Q&A with Sherry Jones

Truly Digital First

1. Congrats on being selected as LMA’s Digital News Innovator of the Year – very exciting! I want to dig into some of the initiatives that led to the honors but first, can you give us a quick sketch of your pathway in the local media industry?

I took my first journalism class in 10th grade as a way to meet people when I switched to a new school. I moved to another new school for 11th grade, but decided to stick with journalism. In my senior year, I served as editor of my high school newspaper. I didn’t know at the time that it would end up being my career. For my first two years of college, I wasn’t involved with journalism at all. But then it was time to declare a major. I settled on mass communications and I haven’t looked back since. My first job was as a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin in Martinsville, Virginia. After a year, I moved to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where I was a reporter for two years. Then I came to the StarNews in Wilmington, North Carolina. I worked as a reporter for 6 ½ years before moving into editing. I’ve served as assistant city editor, web editor, metro editor, assistant managing editor and now managing editor.

2. And a thumbnail of the Star News products, audience/reach and market characteristics?

StarNews Media publishes a daily newspaper with circulation of nearly 35,000 and a website, www.StarNewsOnline.com, with an average of 538,000 unique visitors per month. The print publication includes numerous special sections featuring topics such as health and wellness, hurricane preparedness, high school sports, retirement living, volunteering and nonprofits, and back to school.

Our coverage area spans three counties, with a total population of roughly 300,000. We are the only daily print newspaper in the region. There are two TV news stations, numerous radio stations, a daily online news publication and several weekly print newspapers.

3. Your Executive Editor Pam Sander credits you with a cultural shift that has led to a true digital first operation. Tell us about the ingredients of that shift and please share any tips for getting team on board with the new direction.

It began slowly toward the end of 2015 when we ramped up our tracking to look at pageviews, unique visitors, photo galleries, videos and social referrals on a daily basis. (In fact, we do it twice a day at our planning meetings.) By early 2016, we were seeing results — higher pageviews, more social referrals and more audience engagement. Then we set specific goals around digital enhancements and sharing content on social media for all staff members that support our digital-first mindset. In July, our parent company, GateHouse Media, rolled out a new website design. This changed everything for us because it made us mobile friendly and made sharing content via social media so much easier. As for getting everyone on board, I think it helped to show our progress (via daily and weekly reports).

4. How is ‘digital first’ defined in your company?

In the beginning, it meant that we published all of our print content online before it published in print. In 2016, our mindset changed. Digital first now means that we’re planning content for our website first. Then we decide when and where to publish it in print. Our story planning involves conversations about photo galleries, videos, digital enhancements (such as poll questions, quizzes and interactive maps/graphics). Our daily planning focuses on when and where content will appear on our homepage and social media.

5. Tell us about your alt-format storytelling and how this is boosting your mobile component. Other strategies for mobile audience growth?

Alt-story formats have been part of our storytelling for years with many features stories, but we increased our use of them for news content under GateHouse’s leadership. We rely heavily on lists, Q&As, news updates and project trackers. A few examples include: From police to roads, 5 budget priorities in Leland (http://www.starnewsonline.com/news/20170113/from-police-to-roads-5-budget-priorities-in-leland), Q&A with Wilmington Chamber CEO Natalie English (http://www.starnewsonline.com/news/20170312/qampa-with-wilmington-chamber-ceo-natalie-english), 6 romantic walks to remember (http://www.starnewsonline.com/news/20170209/6-romantic-walks-to-remember).

A key mobile strategy, however, is our focus on social media. Increasingly, people are getting their news on their phones through social media. So we have increased our efforts in this area by posting more frequently and planning what to post and when to post it.

6. Analytics and data play a huge role nowadays in tracking and digital decision making. Can you share insights about your process and some of the components that are working best for you? What kind of reach/audience trends are you seeing as a result?

We use Google Analytics for our big-picture tracking of pageviews, unique visitors and social referrals. Google Analytics also helps us monitor specialty content such as our mugshots website and MyReporter.com. I create weekly and monthly reports that are shared with our entire company.

