14 Jun Even You Can Be Creative
Media companies face a lot of challenges, but creativity is not one of them.
Creativity in media has never been easier and more abundant in more ways and in more places.
Not only is creativity alive and well, but it is also spreading into areas of the media business where you’d least expect it. Not so long ago, creativity in media usually meant a unique cover design or stunning print page spread or print ad campaign.
For this chapter, we found creativity springing up in:
What also struck us was how, in every case, the creative process began with discipline.
As counter-intuitive as that may sound, creativity without discipline is like a locomotive with no railroad tracks.
“We all know the archetype of the creatives, right? Eccentric, weird, scattered, messy,” wrote Carl Richards, author of The Behaviour Gap book that followed from a weekly column called Sketch Guy in the New York Times.
“Every once in a while, the creatives are so touched by the muse that they are forced to immediately drop everything, go into a trance and become a funnel for the beauty of the world.
“This notion to wait around until you get struck by lightning to make art (or anything) doesn’t mesh with my experience at all,” he wrote. “What comes much closer is the famous Chuck Close quotation: ‘Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.’
“The major implication of Mr Close’s quotation is that you don’t have to be creative to create,” wrote Richards. “Don’t wait around for creativity to strike. Don’t wait around for creativity to come to you by accident. Be creative on purpose.”
And with purpose. Also with data and research and baseline and deadlines and KPIs and measurable goals and bespoke teams.
The media creativity we found wasn’t the result of a group of people sitting around a table one day brainstorming and then doing something offbeat or fun. There were processes: Hurdles to clear, needs to service, KPIs to meet, bespoke teams to fill, tests a prototype had to pass, etc.
“One very direct, sensible question to ask about an idea is ‘Does it actually solve a problem?’,” wrote BBC producer and developer Libby Miller. “If it doesn’t, why are you doing it? Valid reasons include to have fun or because I like it’, but what if they’re not there? Like wigs for cats, many ideas do not solve a problem. Cats don’t need wigs.”
But does it crush creativity to force it into the straightjacket of having to solve problems and show results? While it may seem counterintuitive, the uniquely human creative spirit can still be free-flowing and lively and expansive even when it’s guided by a checklist of tests.
There are other questions beyond “does it solve a problem” that should be raised when discussing creative ideas. As part of the BBC’s “Reinventing News Stories” project, its R&D team came up with the following questions for the result of a creative process:
• Is it usable and understandable?
• Is it delightful and engaging?
• Is it distinctive and new?
• Does it meet audience needs and behaviours?
• Does it strike the right tone and style?
• Is it easy to build?
• Is it easy to create stories for it?
• Does it work across different genres of stories?
Miller added the following, the last of which is our favourite:
• How are people going to find the thing?
• Is it going to be easy to use?
• Will people come back to it?
• Is it the right thing to do now?
• And, hang on, what on earth is it?
The New York Times video team, for example, has a singular focus when it comes to creative ideas:
“It should have a purpose within the business: How does [it] tie in to the Times’s subscription strategy?” NYT Executive Director of Video Nancy Gauss told journalist Simon Owen. “It’s something we talk about a lot. When we’re thinking about a premium subscription product that’s worth paying for that’s differentiated in the competitive landscape … it really is about creating a differentiated, unique product that’s worth paying for.”
How do you prepare for such a “structured” creative process?
According to a variety of editors, you start by organising what might otherwise be chaos. You must organise or identify:
• The topic
• The data needed to determine or verify a need
• The target audience (or a community of shared interests)
• The measurable goals
• A baseline
• The team (whom do you need from which departments)
• The process (most recommend time-delimited sprints, eg two weeks, a month)
• The quality control process
• The schedule (mileposts of the project)
• How to measure results
• The next steps (how to make a unique creative idea routine)
Let’s look at some of the examples of content and design creativity we found:
1. CREATIVITY IN VIDEO
The first step in the creative process in video seems to be a very simple one, but it’s a step that is surprisingly hard for editorial departments to achieve: Breaking away from the agenda of the text folks.
