How newsrooms can do less work – but have more impact
- Most news organizations have a fraction of the staff and resources they once had. So they need to get smarter about prioritizing the work that really matters — and letting go of the rest.
- The first step to shedding low-value work is to ask your staff, “What are you doing that you don’t think is a good use of your time, and why?”
- Many publishers are growing audiences while producing less content. The key to cutting back on stories is to examine which types of stories are not serving any part of the audience “funnel.”
- Once reporters and editors have adjusted to a lighter workload, they should drive the conversations about how to meaningfully reinvest that time.
We’ve published a lot of articles at API about innovative things that news organizations are doing — they’re hosting events, they’re launching newsletters, they’re starting new beats, they’re translating more stories, they’re running reader hotlines, they’re campaigning for civility. All of it is good and meaningful work.
But you know what our most popular piece by far has been? An article about how one news organization stopped doing things.
That underscores a key reality in the news industry that doesn’t get enough consideration.
Most news organizations have a fraction of the staff and resources they once had. So to do more of the meaningful work that we at API (and other groups like us) are always urging — listening to audiences, building trust with audiences, building smarter reader revenue strategies — news organizations first need to get control of their priorities.
And that doesn’t mean figuring out how to do more with less, but how to do less with less.
In this piece we’ll help you take stock of the things your newsroom is doing that simply aren’t worth the effort. They could be certain kinds of stories, burdensome tasks or inefficient processes, or just outdated habits.
The goal should be to return some time to your news team. Time that can be reinvested in things that audiences and journalists value more. Maybe it’s more enterprise reporting. Maybe it’s simply going out and talking to people, with no story agenda in mind. Maybe it’s applying for more grant funding. Or maybe, it’s simply returning your overstretched, exhausted reporters to a more humane 40-hour work week.
So, let’s jump into it:
- First, we’ll present a simple approach to deciding what to stop doing.
- Then we’ll take a deeper dive into identifying which types of stories to cut back on.
- Lastly, we’ll look at some things you can do once you’ve got the deadlines at bay.
A simple framework for deciding what to stop doing
It’s surprisingly difficult for organizations of any kind to stop doing things. And the more complex the thing (or the organization), the harder it can be to kill. Some of the reasons why may sound familiar to anyone working in a newsroom:
- Leaders and managers aren’t aware of all the projects happening across the organization, which means they don’t have an accurate perception of people’s workloads.
- Leaders and managers aren’t aware of the “multiplier effect” — that one initiative in one department could require resources from another, which could stretch them too thin.
- People leave or are let go, but their work is simply transferred to another employee.
- Inertia gets the best of us. Usually we refer to inertia when unable to get something started, but it can also apply to stopping things. Sometimes it’s easier to just keep doing things rather than figure out a way (or a good reason why) to stop them.
The first step to stop doing work that’s not worthwhile is to ask your staff — regularly and often — “What are you doing that you don’t think is a good use of your time, and why?”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel kept a running list titled “Stuff we need to give up!” Employees were encouraged to add anything to the list that did not directly support their top priority of increasing digital subscriptions. They also added the tasks and responsibilities of people who had left and were not replaced. “If we aren’t willing or able to go out and recruit someone to take over where someone left off, then put it on the list,” editors wrote.
Something going on the list didn’t mean it had to be immediately abandoned — but it did mean its ROI would be scrutinized. In the end, they ended up saying “good riddance” to tedious, fruitless tasks like manually tweeting to all Twitter accounts, posting to Facebook pages that barely had any followers, and posting certain “print” items online. They also killed a Facebook Live show, “JS on Politics,” that few people were watching.
Ask your staff — regularly and often — “What are you doing that you don’t think is a good use of your time, and why?”
You could incorporate the question — “What are you doing that you don’t think is a good use of your time, and why?” — into performance reviews, ask it at every team meeting or company-wide meeting, or even create a “Stuff we need to stop doing” Slack channel. Or follow the Journal Sentinel’s example and keep a running list in a central location.
