By Shirley Qiu
A local news publisher in Norfolk, VA, has been using data to drive editorial decisions — a journey closely tied to its digital transition since 2016.
The Virginian-Pilot’s shift to a digitally-focused newsroom strategy has meant not just a change in approach but also a change in mindset — from trusting their gut to trusting their data.
As part of the Table Stakes initiative, a program to help revitalize local news organizations, The Pilot set out in mid-2017 to find areas of opportunity to reach new audiences in their local market. Using Metrics for News, the newsroom combed through data to see how well existing beats were engaging audiences, while also looking for a new topic area to cover that would resonate well with readers.
This ultimately helped the Pilot identify and launch a new consumer-focused beat in early 2018, now one of the top-ten most engaging topic areas (out of 46) in their newsroom.
But getting there took about half a year of trial and error.
The newsroom’s first idea began with a hypothesis or, perhaps, a gut feeling. As home to the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk, leaders at The Pilot initially experimented with expanding the military beat and covering it in new ways. They published news as well as lifestyle stories about and for those with military ties in the area.
However, a couple months in, the numbers were not backing this experiment. Online engagement to the new military coverage wasn’t as high as expected — and, moreover, a lot of web traffic was coming from outside of Norfolk. The Pilot learned they could not win an audience that already had what it needed from other sources; the military has its own communications department that helps service members with some of the resources the Pilot was hoping to provide. So it was back to the drawing board.
The newsroom evaluated data in Metrics for News and internal marketing surveys, and found that stories about restaurants and retail outlets were popular, particularly with affluent readers. Among these were stories about how and where to spend money. This was not an audience of just older readers in their area, either. It was an audience that also consisted of young military officers who have money to spend because housing and living expenses are often covered.
Jeff Reece, senior editor at The Pilot, put together a team of two business reporters as well as one food writer to start a consumer-focused beat, which would cover things like local retail, dining, business openings and closings, and trends, with deeper dives into consumer culture and where readers could spend their money.
“These were topics we already covered, but not particularly well,” said Reece. “… By creating a team that took a more strategic approach, we hoped to better engage local readers.”
That new strategy led to changes in the types of stories reporters pursue and how they cover them. For example, The Pilot’s food coverage now focuses more on the local dining scene, including restaurant reviews and industry trends, instead of writing about recipes, gadgets or food preparation. Reader engagement with the food and dining coverage has doubled since taking this new approach.
On the business team, one reporter transitioned from writing generic business stories, like news about CEOs or a business’s quarterly numbers, to more consumer-focused stories, like new stores opening or closing, and why. As a result, audience engagement to this reporter’s coverage increased 65 percent.
“Sometimes, you have to dig into a topic to see what within the topic works and what doesn’t,” Reece said.
This is not to say that all consumer-focused stories have been winners. The team experimented with writing what Reece calls “news you can use” stories, containing tips and advice. One story detailed where to buy toys after the local Toys “R” Us store closed; it performed below average. The team tried more of those types of stories, which also underperformed. The team has since stopped writing these stories.
The beat creation also took months longer than Reece would have liked. In late summer 2017, he started putting together a committee to look through Metrics for News and other data tools to identify new coverage opportunities. But the new consumer beat wasn’t established until five to six months later.
“We wanted it to be inclusive, so we put together a team that had representatives from across the paper,” he said. “If I could do it again, I would streamline the process and get to the decision quicker.”
Reece also has some advice for newsrooms hoping to try something similar: “You have to trust the numbers, because it’s easy to start making excuses. … ‘Well that data is from the fall. This topic does much better in the spring.’ But here’s the thing, the data tells you what readers are engaging with in real life. And it’s not easy. … I had to learn to trust what I was seeing and dig deeper to find out why.”