“Rather than looking to the print desk for ideas or for ways we can do videos off of stories we’ve already created, we’re really trying to be more of a partner with them in developing things from the ground up that really play to the strengths of video,”theNYTs Gauss told Owens. “We’ve figured out how to work differently where we’re no longer looking at print budgets and saying,‘Let’s make a video to go with that story’.”
So, instead, Gauss gets everyone involved from the beginning. “We’ve taken a step back and brainstormed how we could we tap into the expertise around the newsroom,” she said. “How can we leverage some of the ideas of people who aren’t traditional video makers, and work together to realise these ideas? And I think that’s another great example of where it’s really about working together from the brainstorm phase at the ground level.”
As a result, Gauss and her video team have succeeded in bringing new levels of creativity to the media company’s storytelling.
“WE’RE TRYING TO BE MORE OF A PARTNER WITH THE PRINT SIDE IN DEVELOPING THINGS FROM THE GROUND UP THAT REALLY PLAY TO THE STRENGTHS OF VIDEO.”Nancy Gauss The New York Times Executive Director of Video
While there are plenty of traditional videos in their archives (short documentaries with voice-over, B-roll, interviews etc), Owen found some really creative work, including an animated series geared toward parents, a fake infomercial advertising a phone hotline for racists, and an ongoing series called “Diary of a Song”, which uses a mixture of low-quality Skype interview footage, behind-the-scenes informal studio footage, and Instagram animation techniques to walk the viewer through how a hit song was made.
For the animated series aimed at parents, a producer pitched it when the Times was thinking about ways to reach a younger female audience. She started by doing a series of “call-outs” (out-reaches on multiple channels to their audience explaining the project and asking for stories women would like to share). “Wre received over 1,500 responses, which is pretty remarkable” said Gauss. “It showed us there was a lot of demand for this kind of content.”
After narrowing the responses to six profiles, the producer did the interviews and then worked with a team of all-female animators to bring the stories to life.
“Over 50,000 users spent 25 minutes or more on [the Times] platform per session, which is a remarkable level of engagement,” Gauss said.
“One of the things we’ve been really focused on is serialised content and we are seeing a lot of the binge-watching behaviour. So now we’re thinking about creating content and sharing it with our audience in a way that they can consume a number of episodes per visit.”
At Conde Nast, they used a creative video approach for a title that might not be the most obvious candidate for viral videos: the 100-year-old Architectural Digest. But in 2018, the Conde Nast video team managed to quadruple its YouTube audience to 1.4 million subscribers and nearly doubled that number in 2019 (2.6 million at the end of the year). The same recalibration of the publisher’s approach to video also resulted in another classic title, Bon Appetit, tripling its subscribers to 3.7 million.
One of the new approaches was to incorporate famous hosts. For example, Architectural Digest created a new show entitled Open Door and featured big-name stars from a variety of fields walking viewers through their multi-million-dol-lar mansions. Here are some of the stand-out stars and the number of views their episode accrued by mid-January 2020:
• Grammy winning record producer and DJ Zedd (38m)
• Rapper Wiz Khalifa (34m)
• Cover star Jessica Alba (19M)
• Actor Robert Downey Jr. (15m)
• YouTube personality David Dobrik (14m)
• Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger (10M)
• Full House star John Stamos (5m)
“Celebrities were not the obvious choice for Architectural Digest,” Conde Nast Chief Revenue Officer Pamela Drucker Mann told AdAge.“But we thought maybe it would be more relevant for that millennial and Gen-Z audience.”
They also moved from short videos to long form. Before 2018, most videos typically ran for one to three minutes, now shows run six to 10 minutes and longer. For example, in 2017 a 35-sec-ond video about the top five architectural marvels of Milan generated a measly 17,000 views.
“Engagement goes up as we create longer episodes, and it creates opportunities for ad insertions in ways you can’t when the content is only three minutes long,” Conde Nast Entertainment President Oren Katzeff told AdAge.
Data show that the entire YouTube audience for Architectural Digest are new recruits who have never even read the magazine, according to Mann.
