Arkin: How an Innovation Mission Trip in 2014 Changed My Outlook on Journalism

By David Arkin
Chief Content Officer, Local Media Association

I can still remember receiving the email from the Local Media Association back in 2014 announcing their upcoming Innovation Mission.

The email said they were planning a week-long trip to places like BuzzFeed, LinkedIn and CBS Video. I was working for GateHouse Media at the time and was leading their content efforts. I was thinking a lot about what we needed to do at GateHouse around utilizing data to drive newsroom decisions and was hot on the idea of new story formats and lists for not just feature stuff but news content.

The timing of the trip was perfect. I honestly didn’t know in the spring of 2014 how signing up for that trip would change my outlook on content and journalism. But it did.

There were lots of impressive companies we visited on that trip in 2014. There was the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Google and more. There were lots of takeaways at those visits but what changed my outlook on things was visiting BuzzFeed.

I of course was aware of BuzzFeed and their listicle approach to content. Fair or not, heading into that meeting though my view of their storytelling was that they were an entertainment-based company with a strong sponsored content approach. Their popular cat videos and posts made me think their journalism wasn’t very deep nor was their approach to deciding what to cover.

I was wrong.

There were three significant lessons learned that stood out during that visit to BuzzFeed.

A PROCESS TO DETERMINE CONTENT
BuzzFeed created three pillars that would help drive whether they were to do a story or not. They were:

  • This story expresses my identity better than I can.
  • This story shows a view that I have that I want you to understand.
  • This story made me feel something, and I’d like you to feel the same thing.

As I sat in that BuzzFeed conference room in New York City I wondered how many of the newsrooms I was responsible for were doing this? Were they thinking about how the story was expressing someone’s identity? Were they picking stories to push out socially that had the opportunity to show a view that someone agrees with that they would want others to understand? Were they using “does this story make people feel something?” as a pillar to drive their content-selection?

For some stories, maybe. But I knew it wasn’t happening consistently and that it wasn’t at the forefront of how stories were being imagined in a newsroom. Those simply aren’t questions that come out during a news planning meeting. And they aren’t the only ones that should but they are important ones to talk about.

I liked that BuzzFeed knew who they were and they were taking clear steps to ensure their content was hitting these areas.  They didn’t expect every story to hit all three but they wanted to ensure at least a few of the them did.

LISTS
BuzzFeed at that point was working to make itself much more than a fun entertainment platform. They were trying to grow into an international news company. And they were using those three pillars above to drive that content and the format they would use.

It was clear to me there was more media companies could do with forming entertainment content into list-based journalism. BuzzFeed was mastering it but local content was aligned perfectly for the same approach for things like things to do for the weekend, food and more. It felt like an easy win.

But the bigger opportunity was clearly with news content transitioning into lists. Not only would it be an effective way to put content together, it would be easier for readers to consume. I saw opportunities in city council coverage, transportation updates, retail openings and event coverage. I believed that Q&A-style reporting explaining a topic could be incredibly beneficial for a reader.

I knew the challenge would be transitioning newsrooms to these kind of formats, but understood the opportunities for successfully doing this was big in terms of the kind of engagement it would deliver.

DATA
BuzzFeed was big into data. They made sure they understand what resonated with readers, where and when. They didn’t continue to mess around with categories or formats that weren’t engaging.

They clearly were using data to drive their decision-making approach.

I was in love with the idea and hearing the mechanisms they were using to do it was very aspirational.

So what did I do with all of this knowledge? A few things that were quite impactful for GateHouse at the time:

1. We developed a list-based strategy and pushed newsrooms to definitely do the lifestyle stuff but also explore how it could work for their news coverage.

2. We picked two newsroom data tools, tested both and then eventually rolled one out to more than 50 newsrooms.

3. We developed new structures for newsrooms that had new story formats and data at the forefront and we often talked about the importance of using those three overarching BuzzFeed goals to drive story selection. If those three didn’t fit a newsroom, then develop what did fit locally.

I took lists and data with me after I left GateHouse and went to lead content and digital at Community Impact Newspaper. The list strategy specifically drove incredible online growth for us. We tripled our digital audience in six months. It was incredible.

That trip to BuzzFeed helped crystalize so many strategies for me. I knew GateHouse wasn’t BuzzFeed. And Community Impact wasn’t either. But the power of Innovation Missions is to be able to take an idea and apply it to your company. I did that differently between GateHouse and Community Impact but the results for both were exactly what I was hoping for. They helped transform culture and grow audience.

There’s an Innovation Mission coming up in November. We’ll be going to California to visit a bunch of great companies including Google, Pandora, Matter and The Hustle. Who knows, maybe one of those visits will pack so many great takeaways that you’ll look back on it three years later and marvel at what it did for you personally and how it helped you transform your media organization.

David Arkin is the Chief Content Officer for the Local Media Association. Contact him at david.arkin@localmedia.org