Local Media Association’s Digital Summit Week launched August 10-14 as a virtual event. This keynote discussion features three individuals honored in the LMA Digital Innovation Awards. Find more takeaways, video recordings, presentations, and insights from Digital Summit Week here.
By Joe Lanane • LMA Contributor
Three digital-minded executives who were recently honored for driving innovative changes at their news organizations spoke Aug. 13 during Local Media Association’s Digital Summit Week about the incremental changes they made to drive innovation.
The keynote speakers were honored by LMA earlier this year as the 2020 Innovators of the Year:
- Jennifer Mitchell, senior vice president of content development at ABC-owned television stations
- Daniel Alvarez, vice president of product and design and NBCU-owned television stations
- Mitch Pugh, executive editor at The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C.
“All three created a culture of innovation and risk-taking, and they all created a framework for innovation,” said Guy Tasaka, senior director of product management for Wide Orbit Inc., who moderated the keynote session. “All three of these recipients have built the right organizational structure, talent mix and what you’re seeing is the results of say two years of work.”
The products driven by their innovative efforts all differ greatly; however, there are many overlapping tactics they used to reach their mutual end goal of gaining more audience.
Mitchell has focused on multiplatform success since her ABC TV stations participated in LMA’s first Branded Content Project in 2019. That year she helped launch “Localish” in an effort to reach a millennial audience that didn’t tune into traditional newscasts.
Localish content focused on the people who make cities great, and it instantly gained attention from audiences. Mitchell credits the unique focus of that content for helping to drive that momentum.
“This is content that makes you feel good about where you live and celebrates your community and inspires you to learn more about other great cities,” she said.
In its first year, Localish gained 240 million views on 700-plus pieces of content, with 66% of viewers age 44 or younger.
“This was really the tipping point,” Mitchell said. “The success in year one was incredible, and we wanted to keep the momentum going and reach larger audiences.”
So in February, ABC launched a 24/7 Localish network featuring content from at least 10 series spinoffs that now exist. The TV network reaches 14 million households alone, Mitchell said. Across all platforms, she counts 42 million monthly visitors to 130,000 pieces of original content produced annually.
That success helped convert the station’s largest branded content deal to date, she said, with the agreement extending into its second year.
Rather than producing a new product, Mitch Pugh has focused on gaining more audience members to The Post and Courier’s digital products. Digital subscriptions are counted toward the company’s ultimate goal to fund the entire newsroom through online reader revenue by September 2022.
“We had a very clear North Star here,” Pugh said.
That requires building a newsroom in which everyone bought into the same audience revenue strategy — not just a product team. He now has two dedicated full-timers dedicated to building digital subscriptions, but every team member plays a role, he said.
“We had to change our mindset to really look at the data and let the way the readers are behaving on the site … and let that inform our decision-making,” Pugh said. “Our reporters are now closers. Every piece of content they write is an opportunity to convince our readers that what we do has value to them.”
Pugh said he was informed by his publication’s participation in several industry programs since 2017, including Poynter’s Table Stakes Program as well as the Google News Initiative Digital Subscriptions Lab and most recently the Facebook Accelerator Program. Those programs helped reinforce several lessons: make it easy for users to subscribe and stay subscribed, show grace when a subscription expires, and use newsletters to drive subscriptions.
The result so far this year has been more than 100,000 free subscribers, with almost 1,000 converted to paid subscribers. And year-over-year, The Post and Courier has almost 800 net subscribers despite drops on the print side during COVID-19.
“It’s helping us drive our net subscribers from 200 to 300 per month to 500 to 600 per month,” Pugh said.
The meticulous effort from Pugh and his staff to reach such incremental success is consistent with the five-step process employed by Alvarez, who oversees 40 local stations nationally for NBC and Telemundo.
He creates digital and mobile products in English and Spanish that are used by millions of users, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by requests from dozens of stakeholders who work with Alvarez and his team. That can result in haphazard products and a cycle of delivering stale products that don’t advance innovation.
“You’re still doing a lot of work, but it just doesn’t all add up to a whole lot,” he said.
While not every news leader is pulled as many different directions as Alvarez, most are still trying to balance the competing needs of the business, editorial, engineering and design departments.
He suggests following these five steps to break from the churn and evaluate every need comprehensively:
1. Measure: Know where your efforts are going right now and what they’ve amounted to so far. It could reveal that most development requests are coming from one side of the organization.
2. Protect: Shield the product team from requests that aren’t their highest priority at the time and enact predictable, structured for methods for deciding what projects get initiated.
“Product teams have a tendency, instead of saying no, they say we’ll do it later, and then teams end up with a never-ending list of things they’ll never get to,” Alvarez said.
3. Inspire: Introduce ideas and the long-term vision for where you want to take team projects. That makes it easier to weed out ideas that don’t match the long-term vision.
4. Execute: Once a plan is in place that is achievable, hit the marks set by the team.
5. Communicate: Pushback is inevitable in this plan, so come ready with the list of product launches and development improvements that were agreed to and their status. This will help everyone know what the product team is doing and how they are doing so far.
These three winners follow in the footsteps of another Digital News Innovator of the Year, Steve Baron, the award’s 2019 recipient and LMA’s newly named chief strategy officer. Baron was introduced at the top of the keynote session, crediting LMA and its various programs for helping to expose him to ideas that “otherwise would not be on my radar.”