2. CREATIVITY IN AUDIENCE IDENTIFICATION
Here’s an example of how creativity is working in areas of media where you might not expect it.
Before even brainstorming about story ideas or content packages. The Sacramento Bee brainstormed about audiences.
And even in doing that, they decided to be creative. “Audience” wasn’t the right term.
“I think sometimes we overuse the word audience — what we’re really looking for is: ‘Is there a community here?’” wrote Lauren Gustus, west region editor for McClatchy (owner of the Bee), on Better News, a journalism innovation site.
Gustus and Amy Chance, a Bee senior editor, experimented with identifying and serving specific audiences in an effort to grow digital subscriptions “Our future success will be built around the value people see in our work — and their willingness to pay for it — versus today’s model of diminishing returns for programmatic advertising,” the pair wrote.
The Bee assembled a team of editors and writers to use data to identify potential communities using nine criteria to select and test several target audiences to see which content drives them to become paying digital subscribers.
The Bcc decided to test four communities: State workers (Sacramento is capital of California) , local diners, health care workers, and homeowners or “wannabe” homeowners.
“After identifying communities they could serve better, the newsroom pulled years worth of food and drink coverage analytics to get a baseline of what worked and what didn’t,” Gustus and Chance wrote. For the diners’ community, the data told the team that restaurant reviews were not popular and did not drive paid subscriptions.
The team launched “sprints” lasting six to eight weeks during which the editorial team created a series of stories focused on content relevant to each community to test what drove paid subscriptions. Because the idea behind a “sprint” is speed, the team didn’t pause to do focus groups but instead used a variety of social media and Google Forms to reach out to Sacramento residents asking for direction and feedback
Then they set content goals and aspirational
goals. “A sample sprint goal: We will grow audience by writing at least five high-utility and high-interest food stories a week,” the pair wrote. “And we will know success if we see a 20% increase in page views and a 50% increase in subscriber views, a key metric for us as we look to grow digital subscribers.”
During the sprints, the team measured obsessively and met every week to discuss results and build new story plans.
The Bcc saw 4% growth in digital-only subscribers over four months in early 2019 and the stories also grew subscriber page views by 95%. The success of the sprint w as made plain by the food writer’s standing in the editorial analytics over that period: Bethany Clough, the Bee’s restaurant and retail reporter, was:
• First in the newsroom in direct subscription conversions
• Second in the newsroom in stories that led to a conversion
• First in subscriber page views
• First in page views
Gustus and Chance have advice for other editorial teams looking to be creative in identifying and servicing unique communities:
“Study existing data, build SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Aggressive yet achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound), and jump in on tactics your team thinks can get it there. You need enough content to demonstrate clearly that an audience is or isn’t engaging. Don’t wait too long to set things up and don’t allow for long periods between stories — that all hampers the effort. And meet weekly to review performance and build your plan for the week ahead. Set an end date.
“If you’re successful, plan for how you transition from a sprint to a marathon,” they wrote. “You’ll have the data to demonstrate why your sprint was a success. Sharing those successes with key decision-makers, and the newsroom more broadly, should help you get buy-in you’ll need to make the change stick. We all must be more nimble about shifting beats and coverage areas. This is a low-risk way to determine if your ideas have legs.”
3. CREATIVITY IN AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT
It takes a creative mind to see potential in an almost universally discredited or at least almost universally abandoned tactic: Comments.
Comments had been a powerful driver of engagement and community building, but between the toxic nature of many comments and the unmanageable volume, most media companies long ago shut them down. Publishers decided that the risk of offending readers and the cost of dedicating far too much manpower to managing them wasn’t worth the return.
In looking to drive more engagement and paid subscribers while also reducing churn, two media
companies took a fresh look at comments: Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter and The Wall Street Journal.
Dagens Nyheter abandoned on-site comments several years ago as readers flocked to Facebook in large and increasingly boorish numbers.
“The quality of comments on Facebook has been so terrible, and it’s taken so much time in moderating to make sure people don’t break the rules,” Head of Editorial Development Martin Jonsson told Digiday. “It was becoming more of a burden.”
