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Lean journalism: 10 lessons from an online-only publication

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January 7, 2015

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Lean journalism: 10 lessons from an online-only publication

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It’s a little over a year since I left my role as technology editor at Journalism.co.uk, reporting on innovation in the digital news industry, so I thought I’d reflect on what I learned during the two-and-a-half years I spent there.

Although I’d done a fair amount of web journalism before joining in early 2011 (via TV, radio and print), 99% of what I learned about digital came from my time at Journalism.co.uk.

Lean journalism

A news organisation like Journalism.co.uk allows you to learn through lean. As a small team (of two or three journalists and two or three marketing and sales staff), we had to be efficient. If something didn’t get the expected traffic or impact, we would reconsider. We were constantly listening, learning, evolving.

I’m not saying that these lessons will work for all sites. Journalism.co.uk is not a destination in the same way as The Wall Street Journal or other global news sites are, aiming to provide a complete editorial offering. But here are 10 things I learned through doing.

1. Report original stories

When I first joined Journalism.co.uk we reported on the news industry in general. We would cover job cuts at locals, the scrapping of a newspaper section, revelations in hacking, that kind of thing.

This will make some journalists gulp, but at Journalism.co.uk we all had commercial roles as well as reporting. I co-organised the digital news conference news:rewired, but my main responsibility was developing in-house training for news organisations and an open course programme for journalists.

Mid 2011 brought Leveson, a couple of months after I started. After a colleague left, a freelancer helped us by covering the inquiry (by watching the livestream from his home in Paris). The freelancer bills rolled in and were barely covered by the hard-earned cash the courses brought in. And our target audience was either following the livestream directly or reading live blog on the Guardian, the news organisation that had owned that story.

Over a couple of beers in the pub with John Thompson, owner and MD of Journalism.co.uk and Rachel Bartlett, then editor, we decided to stop chasing the news tail and go deep rather than broad. We went from reporting about the industry in general to only reporting on the digital news space. We set a policy to only report original stories, writing an increasing number of features. Our story count went down, from four or five stories each per day to perhaps one or two. But traffic went up.

We started each day curating news and retweeting articles from other sites. We simply helped readers by acting as a news anchor, flagging stories we thought they would be interested in. (And of course Twitter was a sweet spot for us as pretty much all of our audience of digital-savvy journalists were tweeting.)

I came to realise that we had no competitors in an online world of original news reporting.

2. Don’t report from press releases

Long before I started at Journalism.co.uk, there was a culture of calling the person quoted in a press release or trying to add something to the story. But after our shift to original-only news, press releases were of little use to us, beyond giving us an occasional idea or contact.

If the release had been sent to us, it had no doubt been sent elsewhere. So the chance of an original story was slim.

3. It doesn’t matter where people read your articles

We had banners and buttons on site, but those alone don’t make for a sustainable online-only news business. The Journalism.co.uk approach (well before I joined) was to get to know your audience and sell them what they need, such as digital journalism conferences, job adverts and training.

There was no direct relationship between traffic and revenue at Journalism.co.uk; if we achieved more page views, we didn’t get any more money.

We therefore took the approach that it didn’t matter where people consumed our content. We were equally as happy if someone consumed on Twitter, Facebook, Storify, SoundCloud, iTunes or YouTube. By taking our journalism out to other platforms we found new audiences and could increase our overall reach of our brand.

4. Headlines are the most important part of the story

Find the right headline and a story will fly. Get a headline wrong and no one reads your story. Tweak and try again if you don’t get the right one the first time round.

We found that the most effective headlines often had one of the following elements:

Start with the word ‘Report:’ or ‘Study:’ Lists (as we all know) work well Starting with an interrogative such as a ‘Why’ or ‘How’ or ‘Who’ to suggest to the reader he or she will learn something.

We often spent quite some time playing about with ideas for headlines to try and ‘sell’ the story and do it justice.

Rachel and I would have long IM chats throwing around ideas for headlines. (During my final year at Journalism.co.uk, which is based in Brighton, I worked at home in London and so IM was very much part of the workflow.)

