If I were an editor: observations from speaking at Gannett’s Editors Meeting

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Photo stolen from Jodi Gersh. From left: Mackenzie Warren, Jamie Spencer, myself, Christian Renaud, and Mark Katches.

Update: A full video of the session is available here.

In 2006, I was a lowly intern at the Wilmington News Journal, one of Gannett’s larger newspapers. I remember being impressed with leadership at the newspaper but frustrated hearing about the policies from “corporate,” especially when it came to the digital side. Six years later, attending Gannett’s annual editors meeting, I barely recognized the company. I was impressed.

Which is why I was honored to speak on a panel at the meeting with three “media disrupters” to offer the company an outside perspective along with my fellow panelists Christian RenaudJaime SpencerMark Katches, and moderator Mackenzie Warren. Below is a recap of my suggestions to the room full of editors (and for those interested in the rap version of what I said, old head Ryan Sholin took care of that):

Protect and grow the “passion topics” - Gannett encourages each of its news orgs to carve out a handful of “passion topics” in its communities. The local farming community may be a “passion topic” in the Midwest, but an editor in Detroit might opt for a focus on the auto industry. If a publication can create compelling and useful content that assembles a like-minded audience, they can do all kinds of things to add value to readers’ lives while keeping the news product sustainable. At Technically Philly, we primarily used events.1 Some publications sell swag, premium content, or membership. However you make money, the first step is always building a community.

A renewed focus on design – I didn’t mention this on stage, but the most apparent way traditional local pubs are falling behind upstarts is design. I learned that Gannett has centralized their design operations across a handful of off-site locations so newsrooms can focus on content. It’s a smart move to gather the design talent in cities that creatives want to live so they can work with and be inspired by their peers. I’d empower these folks to experiment, especially online.

Take resources away from print ad sales and dedicate them to content marketing / sponsored content – We’ve started to see it at Buzzfeed, Gawker, Quartz, and Mashable: traditional journalists leveraging their talent to create content for brands that helps fund the news. Magid VP (and fellow panelist) Jamie Spencer made the point earlier in the conference: brands are throwing all kinds of money at trying to become publishers but are still playing catch-up to the capabilities of traditionally trained and battle-tested writers and journalists. Were I editor, I’d create a portion of my business dedicated to selling and fulfilling this revenue model. I’ve written about this phenomenon before.

Hire curious people – I wouldn’t hire anyone who hasn’t shown digital curiosity. I’d measure this by asking each applicant about their side projects. If a new hire doesn’t have the urge to explore on their own time (when the barriers and stakes are nonexistent) how can I expect them be able to generate new ideas on company time, when the stakes are higher? Another observation from Spencer: If the news business is focused on innovation, why are we still requiring job applicants have previous newsroom experience?

Analysis and context over hard news – I’d mercilessly cut “Dog Bites Man” hard news that wasn’t unique to my local area. It’s notoriously difficult for an upstart local blog to compete with the depth of knowledge that a long-time local reporter has about their beat. As an editor, I’d want to tap into that wherever possible by encouraging my reporters to share their thoughts and analysis.

You have 82 labs – Gannett has 82 news organizations and, according to recent earnings statements, $250 million of cash on hand. That’s 82 markets to experiment, and 82 markets to scale ideas.

Mobile – I was asked where can Gannett get ahead of the curve. My answer: subcompact publishing. In other words, leveraging stripped down mobile publications, push notifications, and a stable of quality writers to dominate the mobile newsstand.

Take complete advantage of “full access model” data- I kept calling it a “paywall.” Gannett likes to call it a “full access model.” Whatever you call it, it has the added benefit of collecting tons of info about subscribers including the reader’s credit card number. Treat news like iTunes: when you have the reader’s payment info saved you can encourage frictionless purchasing of larger “memberships,” meet ups, conferences, and other value-adds that drive revenue.

Ruthlessly encourage idea generation – Require that each newsroom conduct one experiment a month by collecting ideas on a Google Doc. Once a month review the document with staff and decide on a limited experiment to test the idea. Don’t be afraid to pull staff members off of normal roles. Make it a requirement that each idea have some sort of defendable business component, no matter how tenuous.

  1. We do the same at 99U, but it’s not locally focused, so not as apt a comparison []

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