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The content struggle: Long game vs. short term gain

Getting lost in chasing news events can make you lose sight of the bigger picture

How much time should newsrooms spend playing the long game of evergreen content vs. chasing short term gains during peak news events? The answer is less straightforward than you might think.

I believe each media manager has a certain kind of struggle that he or she faces on a daily or weekly basis. This week I wanted to address mine: evergreen content vs. time-sensitive content (i.e. news).

Depending on the newsroom you work at, this might be a bigger or smaller issue. But bear with me, there are some lessons for everyone here (myself included).

The most engaging stories: No clear trend

Each year web analytics company Chartbeat publishes a list of the most engaging stories. Last year’s leader was the 50-minute read (a true longform) from The Atlantic: What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane.

When looking at other editions (2018, 2017, 2016), there is no clear trend. There is no reason to believe longform is so engaging people will want to read them ten years from now.

Actually, depending on the year, there might be more liveblogs from elections and Brexit than longform pieces among top articles (looking at you, 2016).

For the 2019 list, Chartbeat also published an explainer digging into the data and extracting lessons. One finding was that engaging pieces are not just for loyal readers (i.e. retention). Content creators can use such marquee pieces to acquire new visitors as well.

The takeaway from this should be that there is a clear advantage to investing into long tail articles. They “live” longer than most news pieces even though there is rarely an initial peak.

Evergreen content, as explained by Chartbeat, drives new visitors to your website. You can then engage them, get them to subscribe to your newsletter or follow you on social media to get more content like the one they are reading.

I know, so far I haven’t shared anything new. Although, what is ever-present is the struggle to get the right balance between splitting resources on current, time-sensitive and evergreen content.

I am using the phrase content because it is not just about articles, the same goes for videos, podcasts, and others.

More from The Fix: Journalism for the next generation

Instant gains vs. future investments: How to decide

As far as I know, there is no rule of thumb on deciding on how much to invest in which type of pieces. Looking for some guidance, I found several case studies (here, here and here), showing how publishers deal with evergreen content.

Everyone’s approach is unique. It depends on what they get from analysing historical archives and how readers (viewer and listeners) are engaged.

Remember the famous “20% time” work-on-whatever-you-want policy Google used to promote? There are reason’s why it did not work and the management decided to dismantle it. The main reason? Day-to-day work made it impossible for employees facing tough deadlines.

But what if you changed the part where employees work on independent projects and focus it a little bit? To make it more specific and relevant for the rest of the work you are doing?

One of my colleagues set up a similar rule for his reporters. Four days a week you work on time-sensitive content we need to publish daily (we’re a daily news website). One day a week try to focus on older articles that are performing well and make them even better, or create additional content.

As guidance, he got our SEO specialist to put together a list of older articles that are still performing well but have not been updated for a while. So again, data-informed decision making. This workflow proved to be effective and, as a result, reporters managed to increase traffic from a long tail of older articles.

Another example from years before is what Vox did. Matthew Yglesias explained their republishing efforts in the case study titled Refreshing the evergreen. For one week, they asked writers and editors to update and republish a number of articles.

Rather than putting the old article back up again unchanged, or adding a little apologetic introductory text to explain why it was coming back and was possibly outdated in parts, we just told people to make the copy as good as it could be. So we changed the text to be up-to-date and accurate.

We changed the headline if the writer felt the old headline didn’t work very well. We added new information. We added new ideas. We rewrote sections that dragged. The result was that some pieces went up virtually identical to their original form.

Others bordered on unrecognizable. Our articles have always had “updated at” rather than “published at” adjacent to our time stamp, so we simply changed the “updated at” time.

Afterwards they published all of them on Twitter and Facebook. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and those 88 stories collectively brought in over 500,000 readers for Vox.

As with everything, there is no one universal approach that works for everyone. You have to adjust it to your newsroom’s needs and abilities. The first right step is to have this topic on the agenda, not only daily news content.

At the time of writing this column it is the beginning of November and most big newsrooms have already published their holiday gift guides (some examples: NY Times, BuzzFeed, CNET, The Verge).

If you don’t have yours out of the door by now, there is little time left. You are most likely already late. But the good news is, the more work you do this year, the less you have to do next year.

That actually nicely sums up one of the core promises of evergreen content – the time you invest now means future gains. Incremental changes over time, if done well, will translate into lasting growth (in some cases even exponential).

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