Two years ago, Dagens Nyheter decided to reinstate comments, but on its own site, not on Facebook where it has cut its posts in half, using the platform for marketing instead.
“The main focus has been on time spent and conversion, but [comments] will help strengthen loyalty and frequency,” Jonsson said. “The most common chum driver is lack of frequency in visits.” Comments drive frequency and loyalty, Jonsson said.
Since reinstating on-site comments, it is getting approximately 25,000 comments per month from subscribers, according to the company.
The goal isn’t to grow the number but the quality, making it a useful place to read as well as contribute, Jonsson said.
Dagens Nyheter converts roughly 2,000 subscribers a week and in May 2019 it had grown 40% year over year. Since 2017, the company has nearly halved its churn rate from 15% to 8%. For readers who have subscribed for more than a year, churn has dropped to 1.2%, according to Jonsson.
At The Wall Street Journal, the editors challenged themselves to revisit comments.
“We looked at ourselves and asked what we were doing about it,” Editor of Newsroom Strategy Louise Story told WhatsNewInPublishing.“\\rere we providing a forum for thoughtful conversation? Were we providing an experience that interested most of our audience? Were we leading by example?”
In late 2018, they decided to conduct a five-month in-depth research study to get a handle on how they could get more readers engaged and involved in constructive commenting.
By April 2019, they had developed a series of changes to the site’s comments strategy, according to Story:
• Comments have been re-labelled as “conversations” to indicate an environment where readers are welcome to share their thoughts.
• Only a select (around 30) news stories and opinion pieces are open for audience commenting and the commenting option is for a limited time. Those stories are clearly marked as being open for conversation.
• Conversations begin with question prompts from reporters who will also occasionally engage directly with readers.
• Only paying readers can join these conversations.
• Meaningful comments are highlighted.
• The project is managed by an Audience Voices & Community newsroom team with an editor, reporters, and multimedia producers.
Both the number of people reading comments and the number of people posting, liking or replying to comments has increased by 5%, according to the Journal. The company also claims the commenters are both younger and more female-skewed.
“Broadly speaking, in the news business, we need to understand what the audience likes to do and reflect that,” Story told Digiday.“You have a public that really likes to participate in the conversation. They are looking for a more thoughtful place. That was the opportunity we saw. We’re increasingly focusing on our members — two-way interaction with our audience — and what that means.”
Story also says the quality of the comments is also getting better.
Since the changes were instituted, the Journal has tweaked its comments strategy even further.
• Lengthened the time that people can comment from 48 hours to four days because print readers were seeing stories that had been published online two days ago and were cut off from commenting.
• Thought-provoking comments are highlighted and shared on the WSJ’s social accounts and in its newsletters (where highlighted comments have had a higher click-through rate than the original story!).
The moderating team (the “audience voice team”) has grown from three part-timers to eight full-time staff since late 2018. Their mission is to scout for interesting and newsworthy stories rather than act as gatekeepers, Story said.
The comments section for each story opened for comments begins with a question from a journalist, which Story said has contributed to the increase in quality.
Story also believes that the Journal’s new practice of highlighting the best comments has contributed to the reduction in comments being flagged as inappropriate.
“That carrot increases the quality,” Story told Digiday. “We’re feeding this back into reporting.
“WE FOUND THAT YOUNG PEOPLE AGE TOYING TO NAVIGATE A DIFFICULT PATH BETWEEN INFORMATION OVERLOAD AND FOMO (FEAR OF MISSING OUT).”Tristan Feme Lead producer for the BBC Internet Research & Future Services team
It is better when we include the audience. Stories that are more interesting and relevant to journalists mean the audience is also more invested and more likely to stay.”
In the summer of 2019, the WSJ started running video and audio posts that displayed conversations. Story described this new tactic as the first step in a concerted campaign to focus on building community between paying members and journalists, and between the members themselves.
4. CREATIVITY IN STORYTELLING PLATFORMS
It’s hard to break a habit.
“News on the internet is largely served up as 500 to 800-word articles — a legacy of newspapers,” wrote Tristan Feme, the lead producer for the BBC Internet Research & Future Services team, on the BBC News Lab blog. “Although the digital article has been enhanced and improved with new technologies, it still works on the assumption that ‘one size fits all’.”