Of course, it’s not really the question but the discussions that follow that are important. It’s an exercise in thinking critically about how everyone’s work, each of their tasks, contributes to the business goals.
Yes, it can be an awkward (and loaded) question. Employees may hesitate to speak up about work they want to shed for fear of being perceived as lazy, or that it means their job is disposable. People may also hesitate to give up work that is familiar and comfortable for them — especially if they think they will be asked to take on something else that is new and challenging.
So if you’re reading this and you’re a manager, know that it’s up to you to anticipate these concerns and proactively address them. When broaching the conversation about stopping certain types of work, managers should stress the following:
- Shedding low-impact work is just as much an accomplishment — and cause for celebration — as, say, launching a new product or reporting series, or winning an award.
- Giving up certain work doesn’t mean it was poorly done or never important, but that your audience’s needs are evolving.
- Doing this helps everyone become more aligned on mission-critical work.
- It also helps reduce workloads and prevent burnout (hence, a cause for celebration).
- If employees need help phasing out projects or tasks, they will get it. (Managers, don’t underdeliver on this promise!)
Once you start having these conversations in your newsroom and identifying some things you may want to stop doing, here’s a simple framework we’ve created for deciding what truly is not worthwhile.
In the top-right quadrant are items that both drive revenue and are aligned with your news organization’s mission — enterprise reporting that is shown to engage readers and drive subscriptions, for example. Things that fall into this category of work are likely worth continuing.
In the bottom-left quadrant are items that neither drive revenue nor are central to carrying out your mission. Consider this category the “low-hanging fruit” in your effort to cut out low-value work.
Things that fall into the top-left quadrant — they drive revenue but aren’t “mission-critical” — may be worth continuing and can help “subsidize” the work in the bottom-right quadrant, which doesn’t necessarily drive revenue but nonetheless is central to your mission.
Another great tactic to home in on low-value work is to ask staffers to identify the tasks they spend the most time on. Out of these, which are neither mission- nor business-critical?
Now that we’ve covered this general approach, let’s move on to the specifics of trimming low-performing content.
How to stop doing so many stories
It’s not just journalists who are overwhelmed with information. Audiences are too. People are consuming media all day long, in one form or another. So instead of merely contributing to information overload, news organizations need to help audiences navigate it. And that means focusing on quality over quantity.
Many publishers are actually growing audiences by producing less content. They include (to pick a few) Gannett, the Guardian, the Times of London, the French newspaper Le Monde, the Buffalo News, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C. These publishers significantly cut back on the number of stories they were doing — and then saw higher traffic, more engagement and ultimately more subscribers.
Gannett embarked on an initiative a couple years ago to cut out underperforming stories across all of its newsrooms, after research showed that the bottom half of Gannett content accounted for only about 6% or 7% of overall readership. It ended up cutting the number of stories its newsrooms were posting nearly in half; doing fewer stories but more high-quality, original reporting. Article views went up during that same time period.
“Publishers … discover that when they cut away the not valuable, nobody realizes that it is gone,” said media analyst Thomas Baekdal in an interview with Digiday. And not only do they not realize it’s gone, they apparently start engaging more with what’s left.
Identify stories that don’t serve any part of your ‘funnel’
But what is the “not valuable”? When Gannett cut nearly 50% of its output in 2018, it was guided by page views. The types of stories that hardly anyone was looking at went on the chopping block. But the company has since changed how it defines value: It’s not just about broad reach but also about which stories help gain and retain subscribers, Josh Awtry, vice president of content strategy at the USA TODAY Network, told API.
Several metrics can help you determine that. The key is making sure they represent each stage of the audience “funnel,” from casual user to paying subscriber or member. Stories that don’t serve any stage of your funnel can be cut — and few people will even realize that they’re gone.
So let’s break it down by stage so you know which metrics you should be looking at.
Metrics include: Page views.
