“On one hand, it’s amazing that there’s such a wide diversity of news providers,” said Nick Ascheim, svp of digital at NBC News. “On the other hand, it’s increasingly hard to differentiate and stand out from the pack.” Ascheim started to rethink NBC News’ approach after being named to his role in November 2015. Here’s what’s happened since.
Winning at digital media used to be a volume game. But the more stories you do, the more likely it is for the news report to become commoditized, so NBC News has focused on stories that would get people to stick around on its own site over ones that may have performed well on social media but didn’t get people to click through. NBC News also stopped autoplaying digital video in late 2015, knowing how annoying it is to users. All in all, NBC News is producing 25 percent fewer stories a day, estimated Catherine Kim, digital executive editor of news and politics.
“There was this reflexive and reactive approach to the news, so it’s been a huge culture shift for the newsroom,” Kim said. “Now it’s much more of a deliberate, ‘What are the big stories? How do we cover them in a deliberative way?’ We ask, ‘Does a story fit into one of our pillars? Do we have something to say that will resonate beyond that day, does it clarify a story for the reader and the heart of an issue or debate?’”
NBC News still covers police shootings, for example, but now focuses on those stories that contribute to a bigger narrative about social justice. Meanwhile, it’s doing more in-depth and data-based stories like these “specials” and this one tracking Donald Trump’s golfing activities.
“In the past, the tendency would have been to say, ‘This story’s going viral, we have to play this up as much as we can,’” Ascheim said. “The approach now is, let’s worry a little less about how many clicks and more about telling a good story.”
Along with that, NBC News has launched sub-brands that are meant to showcase its non-breaking news coverage: Mach (focused on science), Better (about health) and the forthcoming Think (on opinions and ideas). It’s also hired a number of experienced journalists, including David Firestone, formerly of The New York Times and FiveThirtyEight; Meredith Bennett-Smith from Quartz; and Gregg Birnbaum from CNN Politics.
The editorial shift aligns with the direction advertisers have been going in, and the new verticals are helping NBC News win new and more spending from auto, tech and pharma advertisers, said Mark Miller, head of ad sales for NBCUniversal’s News group. “Digital marketers are absolutely looking at more than just scale these days,” he said. “They’re paying more attention to viewability, loyalty, engagement.” He added that the shift will take time. “Advertisers are not looking for a one-off, they’re looking for a consistent environment that delivers loyalty, engagement, et cetera.”
Updated performance goals
Part of changing timeworn news reporting habits meant setting new performance goals that were once focused on unique visitors and page views. NBC News now looks at depth, as defined by the amount of content each person consumes in a given month; video starts; and loyalty, which it measures as the number of users who have visited the site five or more times in two consecutive months.
Video starts were at 100 million per month and fell around 45 percent after autoplay was turned off in late 2015. Since then, starts have climbed back, to 110 million in October and then 130 million in May and 120 million in June. Ascheim wouldn’t share specifics but said the percentage of loyal users has grown in the single digits month over month since late 2016. Uniques haven’t suffered since the new performance goals took effect; NBCNews.com drew 36.6 million uniques in May, up 29 percent from May 2015, according to comScore.
To help get the word out about the new goals, NBC News printed them on cards and handed them out to employees at a recent town hall. NBC News also began sharing data on total video starts on a rolling 12-week average and the lowest-performing stories so people could see what’s taking off as well as what’s not. There are new weekly and monthly meetings where the numbers are shared among newsroom leaders.
“Most people who become journalists are drawn to the approach we’ve been taking,” Ascheim said. “But you have to change your KPIs. As long as people think you’re measured by page views or the output you do a week, you can’t expect people to change.”