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Jan. 8, 2016, 10:18 a.m.
Audience & Social
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For McClatchy’s new head of news strategies, analytics and social traffic bolster good journalism

“It’s a beautiful thing when the powerful, public service, noble interests of journalism actually align with your business model.”

Newspaper companies haven’t had an easy 2015, and the outlook for regional and local news in 2016 is less than rosy. Last year, on the heels of shakeups at the national newspaper chain Digital First Media, Ken Doctor asked whether these companies have a strategy beyond milking their papers for profit.

McClatchy, for one, hopes it’s found a way forward. The publicly traded company, which publishes 29 daily newspapers across the U.S., was faced last year with declining ad revenues (not out of line with those of its industry peers) and the threat of being delisted from the New York Stock Exchange (which it survived). It’s undertaken a company-wide overhaul, investing in video, redesigns, and plenty of other digital initiatives. Recently, it closed down its foreign bureaus and redistributed those reporters to the U.S. to shore up regional and political coverage out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau.

Tim-Grieve-photo-by-PeteGrieve

I discussed these changes with Tim Grieve, McClatchy’s head of news strategies, who joined the company late last year from the National Journal, where he had been editor-in-chief. The (very) fast-talking Grieve rattled off a list of noteworthy stories from papers under the McClatchy umbrella, from accountability stories about a district superintendent to the Kansas City Star’s World Series coverage to the Miami Herald’s investigation into the largest women’s prison in the U.S.

“The reason for our existence is high-quality local journalism,” Grieve told me emphatically. “That can take many forms. It can be a story out of Washington about what your member of Congress is doing. It can be about a government funding scandal that resonates in a community where we have a newsroom. But we have to have that local lens on things.”

I spoke with Grieve about his belief in the indispensable role local news outlets play in their communities, as well as McClatchy’s new strategies for regaining control of social media virality, the importance of the so-called dirty word “traffic,” and more. Below is a condensed and lightly edited version of our conversation.

Shan Wang: What was the appeal of McClatchy for you, coming from the National Journal (which recently suspended its print publication)?

Tim Grieve: It’s a particularly exciting homecoming for me. I started my career as a reporter at the Sacramento Bee straight out of college, and was incredibly lucky to get that job then. What struck me about the company then is what strikes me about the company now — it’s committed to producing high-quality local journalism in the public interest.

Coming back to the company now, fully immersed in the digital era, is a different thing. I’ve been blown away by the work that the reporters and editors in this company are doing.

It’s important to the strength of our society that this local journalism continues. There’s a risk that it will go away if places like McClatchy, and all the other places that are experimenting and looking at different revenue sources and so forth, don’t figure out how to do it.

All of our newspapers are profitable. That’s a really cool base on which to begin to take the next steps. It’s a cool opportunity to come back to where I started, to use what I learned at places like Salon, Politico, and National Journal, and try to use it all to support and sustain local journalism.

Wang: Yours is a new role at the company, right? I don’t know how the corporate structure works at McClatchy — would changes you decide to implement at the top then be applied to all the individual papers, or is there a more individual approach?

Grieve: If I were a character on The Office, people would make fun of my title, because it’s a little amorphous. The core of my job is to help us grow readership, and in particular, digital readership. This company has a particular history of relations between McClatchy corporate and the individual newsrooms. It’s a history where the newsrooms have huge editorial autonomy to do what’s best in their communities, and I think that’s as it should be. At the same time, there are some things that “corporate” can do more efficiently, with an eye on the whole.

Take social media: some of that can be done in a collective, centralized way that makes sense, while also preserving local autonomy. One of the things we’re working through is, when is the right time to behave like that big media enterprise, and when is the right time to behave like 29 individual newsrooms?

We have a lot of success on social media. We can certainly get better. The editor at the Miami Herald is definitely going to know better how to cover Miami, and that’s going to be different from the best way of covering Fresno, California. But there isn’t a Miami way to be good at Facebook or a Fresno way to be good at Facebook, there’s just a way to be good at Facebook. That’s an area where, from the corporate level, we can help everybody — but we’re not a company with a history of doing things in a top-down way. We’re not a dictatorship.

We’ve started a social media operation, based here in Washington where I am, that will be corporate-wide. Around the time I started, we came to the basic realization that often one of our local newsrooms produces some nugget of information or a video and the rest of the world makes it go viral, but the local newsroom doesn’t benefit from that experience at all.

A couple of months ago, one of our photographers at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram took this really gripping photograph of a TCU football player bending down to talk to a little girl in a wheelchair, dressed head to toe in the colors of the other football team. But we didn’t have a mechanism at McClatchy for anyone to say: The Star-Telegram just posted this great photograph, and we should get it on all of our own Facebook or Instagram pages. So we sat back and watched while other organizations got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pageviews on content we produced.