Page views may just be one piece of the puzzle, but they’re still an important piece. “Every loyal subscriber started out as a new reader once. If we’re not thinking about reaching broad swaths of the community in search of a more diverse readership to bring on the subscriber journey, we’ll never be able to build up enough subscribers to support our newsrooms,” Awtry said.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that digital traffic for its community blotter was almost nonexistent. So it stopped doing those stories and focused on the crime stories that really mattered. Over the next month, they produced nearly 100 fewer stories — but total digital traffic went up by 19%. “Our reporters have more time to focus on the stories they really want to write and have increased the median page views by 62 percent,” editors wrote.
Metrics include: Time spent reading a story, scroll depth, reader comments and social shares; plus all of these metrics for audience segments like newsletter subscribers and frequent returners to your site.
How long readers are spending on a story is one great indicator of which content is deepening your relationships with readers. If a story has modest reach, but its readers are spending an average of three minutes on it, that’s a sign the story is resonating with certain people.
Metrics include: Page views of a story by readers who purchased a subscription shortly after, number of subscriptions purchased from the story page, number of paywall or meter “stops.”
Subscription conversion is a key metric for news organizations that are shifting to a reader revenue-supported business model versus an advertising-based model.
Tynin Fries, digital strategist at the Denver Post, says they “made a conscious effort to stop writing stories that don’t drive subscriptions.”
Although it hasn’t led to them producing less content, she said, it did lead to them shedding “a lot of low-level crime and sentencing stories. Now we try to focus on only active situations or fatal crimes [and] crashes. That gives our breaking news reporters more time to watch for trend stories that better fit what our audience wants.”
Metrics include: Any data that shows what content subscribers are engaging with; could be subscriber page views, time spent on a story, subscriber comments, etc.
A recent study found that 49% of digital subscribers to local news are “zombies” who visit the website less than once a month. Let that sink in for a moment. Most of your subscribers are barely interacting with your reporting — which is not good news for retention. Research also shows that regular reading habits is the topmost factor in whether subscribers end up sticking around.
So examining which stories your subscribers are engaging with is absolutely critical to understanding what’s worth doing and what’s not. Spend less time churning out stories and more time looking at what subscribers want, and finding more opportunities to get that in front of them.
After the Arizona Republic made the highly unwelcome discovery that 42% of its digital subscribers weren’t even visiting its website once a month, and that those zombies made up 50% of subscription stops each month, it set out to examine which stories were resonating with subscribers (particularly the zombies). “We found that the most successful zombie-killer stories in the newsroom were those that had strong news elements combined with a bit of a hook — a unique spin on a viral story, a strong human element, or a format that grabbed readers quickly,” wrote John Adams and Alia Beard Rau. “And, most importantly, one not written on print deadline.”
Spend less time churning out stories and more time looking at what subscribers want, and finding more opportunities to get that in front of them.
Again, if you start noticing story types that don’t serve any part of the funnel — they’re not getting page views, readers who do land on the pages aren’t staying long, subscribers are ignoring them — it’s safe to say you can cut them. Consider them the low-hanging fruit in this exercise.
The Buffalo News uses API’s Metrics for News analytics tool to look at a customized blend of metrics called an Engagement Score — including page views, time on page and social media engagement — to see which story types readers care about the most.
Looking at this blend of metrics has allowed the Buffalo News to cut back significantly on daily stories that don’t get high engagement, such as quick updates from local government meetings, and instead channel reporters’ time into more enterprise reporting.
Even topics that weren’t fetching audiences when written about as daily stories — like the school board, police and narcotics in Niagara County — were more appealing to readers when approached from an enterprise angle.
“Cutting down on dailies is one part of the strategy, but probably a more important part is knowing when to invest more time and effort into a story so it’s not just a daily story with limited impact,” said enterprise editor Patrick Lakamp.
“The most important thing editors can do is say yes to the enterprise stories and make sure reporters have the time to do them … but also say no or discourage the daily-grind stories,” he added.
