I shuttered my own news startup. Here’s what journalism should learn from my experience. (page 7)

Insight: Rethink the news article as the best way to deliver journalism

The digital article as a unit of news is broken.

The proof to support this is any news site’s page views per visit. Two to three articles per visit is considered good, and daily visitors are rare.

The way news is delivered has not evolved enough to meet the needs of today’s audiences. We’re producing news infrastructure that assumes all readers will click around to a few stories to get a general sense of what’s going on in their communities. Data shows us that’s not the case. 

We want people to be informed, engaged residents, participants in democracy. But digital news sites aren’t built for casual news readers to keep up on a daily or weekly rhythm. They’re built for news junkies at one point in time. 

Newsrooms have experimented with new formats for a while now, and have seen limited success with newsletters, text messages, AMAs and more — but the default always seems to reset back at the article. We need more audience-centric ways to put accurate, actionable information in front of the communities that need it.

Newsletters are one tool to optimize for new habits:

  • Digital and social natives (Millennials and younger) are used to news finding them. Emailed newsletters are delivered to inboxes, and unlike social media’s algorithm-based delivery, they will arrive in their email river of information. 
  • Newsletters are an efficient package of important news, similar to the traditional newspaper. 
    • There’s a prioritization of the most important news of the day, and much like the origin story of the inverted pyramid, the most important information is in the newsletter (like the front page).
    • Raleigh Convergence readers cited this functionality – a brief overview, click to learn more – as a top reason for subscribing (more benefits paraphrased below):
      • You can consume the whole thing and enjoy it
      • It’s easy to digest, especially at that hour (6-7 am)
  • It creates rhythms for checking in on the news and creating a news habit, a healthier approach to news consumption than scrolling.

Aggregation vs. information ecosystem

News sites, especially small ones, should consider how they can guide audiences through an information ecosystem, instead of trying to replicate everything people are talking about on the Internet on their own sites.

Instead of a full news article, some news items of value just need to be a sentence and an actionable link. Some examples from Raleigh Convergence’s newsletters include:

  • Memos or city council agenda items 
  • New business opening social media posts
  • Sign-ups for municipal youth sports
  • Links to cultural events’ sites.

The information ecosystem has more participants than in the past. Now that news sites are no longer sole gatekeepers of information, newsrooms can deploy resources on differentiated content. 

Case study: COVID information on one, regularly updated page.

Readers said they found unique value in Raleigh Convergence’s reporting on Covid data, which took a different approach than publishing separate news stories on Covid numbers each week.

Each week, the same basic numbers were shared in the newsletter, in context. The same online article page was updated on the website: What was up? What was down? What was it last week? 

While many news sites tracked COVID cases in time, they didn’t provide a service for those who wanted an easy way to keep up locally, especially those who didn’t regularly check a news site or who tuned news out. 

The regular rhythm of the update, paired with using the same link/article page, made it easy to know how Covid was spreading through the community.

Regularly using the same link meant it was easy to find the latest information by clicking from older newsletters. Search contributed to 20% of the traffic, while about 19% of traffic was referred by the newsletter. 

Compare this to how users would interact with the typical news cycle for Covid coverage: A glut of outdated articles might have surfaced through search. A government dashboard would share a point in time unless the user clicked around for minutes to make sense of historic data. Numbers that stayed flat or improved often didn’t merit a news article. 

Next chapter

"I shuttered my own news startup. Here’s what journalism should learn from my experience." table of contents

  1. I shuttered my own news startup. Here’s what journalism should learn from my experience.
  2. What sustainability looked like for me, and when it changed:
  3. Closing Raleigh Convergence
  4. Operational lessons for the industry
  5. Insight: Events are journalism
  6. Insight: Let community members into your journalism
  7. Insight: Rethink the news article as the best way to deliver journalism
  8. Insight: Adopt cycles of engagement