5 digital, revenue, diversity and audience strategies your newsroom should follow after ONA 21


By Penny RiordanLMA Director, Business Strategy and Partnerships

While it was sad that we as an industry couldn’t meet in person for the Online News Association’s conference this year, the topics and speakers at ONA 21 were still inspiring. This year was my seventh ONA, and I’ve been a speaker and panel moderator in several past years. What I love about ONA is the topics are always at the forefront of what industry leaders are talking about.

If you registered but didn’t attend, you can check out recordings for nearly every session on the site. For those that didn’t register, the session pages often have slide decks and other resources. Here are the biggest takeaways you’ll want to make sure your news organization considers.

1. Covering crime: How to re-think your beat to serve your communities and do less harm.

In this ONA session hosted by Joy Mayer, director of Trusting News, and Martin Reynolds, co-executive director of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, attendees learned how other newsrooms have changed their approach to crime.

Reynolds shared an example from the East Bay Times newsroom, where he used to work. He said there are no full-time reporters dedicated to covering Oakland beats, except for someone covering crime. The newsroom has no education reporter, he said, as of a recent check of the staff list.

“News organizations made a conscious choice to cover crime at the expense of other beats,” he said.

For newsrooms considering change, Mayer suggested they start by looking at what crime gets covered. Too often stories are based on what editor is on duty or whether it sounds interesting to news staff. Newsrooms should also look at how crime is covered, such as how much play a story gets, or physical or crime scene descriptions.

More local newsrooms are moving away from publishing arrest mug shots or sharing suspect descriptions, including WCPO in Cincinnati and the Austin American-Statesman.

2. Publishers should explore affiliate commerce as a new revenue stream.

A session featuring leaders in affiliate commerce from Buzzfeed, CNET and Reviewed highlighted how the pandemic created a unique opportunity to launch or expand affiliate commerce programs because so many more people shopped online.

For news organizations looking to start with affiliate marketing, Chris Lloyd, the general manager of Reviewed/USA Today, said publishers first need to place value on creating good content.

“You’re up against some very, very smart people, very creative people. And you just have to make content that people really want to read,” he said.

Another misconception when starting an affiliate program: people think they need to drive huge traffic to get return on investment. But Jessica Seib, director of affiliate at Buzzfeed, said if you earn $1 for every view you drive to a post, it’s still significant, even if it’s not a lot of page views.

3. How to do a source audit: Advice for newsrooms looking to get started

This session hosted by the American Press Institute featured a look at four different newsrooms and how they went about doing source audits. For all of them, this process took several years.

Liz Worthington, director of Metrics for News with API, said the biggest challenge for newsrooms looking to do this work is that source audits can be incredibly time-consuming and tedious.

API built a tool called Source Matters that automatically ingests a news organization’s sources via an RSS feed. The tool can automatically apply labels and categories based on quotations and other text in a story, which can help newsrooms see the types of people they talk to the most. API will release more information in the coming weeks on how to use this tool.

4. Building vs. buying a paywall: How to design a paywall that gets smarter and knows when to give up

This session featured The Globe and Mail of Canada, and traced the journey of its paywall strategy over the years. Sonali Verma, senior product manager for analytics, is on the team that manages Sophi, a machine learning tool that powers the paywall.

After trying a number of different strategies over the years, including harder and softer paywalls, the Globe now has a dynamic paywall.

By picking up a lot of on-site signals, such as what type of content a person is reading, what device that person is using and more, Sophi can choose when and what type of offer to share with readers to get them to pay.

Readers who don’t choose to pay will ultimately not see any more offers. The dynamic offer more than doubled registrations and grew subscriptions.

“But this is because the paywall knows when to give up. It knows when not to bug someone because it’s not going to get any money from them anyway,” Verma said.

5. Resurrecting obituaries: How newsrooms can find new ways to approach this legacy product.

In this session, Kristen Hare with the Poynter Institute talked about how she worked with the Tampa Bay Times to rethink how that publication handled obituaries — including writing more of them and launching a newsletter.

The How They Lived series so far has had more than 40 stories published with 200,000 page views. The newsletter also has a 45 percent open rate. Hare approached writing obituaries in a less standard way: writing about someone historic that should have received more attention, or taking time to follow up with a person a week or two after the family completed final arrangements.

Hare also made connections with local funeral homes, and took the time to know owners and managers to find more stories. She even found a funeral home that offered pet obituaries as a service.

Hare thought the target audience would be traditional print subscribers, but the team discovered that its audience was much broader.

“What these people have in common is they seek connections with other people, they’re always learning, and they’re all readers,” she said.