Q&A: Get to know Community Impact Newspaper’s Digital Product Manager Emilie Lutostanksi

Diversifying distribution methods and strategies results in significant YOY gains.

1. Tell us about your career path in the media industry and a thumbnail of your company please.

I started my career working for a local commercial radio station as an intern and later as a reporter and Sunday morning news anchor. I also interned for Texas Public Radio before my first full-time newspaper job in Temple, Texas. In 2011, I joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter. From there I was promoted to editor, community manager, digital managing editor and now digital product manager.

I’ve always had a passion for digital innovation and finding ways to help local media organizations reach a broader audience by diversifying their distribution methods and online strategy. It has been an emphasis in nearly every media job I’ve held and it’s how I got to my current role leading our digital innovation with new products at Community Impact. We publish monthly print editions of 22 hyperlocal newspapers in Texas, which are delivered to every mailbox in the distribution area. All of that content goes online, and we also have daily digital news and several newsletters for each of those publications. So for my part of the operation, it’s run much more like digital-first publisher than on a monthly, magazine-like schedule.

2. You were recently selected as one of the Class of 2017’s ’25 under 35’ by Editor and Publisher and they cited your significant role in your company’s digital evolution of late. Tell us about that evolution so far. 

The digital evolution at Community Impact is one that we are working on every single day. We’ve changed the entire mindset around how and when to publish stories, and significantly overhauled our processes to become a true hybrid of digital-first news that accompanies a unique, world-class print product. We approach almost every part of the print production process with a new perspective, asking ourselves how to best represent the information to our digital readers. Then we go back and apply some of those concepts, like quick-hit lists, to our newspapers which improve that product as well.

3. Where are you making the biggest digital strides and what are the prime contributing factors to that success? 

The biggest shift has come in allowing our journalists to do what they do best – innovate. We encourage our reporters and editors to experiment with untapped data visualization tools, try different formats for local stories, and find new ways to bring the creativity we showcase in the paper to life on a screen. Our management team also continuously emphasizes the importance of doing this, and supports our team by offering fresh ideas and ways to build more interesting content. Without the buy-in from our managing editors and newsroom staff, we would not have been able to accomplish what seemed impossible. We more the doubled our digital audience year over year and are continuing an upward trend in 2017.

4. Please share your thoughts on driving core audience to your digital offerings. Strategies that are working well?

Quality has been key to driving a consistent audience online. No matter how we experiment, our stories have to pass the test of being useful, interesting and understandable to the average reader. This is something that was established with our papers that has carried over to our digital offerings. We still edit and ask the same critical questions of online content as we do with print content. We have also enhanced how we distribute digital content, so that we focus on the social platforms and methods that offer the highest return of readership.

5. Tell us about your approach to understanding audience. What metrics are key indicators for you and your team? What tools/partners do you use?

One huge initiative we’ve had is to get our newsrooms connected to the data about their stories in a quick and easy to understand way. We use Parse.ly for this, and generate daily reports as well as have our teams plugged in to the dashboard throughout the day to see trends and track where traffic originates. 

We look for pageviews and visitors first and foremost, but also referrals for specific stories, as well as engaged minutes. For example, if we see a certain headline is doing very well through search, we try to find relevant ways for our other publications to duplicate that idea for their own market.

Largely our audience is engaged because of the unique content we offer, but we learn a lot about the best formats, headlines and tools to use in the story by keeping website metrics as an integral part of our newsroom culture.

6. What are the types of content/digital products that are especially good at driving eyeballs to your digital offerings? What doesn’t work so well?

Our best performing content is the core of what we have always covered: business that are now open, coming soon, relocating, etc.; transportation projects including lane closures; and general commercial and residential development news. Nowhere else can our readers get that type of information at a local level. People really want to know what’s happening in their own backyard, and they want to share that information with their friends and neighbors. We offer that content on a daily basis that continuously drives traffic. We’ve also done really well with hyperlocal evergreen and event content in list format – like Things to Do lists that can be referenced for an extended period of time.

7. Tell us about your distributed content strategy and the role social media plays. 

Like any modern media company, we use Facebook and Twitter primarily. Our messaging on those platforms is conversational and short. And as a lower cost resource we use Buffer to help distribute and schedule our content across multiple accounts, because we know that readers want more from us than a 100% hyperlocal newsfeed – they’re also interested in regional news.

Our biggest recent success has been the addition of Nextdoor to our suite of social platforms. We are one of a few publishers nationwide who have partnered with the site to distribute our local content to readers who we might otherwise only reach through the printed newspaper. On that platform we share hyperlocal, useful stories, and Nextdoor gets to have important and unique information accessed through their own app or website. We’ve seen a huge jump in the share of referral traffic from Nextdoor, beyond what we got when only their site users and our staff were sharing from individual profiles. The posts are clearly marked as coming from Community Impact, which helps build our brand, and engagement on the stories is much higher than on some of our other social platforms.

Additionally we have diversified our newsletters, grown our subscriber base and are getting more feedback from readers on what they really want from a local newsletter.

We also overhauled our sitemaps to get better recognition from Google News, and we’ve seen those referrals increase significantly.

8. Tell us about how you work with sales leadership to help them push the digital revenue needle? The impact of your work on digital sales? 

I work closely with our group publisher to develop and communicate best practices, product changes and sales strategies to our 22 individual sales teams. Like in our newsrooms, the first step in helping improve the product, and by proxy improve sales of the product, is to bolster the staff’s understanding of how it works and why it’s valuable. It’s easy because the same content (plus much more) that goes into our successful print product is served in the digital products. However with the digital medium there’s a feedback loop, reporting how the client’s ad performed, which is different than print and important in the training we provide for our sales staff.

I also provide individual support to our customer service team and attend digital sales calls when possible to explain and showcase our offerings. Following our product improvements and with this focus on digital sales, we have doubled our digital revenue YOY.

9. Video and OTT are cresting now at many media companies. Are you and your team involved or developing strategies around these? 

We are just starting the conversation about video and OTT. It’s on our radar but since, unlike in television, video content is not our primary content type, it’s a complicated conversion. We think there is strong potential with OTT and we are looking at ways to innovate for the future with this medium.

10. Can you share what’s in your digital pipeline currently? 

We are working on a very unique website redesign. Our site will become more of a destination for local information about the communities we cover. With the redesign, we are integrating more varied story elements than ever while maintaining our distributed content strategy. I believe it will really set the bar as far as the design and concept of news websites.

11. Finally, what do you think are the top opportunities for local media at the moment?

Data is a hugely untapped resource in local media. We can go so far beyond the status quo of measuring website analytics and capturing customer data. Almost every question we have about clients, prospects, competitors, readers or potential readers can be discovered through the proper use of good data.

Generally, there are limited or no resources dedicated to data collection, storage, interpretation and dissemination. Deep and complex data should be a critical decision making tool for all news organizations. In this way specifically I believe local media can learn a lot from other industries that play by different rules than we do in journalism.

Other businesses have already started to benefit from the data mines they’ve created, and developed entirely new and diversified strategies around the information they learn.