly, Franko said, and through monthly digital homework.

“It’s not a competition with each other, it’s a competition with yourself,” she said.

The goal is to grow local and returning audiences.

“And we want them to grow because the data shows that the more people come back, the more they’re gonna come out and subscribe.”


Before we go, here’s a little more about that digital homework, which, again, is worth trying.

At monthly staff meetings, Franko gives the assignments, which are meant to be simple but insightful.

For instance: What were your top stories in the past year on Parse.ly? What can you learn from that? Or what zombie stories keep coming back? Why? Is it time to update them and share again? Or what stories in the past month did you think would do well but didn’t? Why?

Franko took over today’s Local Edition with more tips, including this one, which is at the heart of their theme parks coverage: Cover your beats like normal people.

“We go to Disneyland and Coachella, too, so we can tell you what’s worth waiting in line for and what you can skip.”

Screenshot, Real Housewives of Orange County recap, ocregister.com

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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