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Everyday struggle at newsrooms: The long game vs. the short gain

How much time should your newsroom spend on creating lasting value and how much on peak news events? The answer is less straightforward than this author thought.

[Editors note: It is always useful to take a step back and look at your newsroom strategy. Therefore, we are updating an article that looks into the long game vs. the short gain in media written by Dávid Tvrdoň in late 2020.]

I believe each media manager has a certain kind of struggle that he or she has to struggle with on a daily or weekly basis. 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 (me including).

In a previous life I was a BBC specialist correspondent – in my case, covering the environment. Part of my job was to break original stories but another was to provide context and continuity on long-running stories, typically through longer pieces and backgrounders. …

This meant we could support daily news stories, especially on long-running and complicated issues. But we also provided a point of entry for newcomers to these stories, setting out the issues, key players, their positions and explaining the jargon. …

There were 5 or 6 of us in a newsroom staff of, I guess, about 40. So not far off your suggestion of devoting 20% of effort to long tail content – albeit that effort was concentrated in a small group of dedicated individuals rather than as a proportion of everyone’s time.

The most engaging stories: No clear trend

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

When looking at the other editions (2018, 2017, 2016), there is no clear trend that the most engaging story of the year is a long-form, possibly worth reading in ten years from now.

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

Regarding the 2019 list, Chartbeat also published an explainer at the time digging into the data and substracting some lessons, for example: Engaging pieces are not just for the loyal reader (i.e. retention) — content creators can use these marquee pieces to acquire new visitors as well.

The takeaway from this should be that there is a clear advantage in investing into long tail articles – they “live” longer than most news pieces even though there is in most cases no initial peak. And on the plus side, evergreen content, as explained by Chartbeat, drives new visitors to your website who you can engage, 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 and I admit this is not 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: Is your newsroom producing too much content? The answer is probably yes

Instant gains vs. future investments: How to decide

As far as I know, there is no rule of thumb on a clear strategy when 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 are dealing with evergreen content.

The result, everyone’s approach is unique depending on the data they got from analyzing historical archives and how readers (viewer and listeners) 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 the policy. Mainly, the day-to-day work made it impossible especially when employees had deadlines.

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

Most likely not modelled on this example, one of my colleagues set up a similar rule for his reporters: Four days a week work on time-sensitive content we need to publish daily as it is a daily news website but once a week try to focus on older articles which 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, the reporters managed to increase the long tail of older articles.

More from The Fix: Toolbox: What can you learn from The Guardian, BBC, FT, NYT and WSJ about news innovation

Another strategy: Republishing content and refreshing articles with current information

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.

Quote: 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 you can take 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.

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

 Of course, at the time of this article being refreshed (!) there is no big holiday event close in the calendar and it is possibly the best time to start working slowly on your holiday gift guide, Christmas cooking guide or any evergreen content that you can associate with you brand.

The short answer is that there is always some longterm topic you can keep refreshing and down the line it will bear fruit. Yes, it’s not instant and it will take maybe months until you see the results, but believe me, it is the right kind of longterm investment.

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