Doing that can also boost reporters’ morale.
Speaking about Gannett’s exercise in cutting content across its newsrooms, Awtry said, “Newsrooms received the training and focus well — it’s not often you get to tell journalists that they’re working too hard and that they should take a breath, get off of the hamster wheel, and think about how to use their talents to do more dot-connecting, enterprise work. It’s what got most of us into the business, after all.”
Find patterns in the data
Looking at more data won’t help if you can’t easily find patterns and themes in that data — especially when you’re using it to decide which stories to kill.
“Steering by ‘this story good, that story not as good’ only gets you so far,” Awtry said. “We also want to unearth the taxonomical link between the good stories and the stories that didn’t connect with readers.”
Your best bet for easily unearthing insights from your data is having consistent, thorough story tagging and categorization practices within your CMS.
The Times of London, for example, started tagging stories with 16 different pieces of metadata, including tone, headline type, article format and geography. It then plotted those tags against metrics like page views; time on page; and comments, saves or shares. It looks at these metrics for two audience segments: registered readers and subscribers.
The tagging system gave them valuable insights into what’s working for readers — and what’s not. They started publishing 15% fewer stories on the online Home News section and actually saw readers’ time in that section increase. And users of the Times mobile app started spending an average of 28 minutes daily on the Home News section, an increase of 25% year over year.
But what if your CMS isn’t currently built for tagging stories, and you don’t have the expertise to change that?
You can still do short, relatively quick experiments to identify which stories to kill. Take one reporter, beat or topic at a time. The Buffalo News, for example, examined its food coverage to see which story types were and were not resonating with readers.
Features editor Geoff Nason exported the analytics data for all food articles published over a certain time period to an Excel sheet and assigned “categories” to each story to help surface trends, things like story type (feature, guide, review and restaurant opening/closing articles, for example) and author. He then created pivot tables within the Excel sheet to make it easy to compare how well certain stories attracted readers.
Nason found that restaurant guides performed well, but a short feature called “Hot Dish,” which spotlighted one dish at a time from a local restaurant, was underperforming. At first the columnist tried a different tack, reviewing Buffalo-specific dishes at restaurants around town and experimenting with headlines, but when this approach also failed to engage readers, he was able to abandon the column with confidence.
Next (and last), we’ll look at what to do (if anything) with the time you’ve saved by getting rid of low-value work.
How to reinvest your time
For many people, the knee-jerk reaction to shedding work is immediately to find other stuff (more meaningful stuff!) to replace it with.
That’s not really the point of this piece. If there’s one thing you should take away from this, it’s that it’s okay to do less. If your staff is overworked, overwhelmed, burnt out, and now they feel like they finally have a chance to get off the hamster wheel and breathe, that is a huge win. Organizations routinely underestimate the value of not overstretching their staffs, and news organizations (or their owners) are especially guilty of this.
It’s okay to stop doing work that wasn’t contributing to business goals and not replace it with anything. Trust us, your audience won’t suffer.
Organizations routinely underestimate the value of not overstretching their staffs.
But in many cases, once reporters and editors adjust to a lighter workload, they’ll find the energy and drive to seek out more meaningful tasks. Managers: In your conversations with employees about what they want to stop doing, use your judgment to find a good time to ask, “What would you rather be doing?” If an employee is tired and burnt out, it may not be a good time to get her thinking about “what else.”
Let employees themselves drive those conversations. Give them the space and the agency to think about what they could do that would advance your newsroom’s mission and goals.
If and when journalists are ready to reinvest their time in more mission-oriented work, here are some priorities we suggest.
Listen to audiences, and let their input guide your reporting.