Meanwhile, we use Parse.ly in the newsroom for instant access to analytics about articles and photo galleries. We have a big TV screen at the front of our newsroom that displays real-time analytics. When we see a spike in traffic, we dig deeper to see what’s causing it. We also use the numbers to tell us when something isn’t performing well, which often means we need to adjust the headline or make sure it’s been shared on social media. We review our progress at the morning and afternoon budget meetings.

The biggest trend we’ve seen is that we get a lot more bang for our buck from Facebook than from Twitter. Although we share the same amount of content on both, we get 90 percent of our social referrals from Facebook. When we started putting more energy into Facebook posts, we saw a huge spike in social referrals.

7. Thoughts on driving core audience to your digital offerings? Strategies that are working well? Any mistakes learned along the way?

In 2016, we started an initiative called Cape Fear Connects, which is essentially our attempt at sharing hyper-local news. We have a Facebook page dedicated specifically to this content and we have a process for emailing links back to people who send us community content with a note suggesting they share the link on their website, on their Facebook page or in a newsletter. Much of this content appeals to a small audience on its own, but as a whole we believe it’s the type of content that will impact reader engagement and ultimately build a loyal audience.

I’m sure we’ve had a lot of little mistakes along the way, but I can’t think of anything major. My advice is to make sure you think about who’s going to do the actual work and when it will be done. As we’ve had staff cuts and newsroom reorganizations, it’s become harder to maintain some of our digital initiatives. When we see something falling through the cracks, though, we typically step back and regroup to make sure the most successful aspects are reassigned.

8. I understand you’re mining your archives to give new life to this treasure trove of material. Tell us about some of your digital initiatives that relate to this strategy.

This initiative has multiple components, but the most successful so far have been:
1. Photo galleries that draw on our archives. These galleries often feature past photos as a way to tell readers about an upcoming event. For instance, we recently featured photos from previous Best Foot Forward events (http://www.starnewsonline.com/photogallery/NC/20170309/NEWS/309009996/PH/1) in advance of this year’s event (http://www.starnewsonline.com/photogallery/NC/20170310/PHOTOGALLERY/310009970/PH/1).
2. A weekly Back Then column (http://www.starnewsonline.com/opinion/20170311/back-then-march-1980-snowstorm-caught-area-by-surprise).
3. This date in history, a daily feature for the website and print (http://www.starnewsonline.com/news/20170315/flashback-this-date-in-history-march-15-2017).

9. Turning to productivity, how do you motivate your reporters to help with your goal of digital audience expansion?

In August, we began a Reporter Audience Growth program that incentivized reporters to focus on growing their audience. For four months, we tracked visitor and pageview numbers by reporter and reporter Facebook posts that linked to content. Top performers were honored each month with gift cards. The program helped get reporters used to sharing their content on social media and via emails back to sources.

10. Tips for recruiting/training and motivating team members? Thoughts on how to incubate innovative thinking and processes among staff?

Let people try new things. But don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel. We get a lot of ideas from other GateHouse papers. Also, don’t feel like innovation is limited to digital tools. In our case, innovation is more about developing processes to showcase our digital efforts.

11. What are some of the digital priorities on your agenda currently and moving forward?

In 2016, we focused a lot on shooting video. We wanted reporters shooting anything and everything. Now, we’re ready to focus on the quality of the video. We’ve also started a sports podcast and hope to do more of those in the future. Finally, we’re working to make sure we’re promoting our digital content in print.

12. Finally, what do you think are the top opportunities for local media in 2017?

Don’t forget to listen to your readers/viewers. Analytics can offer tremendous insight and guidance, but they can’t replace face-to-face conversations. Our executive editor, Pam Sander, has implemented Community Conversations as a priority for our newsroom in 2017. These may be large-scale forums on hot topics or smaller discussions with a select group of readers. She’s a super cheerleader for thinking about our readers and encourages everyone to tell stories with a purpose and in new ways. Just because that’s how we’ve always done something doesn’t mean that’s how we have to do it now.