Back in May, I discovered that The New York Times in-house report on their digital prowess—or more their lack thereof—had been leaked. When I quickly read the 96-page report, I salivated at the frank analysis and actionable responses it contained. The size of the entity did not matter; the examples and advice resonated for all publishers.
Of course, I wrote about it, once in May in an unusually long piece for this space, and then once in June. So I was a bit surprised to see last week on the SIPA Listserv a post about the new discovery of the Times report and that SIPA publishers should take notice.
It got me thinking. Just writing a good story is not enough these days. There is so much noise to get through that unless you shout, tweet, friend, circle, link, and more, people may not notice. And then I recalled Chapter 2 of the Times report, titled, you guessed it, Promotion.
It begins: “At The Times, we generally like to let our work speak for itself. We’re not ones to brag. Our competitors have no such qualms, and many are doing a better job of getting their journalism in front of new readers through aggressive story promotion. They regard this as a core function of reporters and editors, and they react with amazement that the same is not true here.”
Here are 7 pieces of promotional advice that the Times report offers to publishers (and me):
1. Most successful publishers believe that journalists should be their own promoters and encouraged to engage on social media. For example, Dan Colarusso, executive editor of Reuters Digital, said, “All web editors engage on social and are also tasked with identifying related communities and seeding their content.” Some places make it a bit of a competition. I can see that—when our Web guy releases analytics here, I’m anxious to see how I rank and it makes me want to do better.
2 “Create an ‘impact tool-box’ and train an editor on each desk to use it. The toolbox would provide strategy, tactics and templates for increasing the reach of an article before and after it’s published. Over time, the editor could teach others.” The report said that these skills can be taught; ironically, the Times reporters who do it best learned from their book publishers.
3 Your promotion effort needs a leader, data and tools at their disposal. The Times experimented with a cross-departmental team to try to promote the magazine and failed without these things.
4. Whoever is handling social media for you needs to be integrated with your content creators. Having a data expert in there as well would help. “When we figured out the Facebook algorithm and that Facebook mattered more than Twitter, traffic exploded,” said Jacob Weisberg of Slate.
5. Discussions should take place before a story is published. At The Huffington Post, a story cannot be published without a photo, a search headline, a tweet and a Facebook post. Said one top Times editor: “I don’t feel like we sit down when we have a big project, a big story, and say, ‘How do we roll this out?’” Said another: “It would require an entirely different way of thinking. It would be about saying, ‘This is what is running on Sunday.’”
6. Focus more attention on the behind-the-scenes process of optimization. The Times simply added structured data, for example, and it immediately increased traffic to their food recipes from search engines by 52%.
7. Use social more for audience development than as a reporting tool. The Times found that most competitors use social as a hotbed of experimentation because platforms and user behavior change so quickly.
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering diversity, Newspaper in Education, marketing and leadership before joining SIPA in 2009 , and then SIIA in 2013.