So the BBC R&D team decided to get creative about storytelling platforms.
For almost all of 2019, the R&D team dreamt up and then experimented with almost three dozen options for mobile storytelling beyond that standard 500- to 800-word article. Over 12 months, the four-person team — including a full-time jour-nalist — created 35 workable prototypes. Before 2019 was up, they had activated two new formats in the BBC’s reporting, with more new formats lined up for adoption.
As we’ve mentioned earlier, the most successful creative endeavours begin with discipline, starting with identifying the target audience and creating a team.
“For the first phase of the project we chose to design new story formats for young people — they are digital- and mobile-first and tend to be open to new experiences,” wrote Feme. “They are also a really important but hard-to-reach audience for the BBC so this seemed a good place to start.”
They did their research online and in person and learnt that 18-26 year olds want to:
• Skim, but dig deeper when they’re interested
• Understand complex stories
• Read a story all in one place
• Get help forming opinions
• Have a choice of media that suits context
“We found that young people are trying to navigate a difficult path between information overload and FOMO (fear of missing out),” he wrote. “In general, they wanted a choice on how to consume information. There was an apparent preference for text, but it always depended on their context and the story. Limited mobile data plans, for example, meant video was consumed more at home.”
As the project proceeded, the team also discovered through live testing with members of the audience that “the more playful we made our prototypes, the more engaging our participants found them — even if we didn’t always get the interaction quite right,”he wrote.
After the research phase, Feme assembled a multi-disciplinary team with the key skills to dream up and then create paradigm-busting prototypes; a multimedia journalist from the World Service, a UX designer, a user researcher, and a developer. A “minimum viable BBC” he called it.
To enable the testing of as many ideas as possible, the team created “experience” prototypes. They also limited their scope to only reusing content the BBC already produced so that all they were changing was the format, not demanding the creation of new content.
In what was an amazing use of the “sprint” innovation model (create fast, test fast, fail or suc- ceed fast), the team translated ideas into testable prototypes on a weekly basis, using real news stories, and over eight weeks tested 12 prototypes with 26 members of the target audience.
In evaluating the audience’s reactions, they set the following guidelines (in addition to the list in the beginning of this chapter):
• People can understand and use the format intuitively
• It fits their needs, contexts and technology
• It works at scale
• It enables journalists to tell stories in an efficient and creative way
“Overall we’re looking for formats that are feasible, desirable, meet user needs and are new and innovative,” Feme wrote.
In the first three-month phase of the project, the team’s prototypes were a mix of working web pages, mock-ups and videos. “The ideas ranged from playing atmospheric audio for a story, scrubbable videos, swiping through viewpoints, choosing your format, curations of stories, cinematic introductions and expandable explanations,” he wrote. “Everything was designed for mobile, because that’s what everyone we spoke to used for online news.”
Here are some of those prototypes:
1) Expander — Embedded context
The team took a regular criticism of the BBC to heart: Critics say the BBC too often assumes the reader has in-depth knowledge of every subject, and uses jargon and complex terms in nuanced geo-political stories.
The “Expander” prototype takes the information that can fill those knowledge gaps but hides it within expandable boxes, giving the reader who doesn’t need that information a concise reading experience but also gives another reader the opportunity to get clarity or more information on a topic or term by clicking on a yellow ellipsis icon. Clicking on that icon opens up the additional information (e.g. a profile of a key figure, a dictionary definition or background to an aspect of the story). A blue
“eye” icon indicates additional information that is visual — an image, video or social media embed.
A 22-year-old male member of the prototype testing group said: “1 like that, if you’re unfamiliar with something, it’ll clarify that”.
“It’s simple but effective,” wrote Feme. “This Generation Z audience seems to prefer information in one place — rather than links taking them elsewhere. We think this modular approach could work well for long-form journalism and for topics that need additional explanation like politics or economics.”