5. Photos can be left field

Photos are necessary for Facebook sharing and as news becomes increasingly visually led.

We included a photo in every story, often using several images. The main image was often one shared on Flickr or elsewhere with a Creative Commons licence.

We reported on seemingly difficult to illustrate topics, such as security, community and curation. I have yet to come across a story where no appropriate image can be found, however left field.

6. Subbing swapping makes sense

At a small online-only news site like Journalism.co.uk, subbing one another’s stories made sense. We previously had a sub-editor but when the position became vacant, we opted to recruit a third reporter rather than a sub.

The person who wrote the story added a headline, photo, links, tags etc, before passing it to a colleague for subbing.

Yes, it’s annoying to go and read through a colleague’s article when you are in the middle of writing something, but it makes sense for those at small news sites and gives everyone involved an overview of everything that is published.

7. There are surprising by-products

One of my favourite tasks was creating the weekly podcast. When I first joined we used to do a dry read of the week’s news industry headlines (job losses, that kind of thing). I’m sure very few people listened. Rachel and I had both trained in radio so we were keen to experiment and we came up with the format of a 10-minute package on a theme with three interviews.

As there were two or three of us reporting, this meant having to do a podcast every two or three weeks. It demanded an off-diary idea and tracking down interesting and knowledgeable interviewees (we carried out and recorded interviews over Skype, recording them using Call Recorder).

We never knew how many people listened to the podcasts via iTunes as Apple is not big on revealing numbers. We did get metrics from SoundCloud and AudioBoom (as we posted the podcasts cross platforms). Anecdotally, we heard positive feedback from lots of people who listened from far and wide.

But regardless of the size of the audience, the podcasts had a number of other outcomes. We always found a written angle from the interviews or topic to create a written feature or features to get the most out of the interviews, and we often found when talking to an interview that we had hit upon a news story.

But the knock-on effect was that regular interviews would give us speaker ideas for news:rewired. Pretty much any podcast topic could have become a topic for the digital news conference.

8. Articles should be written for scan reading

We were always mindful of our audience when writing stories. Readers were largely journalists dipping into a story after finding it on search or social. We were aware that although someone might have time to read a 2,000 word feature, they were most likely to want to scan read for key lessons or facts.

We therefore tried to make articles scannable, breaking up long text with sub headlines, photos and bullets.

9. Pre-moderated comments don’t work (if you don’t have a dedicated team of moderators)

We had pre-moderated comments for a time but we received few comments (and I personally hated having to break my concentration mid-story approve them). I was initially resistant to John’s suggestion of moving from pre-moderated to post-moderated comments. But we switched and the number and quality of comments immediately increased.

10. Consider the fringes of your target audience

Our target audience was journalists. One estimation (I forget where I first saw this figure) put the number of journalists in the UK at 60,000.

That’s not a big enough potential audience to build a sustainable business on in terms of web traffic. And of course we were aware that not all journalists were interested in digital.

We therefore knew we had to reach overseas audiences and had to write in such away that we didn’t assume too much prior knowledge, to make it easy to access for those working on the fringes or beyond journalism.

We aimed for readers who were not necessarily in newsrooms but who could learn from our posts on useful storytelling tools, innovations in social media or developments in online video. And we knew these varied audiences may want to come to our conferences and training courses.

A year on

I decided to share these lessons in the hope that trainee journalists with ambitions of working at national or global publications might consider the value of spending time at a small news organisation.

The tips may also be useful to established journalists who haven’t had the luxury of working at a smaller news site.

And if a job at Journalism.co.uk ever comes up, I urge you to encourage rookie reporters to apply.

Aside from the above lessons, amazing contacts and key Twitter followers, I also gained a mental filing cabinet of facts, figures and information that I regularly call upon. When someone asks “what’s the average open rate of a news email” or “how many people work in analytics at the Guardian” or “how many new subscribers did the FT add last year”, I generally know.

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