Hearst’s new approach to digital news

Hearst Magazines is building a centralized news desk to supply digital content to its 18 glossy magazines.

The desk is small for now, considering the size and diversity of Hearst’s portfolio — it consists of two photo editors, one editor and one writer — but Kate Lewis, vp of content operations and editorial director for Hearst Digital, hopes to add more writers over time. The idea is to cover the stories that have applicability to multiple titles, cutting down on duplication and freeing them to do stories that are more unique to them, she said.

“It is something we are building as we think about our competition and what our pure-play brethren are doing,” she said.

Legacy publishers have for years unified certain editorial functions like copy editing and photo and graphics services. Newspaper chains have long shared stories across their local papers. But as print fortunes continue to wane, more centralization looks inevitable (Digital First Media’s closing its Thunderdome project notwithstanding).

A year ago, USA Today created a national news desk to improve the process of sharing content across Gannett newspapers and TV stations. “It’s no secret that on the print side, there are fewer editors, reporters,” said Beryl Love, who runs the desk. “It’s to give all our papers an edge digitally. Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp has made cross-title collaboration a mantra, spurring titles to increase efforts to work together on stories and drive traffic to each other’s sites. In the most visible example of this, Time and Sports Illustrated recently began sharing a reporter, Jack Dickey.

Hearst already consolidated editorial operations among its shelter magazines two years ago. But the digital news desk goes further in that it’s serving the company’s entire portfolio. Under digital chief Troy Young, the company has been making a big push digitally, with an emphasis on driving traffic to its sites from social networks, with the result that social networks are now Hearst’s biggest driver of traffic, and the news desk will attempt to support that with an emphasis on share-worthy stories.

“It makes sense,” said Peter Kreisky, a consultant to the publishing industry. “I expect to see more sharing of editorial production across titles. The glory days when the edit department didn’t have to answer for its costs are long gone. If they can reduce the cost of some content, they can invest in more proprietary content.”

Still, a centralized desk is potentially fraught with issues for Hearst, with titles ranging from fashion and beauty (Elle, Cosmopolitan) to shelter (House Beautiful, Country Living) to men’s (Esquire, Car and Driver). Centralizing content production sounds good in theory but raises questions for the individual brands, which may worry about a loss of control or that the desk will come at the expense of dedicated staff. Will the quality of the articles from the centralized desk be better than what they could do themselves?

Lewis said that the news desk won’t replace but will augment what the individual titles are doing and that titles will be expected to tailor the desk’s stories to their sites.

“When Taylor Swift cuts her hair, I do not need six editors writing that story,” she said. Of the Kim-Kanye wedding, she said, “We don’t need 50 people writing about the first photos that come out.”

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