2) Incremental — Choose your own format
People are often put off by long articles, especially on their mobile devices. This prototype, “Incremental”, breaks a story into sections and then gives readers the option to consume each section in whichever format they choose: video, short text, long text, or they can choose to just skip that section.
“We made it look a bit message-y to appeal to this audience,” wrote Feme. “Under the hood, it is conceptually object-based and the structured content could be re-used in chat apps or voice interfaces.”
The team found that this prototype was
the favourite among the test group. “We think it could be a kind of long-form by stealth — a way of engaging people put off by long articles or lots of sidebars and related article links “wrote Feme.
Testers said the sub-headings and nuggets of information were easier to absorb, having content in one place was good, and they liked the option to select the length and media type to suit their preference or situation.
“I really like that, the long/short/skip choice,” said a 21-year-old female participant.
3) Viewpoints — Swiping opinions The team’s research into its target audience found that they really want to understand complex topics — the “why” not just the “what”— and as part of that, they want to be exposed to a range of viewpoints to help them form their own opinion.
So this prototype, “Viewpoints”, was designed to provide that background in a native mobile format. It is a series of cards, with the first being a brief overview of the issue, followed by the option to swipe through short videos making the pro and con cases, and ending with a final swipe to a poll.
The team found that the playful interaction
was more effective than the same content presented in linear form, according to Feme.
“That shows you both sides, in video form, and you can obviously decide for yourself and see what other people think as well,” said a 24-year-old male member of the testing panel.
4) Fast Forward — Scrollable video How often do you open a long video and wish you could skim it to see what’s coming and choose the parts you want?
This prototype gives viewers the power to skim the video to the parts they want by showing the text in synchronisation with the video. The prototype also includes a “handle” on the text area to enable viewers to expand it to fill the screen if they prefer reading to watching or vice-versa.
“It tested really well — participants talked about using it to skip to interesting bits or to review something they missed,” wrote Feme. “They found it intuitive to use once they’d discovered the function.”
“You can go back to clarify’, that’s good,” said one 21-year-old tester.
In the second phase of the project, the team focused on 1) tweaking the stories based on each reader’s information needs, and 2) breaking down the newrs into more digestible bits, helping readers grasp the complexity of various current events.
The first idea, tweaking stories based on each reader’s information needs, sounded a lot like “personalisation”, a phase that has come to include ads that stalk you around the internet. The BBC consciously did NOT use that phrase nor seek to do what it has come to mean.
“When we use [the word] personalisation people [think about] about ads following them around the internet,” Feme told the journalism think-tank Nieman Lab. “They’d talk about shopping sites and they felt that that jarred a bit with news, so we just decided to not use the word personalisation, instead adapting the stories to you and get away from those preconceptions.”
The team also decided to focus on the mobile web instead of apps. In designing for Generation Z and lower-income women aged 28-45 — two groups underserved by the BBC — they focused on designing for mobile web and text-based newrs instead of storage-needy apps/data plan-eating video, said Feme.
The second phase resulted in three new prototypes:
This prototype picked up on the goal of the Expander prototype: Accepting the fact that many readers may not have an up-to-date or detailed understanding of the issues. For this prototype, journalists wrote summaries and/or timelines.
Another extension of the Expander mission, this prototype replaces jargon-filled paragraphs with more basic language as well as more background.
Picking up where the Viewpoints prototype left off, the “Perspectives” prototype repackages video clips of people expressing different perspectives (clips that were already created for a long video news report). The prototype puts them into an Instagram Story format, giving users the ability to select to listen to a variety of viewpoints. For the prototype, for example, they could choose to listen to the victim of knife crime, a gang member, a police chief, and/or a DJ.
“They found it made the story feel more objective and less biased than having a single journalist presenting it,” Feme wrote.
5. CREATIVITY IN STORY CONCEPTUALISATION
Here’s a creative editorial idea an algorithm couldn’t possibly have dreamt up. The “Non-Issue Issue” celebrating women over 50.
British Vogue and L’Oreal Paris teamed up in the shared belief that age is a “non-issue.”
