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“Do more of the meaningful work”: How publishers can create more impact by doing less

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Many publishers have had to work with fewer resources in recent years due to challenges like declining ad revenues and the coronavirus pandemic. An American Press Institute (API) guide looks into how newsrooms can increase engagement even with limited resources and after reducing the workloads of overburdened staff. 

“Get smarter about prioritizing the work that really matters”

The key idea is to “get smarter about prioritizing the work that really matters — and letting go of the rest,” suggests Stephanie Castellano, Editorial Manager, API and author of the guide, 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 to do more of the meaningful work… listening to audiences, building trust with audiences, building smarter reader revenue strategies — news organizations first need to get control of their priorities.

Stephanie Castellano, Editorial Manager, API

Castellano examines this from three angles:

  1. Identifying and reducing or eliminating low-value work
  2. Producing less but more impactful content
  3. Exploring how freed-up time can be reinvested meaningfully

“Exercise in thinking critically”

It begins with identifying and stopping activities that are not worth the effort. The report identifies the main hurdles to doing this right. They exist among the leadership, as well as staff.

Leaders are not always aware of everything happening in their organization and hence do not have an accurate idea of staff’s workloads. Projects requiring cross-departmental collaboration may add to the workload of employees. The same happens when someone leaves or is transferred to another department.

The issues from employees’ end can include feeling insecure about their jobs being seen as disposable, or the uncertainty stemming from giving up something familiar for a new challenge.

Castellano recommends having regular conversations with the staff about what activities they are doing that are not worth the effort. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel kept a running stop doing list. Employees were encouraged to add anything to the list that did not support the publisher’s top priority of increasing digital subscriptions. The activities on the list would be investigated for their ROI to understand whether they should be eliminated. Some initiatives that were abandoned included manually posting to all Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and a Facebook Live show, “JS on Politics.”

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.

Stephanie Castellano, Editorial Manager, API

Addressing employees’ concerns requires managers to emphasize that identifying and quitting low-value work is an accomplishment in itself. It does not mean that the work never had any value – some activities may get redundant because of changing audience requirements. They also need to be reminded that reducing low-value work will help them focus on more important tasks. 

API has created a simple framework to help publishers identify tasks or activities that are worth keeping and those that are not.

Source: American Press Institute

“When they cut away the not valuable, nobody realizes that it is gone”

The next step is cutting down on content that is not serving any meaningful purpose. Many publishers are actually growing audiences by producing less content, notes Castellano. These include Gannett, the Guardian, the Times of London, Le Monde, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. 

Gannett discovered that the bottom half (in terms of performance) of its content accounted for only about 6% or 7% of the overall readership. The publisher reduced the number of stories it published by nearly half and started focusing on producing more high-quality pieces. The effort led to an increase in article views. 

“Whether a digital magazine publishes 100, 500, or 1,000 articles makes no difference,” media analyst Thomas Baekdal told Digiday. “It’s the quality and interest of the articles that matter instead.” 

“We see this clearly on YouTube, where the most popular YouTubers rarely post more than once or twice a day. Publishers look at this, do the analysis, and they discover that when they cut away the not valuable, nobody realizes that it is gone.”

Thomas Baekdal, Media Analyst

The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, increased its number of digital subscriptions by 250%, from 1,700 to 6,000, between 2017 and 2019. It did that after examining its content production and reducing the number of daily stories from 50-65 to 30 in-depth pieces. The publisher also moved from measuring clicks and pageviews to tracking how much time readers spent on an article and their engaged minutes, as they are better predictors of their likelihood of subscribing.

The key to determining a story’s value, says Castellano, “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.

Stephanie Castellano, Editorial Manager, API

“Examining which stories your subscribers are engaging with is absolutely critical to understanding what’s worth doing and what’s not,” she adds. “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.”

“Trust us, your audience won’t suffer”

The next step is meaningfully reinvesting the time saved by reducing less valuable work and content. Castellano suggests cutting down on certain activities should not always lead to adding more work (even meaningful work). “It’s okay to do less,” she writes. “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.”

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.

Stephanie Castellano, Editorial Manager, API

That said, “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,” she adds. 

Managers should allow employees to drive conversations around how they can contribute to the newsroom’s mission and goals. The report suggests some priority areas. Journalists can invest their freed-up time in finding and building relationships with more diverse sources. For example, The San Diego Union-Tribune gives its reporters four hours every two weeks for source development. 

They can also do more solutions reporting or pursue grant funding – “a critical part of any news organization’s revenue stream,” according to Castellano.

Journalists may also explore better ways to engage meaningfully with readers. They can spend more time listening to them “with no agenda other than to understand” 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,” concludes Castellano.

“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.”

Josh Awtry, VP, Content Strategy, USA TODAY Network and Gannett

The full report is available from API:
How newsrooms can do less work – but have more impact