Ten tips for kick-starting a malnourished news website (2011)

This is an old post but I’m leaving it here for the hell of it. Failed links have been updated or removed.

We can’t all be the New York Times or the Guardian. Many smaller newspaper newsrooms are still grappling with the basics of how to get their websites moving given a small staff, lack of digital expertise and uncertainty over revenue opportunities.

Sometimes there’s no real will among managers for the task. But even when there is it can be daunting trying to figure out how to go about it. There’s a lot of expertise and knowledge involved in running a news website that’s outside the traditional newsroom skill set and can’t all be learned at once.

If your news site is still at the stage where most of the stories are uploaded overnight from the newspaper, you don’t have much digital expertise in the newsroom, or you’re not sure where to start, these tips might help a little:

1. Your primary goal for kickstarting your news website is to build audience and then increase engagement with your readers.

2. Five rules of thumb for building audience (from a low base):

  • Publish more stories – The more you publish, the more people will visit.
  • Publish more often – The more often you publish, the more often people will visit.
  • Keep your homepage fresh – Most people will land on the top part of your homepage and browse for something of interest to read. Give them a reason to click, and click again.
  • Feed the peaks – Most people probably visit your website between 8am and 9.30am, 12pm and 2pm, 4pm and 5.30pm on weekdays (or thereabouts). Give them something new to read each time they come back.
  • Make sure everything works – Broken links and out-of-date information drive people away. Don’t give them a reason to leave.

3. Be focused. There’s no point posting the odd story here and there in 10 different sections across the site if you can’t even keep your homepage up to date. Similarly, you will get more bang for your buck on weekdays than weekends, from text stories than video, from News than Features, from posting for the peaks rather than at other times of day. Here’s the drill: get to the point where you have enough stories and staffing to maintain a fresh homepage throughout the day, every weekday, year round; then focus on Sport, then Business, Opinion, then other sections (or whatever order works for you). Focus on weekdays before you worry about weekends, text before video, and the main daily peaks before after hours. Get the basics right before tackling the next bits.

4. Make it sustainable. Don’t launch a section or feature unless you know you can keep it going. Figure out in advance who is going to write the stories and update the pages, and who’s going to do it when that person is off sick or covering a big news event. There’s little point launching a blog, say, if it’s going to peter out after a few weeks because the author has been assigned another project and has no time to write. There’s nothing sadder than a limp list of last week’s stories on a section landing page.

5. Have a plan. You cannot fix everything at once. If you tackle too much at one time you will scatter your efforts, wear out your staff, and end up with nothing to show for it. Write a content plan for your site – prioritise which sections and features you will work on first, and which you will work on later. (Prioritise for Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4 of the next 12 months, for example.) Consider not only what content you want, but also the staffing and expertise required to create it and manage it online. Create checklists for staff so the basics get done EVERY DAY. Make your plan achievable, and measure your progress. If a new feature is making no difference to traffic, drop it and move on to something else. Think about how to talk to your readers about what you’re doing, and work with Sales and Marketing from the get-go so they can help you shout about your achievements and earn money from your efforts.

6. Treat your readers with respect. Many of your online readers also buy your newspaper. Many others are new readers you wouldn’t otherwise reach. Some will never buy a newspaper again as long as they live. They are all valuable to you. Give your online readers the same standard of journalism and service you give your newspaper readers. Think about what readers want, try to look at your website through a reader’s eyes, and always err on the side of the reader when making decisions about when and what to publish online. Remember that when you choose to hold a story back for the paper, you are choosing to withhold it from your online readers – so you better make the decision count.

7. Value your website. Websites don’t come for free. The more time and staffing you invest in your website, the more audience, influence and revenue you will get out of it. Don’t underestimate how much expertise and knowledge is required to run a successful news website. Don’t do it part-time. Don’t assume that just because you know how to run a newspaper it’ll be a cinch for you to run a website – they are different beasts. And don’t leave this incredibly important product in the hands of a junior staff member who has no clout – make a very senior member of staff responsible for its daily running and overall development, and hire in people with proven digital expertise first chance you get.

8. Ask for help and adapt ideas. Ask colleagues in other newsrooms (which have better websites) for copies of their strategies and examples of what’s worked for them and what hasn’t.  Hire a knowledgeable outsider to review your site and help you write and execute a strategy (if you can wrangle it). Introduce yourself to people working on other websites and pick their brains from time to time. Read media blogs and blogs about web design, information architecture, usability and anything else web-related you can find – learn the language of the web. Emulate or adapt features you like on other news sites.

9. Communicate. Your colleagues won’t love your website if you don’t. They won’t be inclined to make that extra effort if they don’t understand why it’s important. Talk to people when you launch your strategy and keep talking as it plays out. Talk about what you’re doing and why. Talk about what you’re trying to achieve by when. Then say it again. And again. Share successes as they happen. Involve people in planning, respond to suggestions, and encourage enthusiasm and talent when you see it. Let reporters know when their stories resonate and encourage them to engage with readers. Thank photographers for great picture galleries. Let management and the rest of the organization know what you’re doing and how it’s going. Keep talking – and listening – to your readers.

10. Engage. Five ways to engage with your readers:

  • Be accessible – make sure readers know how to get in touch – via your Contact Us page, pointers on the site, reporters’ email addresses on stories, comments on stories, Twitter and Facebook.
  • Be social – use Twitter, Facebook and other social channels to share stories, ask questions and talk to readers. Ask questions of your readers in your stories, blogs, polls and surveys.
  • Be responsive – When readers respond to your questions, ask questions of you, or point out typos or anything else, respond to them in good time and warm tone. One-way conversations are no fun for anyone and being ignored sucks.
  • Be a host – Invite your readers to participate, not just by sharing a comment now and then but by uploading their own sports results, say, or uploading and ranking photos of their pets, helping build a topic page, suggesting story ideas or giving feedback on your news list.
  • Get out of the way – Sometimes the best thing you can do is start a conversation, step back and let your readers talk to each other. Keep it on track and seemly by all means, but don’t make it all about you.

2 replies on “Ten tips for kick-starting a malnourished news website (2011)”

  1. Excellent advice, Julie. It reflects my experience setting up and running small blogs and community news websites, too. I think the problem many formerly print-only organisations have made is that they think they know news and websites are just the same thing, different platform. Wrong! In fact, looking back I think print organisations had become very arrogant toward their readership and because readers can so readily ‘talk back’ on websites the whole dynamic has changed. It sure has taken a long time for MSM to get that, though. And cost them a bundle. What do you think?

    1. Thanks Pippa. Yes, I agree that the whole dynamic has changed and that MSM have been slow to catch on. And yes, I’ve also felt that print newsrooms appear arrogant about their place in the news ecosystem – like they’re uniquely qualified to decide what is and isn’t news and don’t need to be interrupted with anyone else’s views. That said, I’m not sure it is arrogance so much as ignorance of how profoundly the web is changing the way their audiences – that’s me and you – find and share news and other information. Am I being too charitable?

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