Now we’ve set up a system where that won’t happen. Every day there’s someone on the corporate level who’s watching what all of our sites are producing, what all of our sites are getting good play with, and seeing which among those things could travel.

The Idaho Statesman wrote a story about a rancher who had been called out by the local sheriff’s deputies to deal with one of his bulls. The bull was injured, and the rancher needed to put the bull down. Somehow, in the process of the rancher getting out his gun to put the bull down, the deputy shot and killed the rancher. It’s an amazing and horrible story.

Because we shared it through this Facebook team we put together, it’s also gotten a huge amount of reader interest in McClatchy markets across the country. In a couple of places thousands of miles from Boise, that story was the most-read story of the month.

Wang: Since you started at McClatchy, are there issues at the papers that you really want to change in the next few months, or the next year?

Grieve: There are a few ways that we as journalists can build readership for our digital publications. We’ve got to produce stories that matter to people, we’ve got to put those stories in a place where people will find them, and we’ve got to put those stories in a pleasant place for people to read when they do find them. It’s not all that different from the basic framework you have for any kind of consumer product, whether it’s shoes or soda or computers.

Analytics give us the tools to figure that out. It’s incumbent upon us to use those tools. When I was a young reporter at the Sacramento Bee, I could believe with great certainty that more people read my stories than anybody else’s stories, because dammit, I just knew, even though I didn’t know. Well, now we can find out. And now that we can, it feels like my responsibility to grapple with whatever the ramifications of that are.

Everywhere I’ve been — not just McClatchy, but Salon, Politico, National Journal — 10 to 20 percent of the stories drive 80 to 90 percent of the readership. What we all have to do is figure out how to change that math a little bit. If you’re a reporter who writes ten stories a month and two of them totally take off and eight of them land with a thud — if you could move just one or two of those lower-performing stories onto the high-performing list, your traffic would explode.

If you can pay attention to the kinds of stories you write, and use analytics to help you figure out what is actually connecting people and what isn’t — that’s what we need to be doing. That’s not specific to any publication; that’s true of journalists everywhere.

Wang: McClatchy is a traditional newspaper company. Newer players like Vox or BuzzFeed have an advantage in that they’ve built their own tools and get to start from scratch. But you have to deal with some of the technologies the company already has, and you have to deal with a certain way of working that some journalists or editors have gotten used to over decades. How do you work through that?

Grieve: It’s easier to start something new than to turn something around. But each has its challenges — I will take a base of millions of local unique visitors to start with. It would be really daunting to start with zero of those, and to try to build something from scratch in 28 markets around the country — I wouldn’t want that job!

Lots of media companies are dealing with legacy issues of one kind or the other, whether it’s technology that doesn’t do exactly what you want it to do, or the needs of a print publication versus the needs of a digital publication, or reporters who are everywhere on the continuum from embracing digital to not embracing it fully.

The experience we had at National Journal was pretty instructive of the kinds of things that can be done. When I arrived, it was wedded to a semi-weekly magazine and print daily production schedule that really dictated the kind of journalism we did and what got prioritized. Over time we pretty dramatically changed that, by talking openly about analytics, by talking about how to write stories that actually connect with readers.

Wang: Can you give me a sense of the specific strategies you have in mind? Do you want to introduce new tools, do you want to restructure some of the newsrooms? Will there be added systematic trainings?

Grieve: I think it’s fair to say it’ll be more in the world of training. Everyone’s constantly using new tools. If you’re any kind of editor in this business now, there’s a long line of vendors at your door eager to sell you any number of magic elixirs that will dramatically increase your traffic, magically get more people to like your page, help you identify early the things that are trending. Some of those tools are awesome and we will use them. Some of those tools, I leave meetings scratching my head; they seem like weight-loss-without-dieting schemes.

So in some ways I am a little old-fashioned. I put less stock in those types of things. This goes back to what I keep saying: We need to produce journalism that really matters to people, and put it in places where people will find it. Those are not high-tech things that require algorithms. They require people who are passionate about identifying stories that will engage with readers and who are willing to use — and this is where I think the tools matter — the analytics available to us to help drive those decisions. We’re doing a lot of work in those areas. We’re working on getting our newsrooms real-time analytics. Some have them already, most don’t, but all of them will in pretty short order.

That will give them the tools they need to see what’s working in the moment and what’s not working. It will also send a pretty clear message that readership is something we all need to pay attention to. Traffic is like a dirty word. It’s somehow tawdry to talk about it. I think that’s crazy! There’s no other business I can think of where you’d produce what you produce with complete disregard for whether people actually consumed it. I’m flummoxed by why our business sometimes thinks it can be uniquely immune from those considerations.

