June 12, 2019

Poynter and the American Press Institute teamed up again this week to take a deeper look at what’s working in local news. Here, you can read how journalists at The Fresno Bee changed how they cover food, and over at Better News, learn how The Sacramento Bee used lessons from Table Stakes to experiment quickly and stay nimble.

Last year, The Sacramento Bee set a goal to grow digital subscriptions to 54,000. (In June of last year, they had about 15,000. As of May, they reached 22,000.) They borrowed one concept they’re using to help them get there from developers — sprints.

In six-to-eight-week segments, they tested four audience groups to see what led to subscriptions in each group. (You can read about the strategies and results over at Better News.) One of those groups was food and drink. And one thing the data showed editors was that people wanted “high utility” coverage, said Lauren Gustus, McClatchy’s regional editor for California, Idaho and Washington.

In Sacramento, editors didn’t see much growth in digital subscriptions from food coverage (the newsroom was using less-sophisticated tracking tech at the time, Gustus said, so they’re not done experimenting.)

But when The Fresno Bee later tried a similar sprint experiment with food coverage, it worked.

Related: The Philadelphia Inquirer’s audience team stopped putting all their time into Twitter (and referral traffic stayed the same)

From Feb. 1 to May 31, Bethany Clough, the Bee’s restaurant and retail reporter, was:

  • First in the newsroom in direct subscription conversions
  • Second in the newsroom in stories that led to a conversion
  • First in subscriber pageviews
  • First in pageviews

Here’s how she and McClatchy’s California growth editor Jennifer Robillard approached the sprint, what they changed and what they learned.

Screenshot, The Fresno Bee

To start, the journalists involved in all the sprints in Fresno and Sacramento created a set of criteria for selecting their audiences. That criteria included these questions: What areas could they own? What work could they do for those people? Do those people self-identify as part of a group?

“I think sometimes we overuse the word audience,” Gustus said. “What we’re really looking for is they’re a community here.”

Were there gaps in coverage the newsroom could close? If so, they expected they’d see the payoff in an increase in digital-only subscribers.

After identifying communities they could serve better, the newsroom pulled years worth of food and drink coverage analytics to get a baseline of what worked and what didn’t.

“We could write about Cracker Barrel all day,” Gustus said. “We don’t. However, if we looked back at the analytics, we saw that there was a desire for that high-utility coverage.”

People wanted to know what local grocery stores were coming and closing. They cared about restaurant openings and closings.

They weren’t reading classic restaurant reviews.

After identifying the what and the how, the newsroom turned to the who. Who here would be good at a sprint? Who would be interested?

Finally, the newsroom surveyed readers and talked to them in the process, asking what they’d like to see more of. Sprints are meant to move quickly, so they didn’t pause for focus groups, Gustus said, but used social media and Google forms to get feedback.

In Fresno, Clough’s growth goal during the sprint was aggressive, Gustus said.

“And she blew it out of the water.”

It’s hard to make a direct link between the sprint itself and subscriber growth, Gustus said, but Fresno saw 4% growth in digital-only subscribers during that time and Clough’s stories reached more current subscribers, growing subscriber pageviews by 95%.

The assumption here, Gustus said, is that these are the types of stories that will lead to conversions long-term.

Screenshot, The Fresno Bee

Here’s what The Fresno Bee learned from its food coverage sprint:

  • Localizing national trends didn’t work. While Clough could localize a story quickly, most people didn’t click through and the stories had low engagement. “So it really came down to serving local readers,” Robillard said.
  • The day you publish matters. “Not Fridays,” Clough said. Data told them that food coverage did best Tuesday through Thursday. She recently launched a food newsletter on Wednesday. She never publishes anything after noon on Friday.
  • Get reader feedback before you start. This is a well-documented practice by now, and Clough found success with it, too, asking readers for the most Fresno foods and best restaurant patios to dine with dogs.

Related: Want more on the transformation of local news? Sign up for Local Edition, our weekly newsletter

  • Recirculate what you’ve already covered. Just because you wrote something last week or last month or last year, that doesn’t mean everyone who’s interested saw it. Clough got good during her sprint at thinking about topics that she could resurface or how she could aggregate her own coverage to get it in front of new audiences. One month’s worth of openings and closings gets put into a roundup at the end of the month, for instance.
  • Speak up and get editors who can to help spotlight your work. Whether it’s through prominent homepage treatment or social media love, just ask. Newsrooms are busy and everyone has different priorities. But a spotlight makes a difference.
  • “High-utility” food coverage and culture stories and reviews can exist at the same time. You can write opening and closing stories quickly and give yourself time to take a more significant look at how food connects a community, Gustus said. “It’s OK to live in multiple places.”

Screenshot, The Fresno Bee’s new food newsletter

For Clough, the sprint offered enough time to create new routines and a new approach to her beat. Now that her sprint is finished, that won’t end.

The sprint works, too, to pull the newsroom out of the crush of the day-to-day, Robillard said.

“We get frazzled. We get pulled in different directions.”

Having benchmarks and regular meetings throughout the sprint keeps you accountable, she said.

Related: How the food team at the Times-Picayune transformed itself

Here’s one final lesson: “Just go,” Gustus said. “One of the best things we learned in Table Stakes is you can design-do your way through any project.”

It might work. You might need to pivot. That’s OK because you haven’t invested months into planning and analysis and meetings. You just create a baseline, get data and the right person and see what happens.

“Our daily routine in any newsroom is often times difficult to break,” Gustus said. “To the extent that you can carve out some time to experiment your way to success, you’re going to contribute to the success and sustainability in your newsroom that will be dramatically different than walking in the door and doing the same thing you did yesterday.”


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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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