How Big Fish Works energized their newsrooms with new content ideas and initiatives

An interview with Big Fish Works Director of News Brent Schacherer.

Tell me a little about your newspaper group? Big Fish Works is a family-owned newspaper group, headed by second-generation owners Mark and Becky Poss, consisting of 11 newspapers in Minnesota. Our Southwest News Media group is eight suburban weekly newspapers (Chaska Herald, Chanhassen Villager, Eden Prairie News, Jordan Independent, Prior Lake American, Savage Pacer and Shakopee Valley News), the Crow River Media group includes a twice-weekly and weekly newspaper (Hutchinson Leader and Litchfield Independent Review) and printing plant in central Minnesota, and our North Star Publishing group includes a twice-weekly newspaper (International Falls Journal) and printing plant in northern Minnesota.

Share a little about your background and your current responsibilities? I’ve been in the newspaper business for 32 years, the last 27 years with Big Fish Works (formerly Red Wing Publishing Co.). My career started in sports writing, but I’ve been given many opportunities for advancement in my time with Big Fish Works, moving from sports writer to sports editor, to copy editor, to editor, then to editor/general manager and eventually to publisher.

Three years ago, under Mark Poss’ leadership, the company restructured its management. Rather than traditional publishers overseeing the entire newspaper operation in a given geographic area, the leadership team was structured around areas of proficiency (revenue, printing, content, etc.). About two years ago, I became director of news, overseeing the content teams at all 11 of our newspapers.

We understand over the last several months you’ve gone through an evaluation of your products. What did you do and why? We went through an extensive reorganization at our Southwest News Media group in early 2017, changing from a news operation that essentially operated as eight news silos to one with a more regional approach. We consolidated from eight to four editors, giving each editor oversight of two newspapers/websites. We maintained a “community reporter” at each newspaper so we could continue our hyper-local approach to news, then created three “regional reporter” positions to report on larger issues and topics that could be used across all eight newspaper and website titles.

While those 2017 changes put us on the right path to an improved news product and more efficient operation, we wanted to continue the momentum of the reorganization by focusing on the product and the way we were (or weren’t) engaging with our readers.

We contacted David Arkin (when he worked at Local Media Association), because we knew of his experience at larger news organizations, and that he did consultations for LMA.

After a needs assessment, David critiqued our print and digital news products and followed that up with a two-day, in-person visit with eight editors, in addition to CEO Mark Poss and Director of News Brent Schacherer.

At the conclusion of the second day, we compiled a list of next steps and David agreed to do follow-up webinars for our full news teams, focused on alternative story formats and digital headlines and “voice.”

Have any positive results come out of the work and is there anything more you plan to still do? Among our short-term objectives we set and implemented almost immediately were:

  • Developed a schedule for daily web posting aimed at creating urgency/immediacy on our sites. (We had some sites, especially, where fresh content was not being added regularly and consistently. But even on the sites where we thought we were doing a good job, this daily web posting schedule has made a difference by giving fresh, “water cooler” content that keeps readers coming back.)
  • Improved tone of social media posts and content of digital headlines.
  • Telling more stories in alternative story formats – reducing the long, narrative storytelling we were doing and telling stories in shorter bites and more visually appealing/digestible package.

Here are nine examples of the kinds of new content we are creating:

  1. A by the numbers format to tell a complicated story.
  2. List formats to preview events.
  3. A daily story on an event you should go to
  4. This week’s top crime stories
  5. Stories on theme days with lots of local info you can use
  6. Word of the Week feature
  7. Throwback Thursday history feature
  8. Lane closures for the weekend
  9.  And we also have started a weekly video show featuring the biggest stories of the week:

Longer-term projects include website redesign, starting with our Southwest News Media Group, which we will accomplish in collaboration with Town, and improving our e-newsletter product and its marketing with goal of driving more traffic to our websites.

What’s been the most rewarding part of the changes you have put in place? We have an energetic, enthusiastic news team throughout Big Fish Works, and they love training. They latched on to the ideas in David’s webinars and immediately began using them. I think most on the team would agree we are writing better headlines for our websites and have adopted a more conversational and inviting voice in our Facebook posts.

We’re seeing better engagement on our websites, where companywide year-to-date, our KPIs including pageviews-per-unique (up 12%), Pageviews (up 19%) and Visits (up 26.5%) all are improved over last year.

Any advice for others who are planning major change like this? Just do it? In all seriousness, looking outside the organization for a new perspective from a respected source can lead to a lot of opportunities for improvement. We knew we could — and needed to — make improvements, but David’s work helped us prioritize and move us forward in some basic, but key, areas.

Prioritizing is key. When looking at the list of “things to do” it can seem overwhelming, especially when resources are not always as abundant as we would like. So, picking some things that are easily and quickly achievable – introducing ASFs and better social tone and headlines, in our case — helps establish a momentum that can help carry your team through the bigger tasks, like redesigning your websites and e-newsletters (at least in theory).