“In direct response to women over 50 remaining conspicuous by their absence in the beauty and fashion industries, and the wider media landscape, this issue is dedicated to all the women who feel left behind by the beauty and fashion industries because of their age” British Vogue Editor Edward Enninful told AdAgc.
“As a brand which has always championed and celebrated female empowerment at every age, it felt appropriate for us to join forces with one of the world’s most iconic fashion and beauty publications,British Vogue”L’Oreal Global Brand President Pierre-Emmanuel An-geloglou said. “This [is] hopefully a first step in a global movement that helps us to normalise the subject of ageing.”
Jane Fonda was the cover star and the issue included interviews with Helen Mirren, Isabelle Adjani, make-up artist Val Garland, and others.
6. CREATIVITY IN STORY PRESENTATION
The New York Times left no medium or platform unturned in its monumental package about slavery in the U.S.,“The 1619 Project”.
In marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship, the Times created a three-month effort including:
• A special issue of The New York Times Magazine devoted to slavery’s history and legacy in America featured 17 literary works including essays, poetry, fiction by contemporary black writers
• A visual history of slavery assembled in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture
• Contemporary images accompanying every text piece as a constant reminder that even though slavery was formally abolished more than 150 years ago, its legacy remains insidious
• Hundreds of thousands of extra copies of the magazine and special section distributed free of charge at libraries, museums and schools
• Recurring stories in The Times itself
• A special issue of The New York Times for Kids
• Live events in New York and Washington, D.C.
• Videos of those live events
• An educational curriculum to be distributed to high schools and universities
“The goal of The 1619 Project is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year,” wrote NYTMagazine Editor in Chief Jake Silver-stein. “Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very’ centre of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”
7. CREATIVITY IN LOW-TECH SOLUTIONS
Sometimes creativity involves expensive or at least complicated new technologies necessitating prototypes created by teams of programmers and developers.
But not always.
At Nomay’s Amedia AS, a creative low-tech idea delivered the following results:
• 158% growth in terms of unique users of sports content
• 31% digital subscription growth — from
170.000 to 223,000
• Churn reduction from 10% to below 5%
• Extremely strong viewership numbers (the record was 26,529 viewers in a town with
So what was the low-tech creative idea that drove those impressive results?
Live-streaming local football and other sport matches. Lots of them.
“A full 3,000 matches! Men’s and women’s football. Youth matches and cups. Roughly half football. The rest consisted of hockey, handball, volleyball, basketball. You name it,“wrote EVP Paull Nedregotten on INMA.org. “What started out as a simple and — honestly, quite shaky — experiment has become industrialised.”
“We’ve seen record viewership numbers in- creasing throughout the year, more viewers per match“, and far higher peak viewership numbers than in 2017,” he wrote in early 2019. “We’ve noted matches where almost half the adult population in local towns across Norway have logged in to watch, and, for a local offering in small Norwegian towns, a host of other matches with simply stellar viewership numbers.”
Amedia is now Norway’s largest producer of live sports, according to Nedregotten. As creative as it was, it was really just a logi- cal extension of print era practices: “Amedia’s newspapers have always tried to serve the freshest data from football matches as pos- sible,” wrote Nedregotten. “As recently as the ’80s and ’90s, it was not uncommon for news- papers to tap paper sheets with updated game scores in the windows of their offices, offer- ing a glimpse into the match’s progression for information-thirsty local fans outside.”
The transition to video started in 2010 when the cost of production started going down. Instead of being encumbered by clunky cameras and hundreds of metres of cables and rickety scaffolding, newspapers like Tidens Krav utilised a simple Web cam and the free service Ustream. Amedia jumped into the game with just one camera, a reporter, a laptop, an ethernet cable (and later, wireless SIM-card, and a streaming set-up. “We were getting good at production on a shoestring budget,” Nedregotten wrote. Then came the shift to reader revenue and the sports match streaming service was suddenly a tremendous asset.
