Q&A: John Sahly, Managing Editor — Digital, Shaw Media

Q: First, tell us a little about Shaw and the portfolio of papers and products the company has?

A: Shaw Media is a mid-sized company that has close to 100 print and digital publications in its portfolio. We’re rooted in the Chicago suburbs and northern Illinois, with publications that stretch out all the way to southwestern Iowa. We also have Pro Football Weekly, a national NFL coverage staple for the past 50 years, as a part of our portfolio.

We are also the third-oldest continuously owned and operated family newspaper company in the nation.

Q: Please share your background and how you came up into the position you are in today and what your role is?

A: I was a sports reporter coming out of the University of Missouri. My first job was a part-time sports reporter gig for the Aurora Beacon-News in 2007. In the spring of 2008, I was hired to cover Northern Illinois University and local high school sports at the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb. The Daily Chronicle was in transition of being sold to Shaw at that point.

When I was a reporter, I always had a digital-first mindset. I was usually the one experimenting with new technology or ways to reach our readers. I kind of laugh now when I think about the “newness” of something like Twitter or a live chat. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in a decade in terms how we communicate with the communities we cover.

After two years as the sports editor in DeKalb, we had an opening for a web producer. That position I think more closely aligned with my interests, and I could still have a touchpoint in the sports department, so I jumped at the opportunity to commit to a full-time digital role. A year later I was doing the same thing for the Northwest Herald, our largest digital property. A year after that, I moved into a similar role for all of our Chicago suburban properties.

Right now, my title is Managing Editor for Digital Content, and I’m basically a part of a two-person team with our Digital Marketing Manager, Ben Draper. Our entire charge is to grow digital audience, with me taking the lead in editorial, and Ben taking the lead in roughly 36 other departments. I really do need to mention the job Ben has done in what is a new role at Shaw. He’s doing the job of at least five others, and has played a significant role in our audience growth this year.

I view my role as a disruptor, coach, cat-wrangler, cheerleader, and newsroom nerd. I think our newsrooms understood in general that we had to understand digital, but we’ve lacked the context on what that meant, why it really mattered, and I think most important, how we were going to do it. This year, I think we’ve done a much better job of filling in the gaps.

Q: We understand Shaw has experienced big page view growth this year. Tell us about that growth and what you did that has worked so well?

A: I think it starts with our digital philosophy shift. We stopped thinking about the advertiser first, and we started thinking about the user first.

Spend time on a lot of newspaper websites, and especially some in our region, and I seriously wish you the best of luck on reading what you came there for without a) fewer than three pop-ups or in-line video ads or b) your browser crashing. We used to be the same way – monetize every last piece of real estate and hope you can scale enough that it’s worth the high percentage of users you just upset.

I think we had an honest conversation with ourselves, and came to terms with the fact we needed change on several fronts. We completely overhauled our user experience, cut our load times almost in half, and when you couple that with what I’ll get into in the next question, we’ve taken off in a way only a few of us thought possible.

Q: Tell us a little about your list strategy? What sort of stories are you using that approach for and how have your readers reacted?

A: So along with our philosophy shift, we had a format shift that was necessary to our success.

Somebody I have a lot of respect for in this industry, Tim Stephens, gave a talk at an APSE conference I attended at Northwestern. He was speaking mostly to journalism students, but one of the main messages was that whatever you’re doing, it better damn well work on a smartphone.

That was 2013.

We finally got on board this year. We’ve seen our audience shift coming, with double-digit growth in mobile audience, and I think this year we leaned into it.

Our readers are scrolling on their phones. I mean, everybody is scrolling on their phones, but that includes our readers. If you don’t adapt to a habit like that, I think it’s difficult to find success.

So really, what we’re doing, is breaking up 10, 40, 80 inches of text with visuals, and letting the visuals either tell the story in full or help propel the narrative text. It’s not just long-form pieces that we do this with, any story with a handful of photos is eligible for this format.

We’re also utilizing it for alternative storytelling, user-generated content and local events. We’ve even done it with a few editorials when we’ve got the visuals.

So it’s not a shift to clickbait or anything like that, but it’s making the format a better experience for the reader. They’ve responded with an explosion of people coming to the site, and we’ve gotten great feedback on how much they enjoy the format and the clean experience.

What I’ve really been impressed with is how it affects our local government audience. We used to have 500 words and rarely an image to go with it. Now it’s broken up with more visuals, and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in readership of local government-related stories. Again, adjust to the habits of your readers, because it pays off.

Q: Have you approached your headlines any differently?

A: Not particularly. I’ve always been a fan of the mullet method to headlines, and we’ve generally practiced that. I’ll say the exception has been on spot news and some city council type of stories. We’re going more with a ‘What we’ve learned’ or “What we know so far’ type of headline on those stories with some pretty good success.

Q: Culturally, what did you have to do to evolve digitally in your news operations?

A: I think this is where analytics being filtered down to reporters is so critical. It’s a part of the daily conversation on the editorial level, with reporters getting access to their own Chartbeat data, and editors reviewing Chartbeat and Google Analytics data.

The message that Ben and I have taken to our newsrooms this year is about efficiency. You’ve got the data, you know how long people stuck with that government process story, or that trend story, or that high school sports feature. Now you have to actually use that data to adjust your workflow accordingly.

The example I’ve given is that when I was a sports reporter, sometimes the softball game you cover is a 12-1 dud. The kids are bored. The parents are board. And that’s who should be your most engaging audience on that story, right? I’d get back in the car and say, ‘Man, how am I going to stretch this to 500 words?’

Well, we have data now that confirms that feeling that, maybe you shouldn’t.

Do we need a 14-inch story on a new liquor license? Or a 25-inch county board preview? Ninety percent of the time, you don’t. Readers aren’t engaging with that story at all, so maybe that 12-1 softball game is five inches, and I can spend the time I would have otherwise spent stretching a boring story into that FOIA I need to file or digging into that 80-inch turkey I’m about to carve.

That doesn’t mean at all that you ignore city council, but when the top agenda items get tabled and two council members don’t show up, don’t be inefficient spending your time on what actually happened. Spend that time on that deep dive to hold that city council member accountable on something that matters more to your readers.

I think framing it that way — spend more time on the stories that matter — has resonated with our reporters.

Q: What are you doing in video? Any particular strategies working?

A: We just switched to a new video platform, Lemonwhale, that we’re excited to get started using. We’ve found the more spot news and sports highlights we can get on video, the better. Facebook Live has been a good tool to use in spot news situations, along with election-related coverage.

But in my personal opinion, I’m dismayed by the “pivot to video” strategy I see popping up at too many places. It’s a desperate grab for ad dollars that aren’t coming your way, and more important, your audience likely hates it.

Q: As you think about evolving your digital strategy from here, what is next?

A: I think you’ve seen it this year with the biggest media companies – growing subscribers. We’ve welcomed in a lot of new users this year, so how do we keep more of them coming back enough to subscribe is the next step down the path.