Whatever reason you got into journalism, it all starts with people reading your story. All Omniture, Chartbeat, Parse.ly, or whatever, offer is a way to tell us if what we’re doing is working or not. We’ve got to get better at looking at that information and sharing it. An editor can sit down with a reporter and say, you wrote five stories last week and two of them really connected with our readers, what can we learn from those two? [For the other three], did we write about something that isn’t important to readers? Did we put a lousy headline on it? Did we flunk social? Was it the presentation? What can we learn from that? We’ve got to do better connecting a story we think is important with the [readers] who ought to think it’s important. When that chain is broken, something is not working, and that’s on us as journalists.

Wang: Can you talk a little more about the direction you see coverage moving? With the closure of the foreign bureaus and the restructuring, some people were worried national political coverage might be lost. On the other hand, people are always worried about the shrinking of good local news coverage.

Grieve: I wasn’t here when the plan for the foreign bureaus came together, but I think it was absolutely the right thing to do. We have a proud tradition of doing high-quality foreign reporting, but our core mission is to serve the local communities where our newsrooms are. That’s the thing we have to be better at than everybody else. If you look at the question in that context, it becomes pretty clear where we should be putting our resources. That is our reason for existing. If we’re going to have a newsroom in Sacramento, we need to be better at covering Sacramento than anyone else.

The changes in the Washington bureau are very much of a piece. We’re focusing on stories that have profound relevance in the communities that our newsrooms serve. I happen to think that will lead to more impactful Washington reporting. We’re going to be digging into stories that a lot of people aren’t doing, that the really nationally focused Washington press corps — of which I used to be a part — doesn’t cover.

Again, the reason for our existence is high-quality local journalism. And that local journalism can take many forms. It can be a story out of Washington about what your member of Congress is doing. It can be about a government funding scandal that resonates in our community where we have a newsroom. But we have to have that local lens on things.

Wang: At the end of last year, we ran people’s predictions for journalism in 2016. A lot of them were about the rise of giant platforms and distributed content, and parallel to that, there were quite a few predictions that local news outlets would be left behind, or that there’s an untapped opportunity for these platforms in local news partners. Is this something you’re worried about as it applies to the McClatchy papers?

Grieve: My Facebook feed is profoundly local — things happening to the people I know. It’s not dominated by big stories about the climate change summit, or the presidential race, but by things that are happening to my friends and family in the places where they are.

We’re now having tremendous success driving readers back to our sites through social media and search. I couldn’t have sat here ten years ago and predicted that Facebook would be a big part of everyone’s traffic. But I have great confidence that if we keep producing the journalism readers care about, as long as there are avenues out there for us to get it in front of people, we’ll be okay.

I don’t see any indication that people don’t want information about what’s happening in their home towns. They may have different ideas about how to pay for it, or whether to pay for it, or where to find it. The core thing hasn’t changed.

Wang: How do you measure success in some of the things you’re implementing? Are there specific metrics, measures, numbers? What do you see as a “successful” change?

Grieve: There was a lot of change at McClatchy even before I got here. The McClatchy 2020 project involved moving virtually all of our newsrooms onto a shared CMS that allows the kind of sharing we talked about earlier. We’ll complete that transition in the coming months.

We made enormous investment in video, led by Andy Pergam, who came over from the Washington Post. His team has had huge success in increasing the number and quality of and views for the videos we produce. Others in the company have had real success in improving our visibility on search and social. We’re seeing some encouraging traffic growth as a result of that.

How do we measure success going forward? I want more local readers reading our work. More readers reading more of our stories equals more [ad] inventory that can be sold. That equals the ability to hire more reporters. It’s a wonderful, virtuous cycle that happens when you build readership like this.

You can’t be a great journalist who no one ever reads. You can’t divorce those two things. It’s a beautiful thing when the powerful, public-service, noble interests of journalism actually align with your business model. The ways you can succeed doing what you, as a journalist, want in your heart to do, are also the things that makes it possible for people to pay you to do that job. That’s the intersection where we all need to live right now.

Wang: Are you focused on getting digital subscribers in particular?

Grieve: One thing I learned at Politico was the importance of diversifying your income streams. In a complicated world where forces beyond your control have great sway over your success, the only smart thing to do is to make sure you have some eggs in each of the proverbial baskets.

You’re going to focus on sheer quantity of traffic. You’re going to focus on increasing the loyalty of the people you get to come to your site. The ultimate manifestation of that loyalty, I guess, is that they’re willing to start paying to get more and more access. All of those things have to be parts of what we do; I don’t think they’re in conflict at all. The more people we can get in the front door through social or search or aggregation hits — if we’re doing a good job, once they get here, of providing a nice place to be, with more content they want to look at, we can turn that one click into six clicks that day, and maybe some more the next day when they come back.

I hope we’re creating the kind of place where we get more and more people to come through the front door, and get them to stick around — and that some of the people who stick around find this to be such an important part of their lives that they’re willing to pay for it.

Photo by Vincent Parsons of The Kansas City Star used under a Creative Commons license. Headshot of Tim Grieve by Pete Grieve.

POSTED     Jan. 8, 2016, 10:18 a.m.
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