“Fast forward to 2015. Amedia had one full year of pivoting to digital subscriptions under its belt, was rapidly heading toward subscrip- tion growth, and all our statistics indicated streaming live sports had the hallmarks of a sleeper hit — with the potential to become huge,” wrote Nedregotten. “In 2017, we pro- duced no less than 1,500 matches. Level Two. Level Three. And youth matches: from week- end-long football cups far away from home, we reached absent parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, friends, and family — a whole different demographic from your regular football fan.
“Solid sports coverage was proving to be an important part of the value delivered to local readers by the digital newspaper subscription, as indeed it had been in print,” Nedregotten wrote. So Amedia signed an exclusive deal with Nor- way’s Football Association to stream 10 match- es per round from the local, Level Three for the full 2015 season. By the end of the season, with 350 streamed matches, Amedia was already the country’s largest producer of live football.
With the pivot to a paid-subscription revenue model in 2014, and the decision to make the streams available only to subscribers, subscription sales climbed steadily upward as did views on the streams, according to Nedregotten. The subscription sales were enhanced by the steady increase in the number of streamed matches and the expansion to youth matches and other sports, “In 2018, we rebranded and redesigned the service under a joint umbrella, Norgessporten (“The Norway Sports”), available under all of our 63 local news sites and one national site, as an integrated part of the newspaper subscription,” wrote Nedregotten. “All matches — even if they are hyper-local — are available to the subscribers of any of our newspapers across the country.”
8. CREATIVITY IN DATA
How do you get journalists to do something they not only don’t like to do, but also are known to pride themselves on NOT even knowing how to do?!
“While journalists once were fond of joking that they got into the field because of an aversion to math, numbers now comprise the foundation for beats as wide ranging as education, the stock market, the Census, and criminal justice,”NTT Digital Storytelling and Training Editor Lindsey Cook wrote on the company blog. “More data is released than ever before — there are nearly 250,000 datasets on data.gov alone — and increasingly, the government, politicians and companies try to twist those numbers to back their own agendas.
“Even with some of the best data and graphics journalists in the business, we identified a challenge: data knowledge wasn’t spread widely among desks in our newsroom and wasn’t filtering into news desks’ daily reporting,” she wrote.
“With more competition than ever, we wanted to empower our reporters to find stories lurking in the hundreds of thousands of databases maintained by governments, academics and think tanks,” wrote Cook. “We wanted to give our reporters the tools and support necessary to incorporate data into their everyday beat reporting, not just in big and ambitious projects.”
So, how did the NYT get its writers to love spreadsheets?
Given the importance of the skill deficit, the Times’s Digital Transition Team decided to invest in training, starting with two pilot programmes and expanding to an intensive boot camp open to reporters on all desks. From early 2018 through mid-2019, The Times trained more than 60 reporters and editors who’ve since gone on to produce dozens of data stories.
The training is not for the faint of heart. “Based in Google Sheets, it starts with beginner skills like sorting, searching and filtering; progresses to pivot tables; and ends with advanced data cleaning skills such as if and then statements and vlookup,” wrote Cook. “Along the way, we discuss data-friendly story structures, data ethics and how to bulletproof data stories.”
The boot camp lasts three weeks with a two-hour session every morning. During each session reporters can work on data-driven stories and apply the skills they’ve learned. To ensure a smooth process, the team also trains each reporter’s editor.
It’s been so successful that “we have two or three times as many sign-ups as we have slots,” wrote Cook. “As a result, we instituted a selection process where reporters are nominated by the leaders of their desks.”
Because The Times recognises that most media companies don’t have the resources to create the resources needed to run a data reporting boot camp, they have shared their materials so professionals as well as students and professors can use them.
What’s in the packet?
Training Information: A list of skills included in the training, both technical and things like data ethics, as well as the schedule from the last round of training (“core skills”, “practice” to apply those skills, and “story sessions” with reporters applying the skills to current stories).
Data Sets: Data sets and worksheet activities from practice sessions organised into three difficulty levels.
Cheat Sheets: Intended as reference materials for reporters covering each core skill they teach. Since the training is in Google Sheets, the technical prompts are for that programme.
Tip Sheets: A collection of the more random and non-technical skills the course covers, such as how to bulletproof your work, how to brainstorm with data and how to think creatively while writing with data.