“Reporters hardly ever have time to start a new beat by listening, with no agenda other than to understand.” This comment, from Sami Edge, one of API’s 2019-20 community listening fellows, encapsulates a top barrier to audience engagement work. Edge’s reporting project for Idaho Education News, which centered on Latino students and their families, began with “listening events,” which involved meeting the students in small groups and asking them about their education experiences, needs and concerns. From there, they began identifying and pursuing stories. Given the time, journalists could plan more and better ways to engage meaningfully with audiences, finding out what’s important to them and then building stories from there. Maybe it would lead to fewer stories, but those stories would be more relevant to audiences.
Improve source diversity.
In a survey from the Reynolds Journalism Institute, journalists said one of the biggest obstacles to including more diverse voices in their reporting is the crush of deadlines, which makes it difficult to develop a more diverse source network. Relieved of some of their deadlines, journalists could then invest time in finding and building relationships with more diverse sources.
The San Diego Union-Tribune now gives its reporters four hours of uninterrupted time every two weeks for source development, which could involve calling on existing sources or meeting new sources and entering them into the Union-Tribune’s source database.
“We schedule these four-hour sourcing blocks of time into our story planning document, which is a Google sheet we call the Plandoc,” Denise Smith Amos, watchdog and accountability editor at the Union-Tribune, told API. “It’s where we daily list what our reporters are doing.” Reporters are supposed to be “untouchable” during their scheduled source work, Amos added. “It’s new for reporters and editors, but some of my reporters already are embracing it as a time when their editors leave them alone to do an important part of their job.”
Do more solutions reporting.
When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel decided to kill its Facebook Live show “JS on Politics” because it wasn’t garnering much engagement, managers asked the host, “If you weren’t doing this, what would you want to be doing?” David Haynes is now the editor of the Journal Sentinel’s Ideas Lab, a solutions journalism-focused beat that also replaced the newspaper’s traditional opinion section. Page views and time on page for Ideas Lab stories are both much higher than they had been for opinion articles. “Overall, our traffic was up by a third even though we produced a third as many stories,” Haynes wrote.
Go after grant funding.
Grant funding is — or should be — a critical part of any news organization’s revenue stream. “Journalism funded by philanthropy needs to go hand-in-hand with digital subscriptions to cover the cost of the newsroom,” said Local Media Association CEO Nancy Lane in a recent interview with the Medill Local News Initiative. Newsrooms need to be able to dedicate considerable resources to securing philanthropic funding. Some may be able to justify the cost of hiring a grant writer or a development director. But many will have to take on this work with the staff they already have, and the first step is giving people time to do it. (And the next step is reading this “Getting Grants to Fund Your Journalism” guide from the Raleigh News & Observer.)
Do fewer stories, but spend more time getting those stories in front of people, especially subscribers.
Most news organizations put their work out into the world, and then hope audiences engage with it. That’s no longer enough, not when audiences are flooded with information from a thousand other sources throughout their day.
News organizations must realize that their role is not just to report the news, but to make it as easy as possible for audiences to find the information that is most relevant to them. In an article discussing the finding that nearly half of digital subscribers don’t visit their local news website even once a month, Ed Malthouse, director of Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center, said news organizations have to get better about bringing news directly to subscribers. Having strong, well-tailored newsletters and a good recommender system are two ways to help people easily find what’s important to them. And taking a service-journalism approach to every beat, like the Philadelphia Inquirer does, ensures that you’re not just reporting the news — you’re helping people apply it to their lives.
Reporters could also invest more time in connecting with stakeholders in their reporting, perhaps using a similar approach as the San Diego Union-Tribune takes to source development: giving reporters an allotted number of hours per week to reach out to stakeholders. Network mapping is a great way to identify stakeholders (and get their input before you start reporting).
Again and again in our work at API, we find that newsrooms have no shortage of lofty goals and aspirations. Journalists want to do so much for the audiences they’re serving — they are mission-driven people, after all. But they’re also facing a continual shortage of resources, and there is just no getting around that.
So we need to get stricter, more intentional, and more proactive about getting rid of the work that’s not serving newsrooms or audiences. Less is more.
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