Looking to innovate in the newsroom? Here are 10 tips to get started

Courtesy: ProPublica Illinois

An expert panel of editors weighed in on coming up with innovative ideas, getting buy-in from the bosses and turning those ideas into real work in the newsroom at an event co-hosted by the Headline Club and ONA Chicago. Here are some highlights from the panel:

Serve your Superfans

Kevin Pang, Founder and Editor-in-chief, The Takeout

Digital media in 2019 is like Hyde Park in London: we’re in this big park with a lot of people shouting for everyone’s attention. There are many strategies for getting attention, like you can be deceitful or salacious. 

One of the things we tried to ask ourselves is how we get people to stop and listen while being a good citizen of the Internet, while not being deceitful and trying to do things the right way.

What we’re trying to figure out is how to get people to be devoted fans. We really don’t need a million people on our site, what we do need are the super fans who are on our site every day. We’re averaging about six million uniques, and one percent is superfans, who account for twenty percent of pageviews.

I think it’s really about building the habits of being the place to go. Letting people know that you’re the definitive voice for something.

Plan ahead

Ben Meyerson, Audience Content Editor, Chicago Tribune

At the Tribune we started doing Audience Engagement Plans out of necessity and only for big stories, but now we do them for the smaller stories as well. It’s really about thinking through: how can I get the audience to engage with this story?

Ben shared an example of the audience plan, which started as a Google Doc including fields for everything from possible headlines to media assets to tweets and post copy that could accompany the story.

We get to read the story, and we’ve been given a lot more carte blanche to do the headlines that we like. We workshop a lot of our push notifications.

Ultimately, you get buy-in when people see results that come from working with you. Then you’ll see more people coming up and asking about ways to promote their story.

Involve your audience in the process

Reporter Jodi Cohen and Engagement Reporter Logan Jaffe, ProPublica Illinois

Jodi and Logan worked together on this unique story told from a mother’s perspective about her son’s experience in a clinical trial where kids were given lithium. The story was part of a larger investigation into the study and its ongoing effects on participants.

We kept running into a wall because the university wasn’t providing any answers to questions about how kids were affected by the study, or about how they were tracking the kids. That part of the story just wasn’t robust enough. — Jodi

We were just trying to answer this question that we had from our reporting, so we asked people on social media to help us answer it. We knew from the beginning that it was a very small possibility we would get a response — the study was only a few hundred people. — Logan

But we ended up getting a response from a parent whose child went through it, and she said “I kept a journal of my son’s experience in the program.” And we were like, “what?” — Jodi

Try to spark curiosity and conversation

Jen Sabella, Director of Strategy and Co-Founder, Block Club Chicago

We have a really low bar for interesting, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If it’s something that’s relevant to your life, it’s probably relevant to other people’s lives too.

If it’s already been done before, we’re not interested. And if it’s an opinion, we’re not interested. The Internet is drowning in opinion pieces.

Jen told a story about her and a friend getting in a disagreement over whether you’re legally supposed to honk before exiting an alley in Chicago. The friend was convinced you had to honk, while Jen thought otherwise. So she put a reporter on the story.

We talked to police who told us that actually no, you’re not supposed to honk when leaving an alley. And it just was a conversation starter – we share it any time we want to start a fight on Twitter.

These kinds of stories bring people in and get them to subscribe, because they get something they can’t get elsewhere.

Kevin Pang, The Takeout

We always look for the element of surprise – how do we spark unexpected delight among our readers?

We avoid anything that’s too cliche or feels too Internet-y. We like asking very silly and stupid questions, like asking a Democratic presidential candidate: it a hot dog a sandwich?

Buying in to me is the courage to do an unexpected delight that will positively engage the reader.

Do what serves the story best

Jodi Cohen and Logan Jaffe, ProPublica Illinois

As part of their story on the clinical trial, ProPublica ended up publishing an edited version of the mother’s journal, which they annotated to include additional insights and comments.

We realized we could not tell the story better than the journal told the story. During the process we’d kept the editors engaged with the reporting, so by that point it wasn’t a hard sell, we didn’t need to convince them that the journal was a story in itself. It came down to what is the best way to tell this story? — Jodi

Something like this is a document in itself, not an accessory. — Logan  

You can go your own way

Jen Sabella, Block Club

Reporters have better ideas than editors- every morning our reporters send pitches to us, and unless we veto them for some reason that’s what they cover. 

You believe and know as journalists and reporters that you know what to do to serve your readers.

Somebody might have the germ of an idea, there’s nothing that can’t be improved by talking it through with your friends. Don’t try and do it on your own- workshop it and work together.

If someone doesn’t take your pitch, take it elsewhere. You can pitch it to us.

Don’t avoid the comments

Logan Jaffe, ProPublica Illinois

Read the things that people say to you, read the conversations about your work. A lot of people avoid comments completely and I think that’s a huge mistake because you miss a lot of opportunities.

You see a lot of narratives that you can then go to your editors and say, “people aren’t understanding this.” 

Kevin Pang, The Takeout

Some of our best performing stories are stories where we try to answer people’s questions that come up in the comments.

 A major focus for us is making commenters part of the site, getting them engaged.

Be transparent about your intent

Jen Sabella, Block Club

Jen talked about how Block Club owned the coverage of one of Chicago’s most fun stories so far this year, “Chance the Snapper,” the gator found in the Humboldt Park lagoon. Block Club is even behind the name – they started an online poll to come up with it.

The thing about the gator story is no one hated it. It was not a heavy lift reporter-wise. A reader called and said they saw a gator in the lagoon.

We decided we were going to do a shirt, so I texted a friend of mine and asked him if he wanted to design it, and he had a design back to us within a few hours. We sold more than 3,000 shirts.

We aren’t afraid to try things. We felt it out, we’re honest with our readers. We told them we’re a nonprofit newsroom, and we’re going to try creative things to support ourselves.

Do it now, ask for forgiveness later

Kevin Pang, The Takeout

When I was at the Tribune, I did a show all about cheeseburgers. I asked my editor to change my byline to Cheeseburger Bureau Chief.  

A lot of times editors are so busy they just want something that’s done, that’s edited, that’s turnkey and ready. You just need to go out, and you need to make a stink about it. 

Do it now and ask for forgiveness later.

One of the ethos at our site is we ask our writers to come up with an idea that might not work. There’s so much sameness, you need to do something to break through the noise.

Pageviews aren’t the only metric 

Ben Meyerson, Chicago Tribune

I think generally speaking the rise of metrics are really in people’s favor. Overall people recognize more and more that we want to be connecting to our readers.

Take the metrics and make a case. Say, “we should do this because this is what we’ve seen.” Some stories might drive big numbers in overall clicks, but they’re not driving conversions. 

We’re not going to stop doing breaking news stories, but we’re trying to do more slice of life stories. We’re looking at what stories get people to hit the subscribe button. 

Jen Sabella, Block Club

In a survey to our readers we ask, “what do you like, what don’t you like?” We take those responses very seriously.

We just keep telling our story, and we’re the best ones at telling our story. If you can prove the audience is there, I think you’re on the right path.

Note: Comments were edited for content