Newsrooms in the digital age: Are traditional news sections obsolete?

Digital is now fully the focus in most newsrooms and many are finally at the stage where they are genuinely digital first.

THREE things have occurred over the last few years that are having a profound impact on the digital news business. They are also providing insights into what the future of the newsroom might be, starting with the way the news itself can be organised in ways far different from how it is traditionally displayed.

Digital is now fully the focus in most newsrooms and many are finally at the stage where they are genuinely digital first.

The tools to understand audiences and their behaviours in digital have become far more sophisticated.

 We can track people across devices and platforms (even if it has become more difficult because of data protection and privacy regulations), we can create audience segments based on behaviour and we are able to predict to a certain degree, their future behaviour with propensity models.

Market insight has become a valued and respected discipline by the newsroom in many news organisations.

This happened in parallel with the rise of the subscription model, as knowledge of the customer became a key element for success. First-party data, socio-demographic profiles and lifestyle information can now be married to the behavioural data, which provides a more comprehensive picture of the audience. This can be invaluable in supporting editorial decisions.

These three factors make it possible to talk about the next possible iteration of newsrooms:

Newsroom 5.0, the “customer-centric newsroom,” as I would like to call it.

Despite being digital first, newsrooms today still largely organise their content in the old familiar ways

Additionally, they are still largely reliant on content segmentation based on topic: typically news, politics, business, lifestyle, events, opinion, sports, obituaries and the rest. The size and focus of the sections, of course, differ with the core journalistic mission of the brand.

This segmentation reflects how content has been organised since the advent of the newspaper. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing — organisation by topic allows for the development of journalistic expertise and specialisation in these areas. But the development of new tools now allows for news ways to present this content to audiences.

The role of the sections may diminish or even disappear altogether as organisations dig deeper into what will attract and retain news consumers. The ability to better personalise content to meet customer expectations and needs has never been greater. The concept of personalisation has been around for years, with many experiments in personalised and tailored publishing. But we never had the tools we have today to help really understand the audiences.

Of course, we can ask customers what they want but we can also serve content to them based on an analysis of behaviour, predictions and preferences about what kind of content they consume.

Is presenting news via sections still the right structure for the newsroom?

It is true that people still prefer certain topics. They may start with sports or lifestyle news and forego hard news until last. Or they might navigate topics in another way.

To appreciate these habits are, is ofcourse, important. But when we talk about digital, where there is content on a variety of different topics that could be interesting for a certain group of people, it might be useful to organise the newsroom around target groups instead.

We can foresee a system in which content for these target groups is curated or created by editorial people who are made responsible for a certain target group rather than for a section or category of content.

There are obviously different ways to segment an audience. One is by socio-demographics, with sophisticated tools and models for describing the customers and their (news) needs.

Another way is to look at them through the stages of their relationship with the product in terms of visit frequency and loyalty — whether they are daily active users, fans, regular readers or fly-by visitors. What type of content might be especially attractive to these different groups, to get them to the next stage until they subscribe and remains loyal?

This is already happening in some organisations. However, this is primarily with small teams, often based in sales, that aim to increase subscriptions, attract younger readers or convert free users to subscribers. Very often, these activities are not (closely) connected with the newsroom.

So, what if we turn it around?

What if the sections no longer publish directly to the platforms but provide content to the customer segment teams, which reside in the newsroom and provide content packages for different target groups? They curate and create these packages based on the editorial mission and the data and knowledge of the customers within each target group, and they take content from different sections based on their target groups’ preferences.

They would also choose the platforms where the content would appear: If you want to attract younger people, for example, that means Instagram, TikTok, and other platforms that are their main source of information — not the website nor even Facebook.

Instead of section heads and platform managers deciding where and what to publish, that responsibility would fall to the customer segment teams for each of the target groups.

This doesn’t mean the entire content for a certain target group is different from the others. You can’t create entirely different content for each target group, nor would you want to.

Let’s say, for example, you make it 60/40, with 60% of the content relevant for all target groups, but the other 40% focused on different topics that you believe are interesting for a certain segment. The percentage of tailored content could be anything: 60/40 or 80/20, just as guidelines.

And the target groups aren’t static: The members of the group change as their relationship with the brand changes and are “handed over” between the teams.

With the tools now available, and with audience knowledge increasing like never before, this could be a way to organise the newsroom with a greater focus around the needs of the customer.

Dietmar Schantin is a digital media strategist and has helped to transform the editorial and commercial operations of media brands around the world.

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