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Evolving the digital newsroom

Published in Nov-Dec 2019

Digital newsrooms in Pakistan are stagnating from a lack of innovative approaches, writes Shaheryar Popalzai

Digital news in Pakistan has hit a stagnation point. Although there has been a boom in terms of new platforms and audiences growing in the last five years, it is still a case of same old, same old when it comes to content, workflows and really understanding our audience.

News teams continue to focus on social media just to push content, use the wrong analytics and publish stories and videos that every competitor carries (e.g. CCTV footage of a crime taking place with a news organisation’s logo watermarked without context). Revenue models are where they were eight to 10 years ago, and there is little innovation when it comes to internal workflows or how audiences experience the content. What is under the hood is as important as what the audience sees. How can a platform that is as fast moving as television, and has low employee retention rates and ancient (at least at the pace at which we are moving) tech stacks evolve?

Let’s start by fixing journalism training

This is where a real difference can be made. The current curriculum is in need of a major overhaul. People aspiring to enter journalism need to be better prepared both in terms of the platforms they are using and in terms of their jobs. Under the current curriculum, students enter newsrooms with stale ideas and old-school workflows. Universities need to think beyond editing stories and making videos. Students need to be taught what digital-first means and acquire the skill sets that will make them the ultimate power players in the newsroom. Design, data analytics and coding are as important as all the other areas that define the digital news experience. Most new hires entering the newsroom will only be taught how to work the CMS that their organisations work on and receive little to no training on other technologies and platforms. If we can help them understand how to engage audiences better, harness the power of analytics to tell better stories and produce visually appealing content, we will be injecting fresh blood in the newsroom. The old guard is stuck in its ways, but the new generation does not have to endure these ways.

Lack of fact checking and reliance on news agencies

The spread of mis/disinformation is a massive problem. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are major contributing factors, and with closed platforms such as WhatsApp it has become even harder to trace the original source of the news. Fact checking continues to take a backseat when it comes to prioritising content and reporters continue to fall victim to ‘fake news’ that finds its way on social media platforms. Journalists need to go through extensive training programmes on how to identify and counter mis/disinformation. This will improve the credibility of an organisation and help engagement. You will end up having much needed content but which nobody is carrying. If you can’t find a local organisation to help with this kind of training (there aren’t any in Pakistan), look online. There is plenty of training material available with First Draft News and other investigative teams like Bellingcat. Collaboration is an important part of this; partner with specialised organisations to help with fact checking if your newsroom cannot afford to dedicate resources.

Smash that silo

When they launched their websites, newsrooms made the mistake of separating their digital teams from core functioning units like TV and print and now they are stuck with that model. Digital news teams work in isolation, away from the main editorial teams and with little contact with reporters. What does this mean? Instead of digital-first we have teams taking the lead from television and print. It is time to break the silos and integrate digital teams with the newsroom and open access to reporting pools. This will help in gathering exclusive and contextual content. Most Pakistani news organisations work on multiple platforms and bringing them together will help with content and improved workflows as well as reduce wastage of resources. Reporters should file only once and their stories should be picked up by all platforms; this will enable reporters to focus on other stories instead of working on the same story in an eight hour cycle. All team leads should sit down with each other and identify where they can work together and plug the trouble areas. Working together also helps all platform teams understand how to work better.

C.R.E.A.M. (Content Rules Everything Around Me)

Although an improved tech stack and streamlined workflows will reduce resource wastage, a news organisation is nothing without content. Take a step back and revisit what you publish and what your competitors are doing. Homepages for news sites run the same stories, written in the same way with the same information. Think about how you can add value so that your readers visit the site. Remember most people get their information from social media and will most likely bounce off your website if there is nothing new. Breaking news is ‘broken’ and the only way we can win this fight is by improving the content. It is also important for news organisations to play to their strengths and not emulate each other when it comes to content and how it is presented.

What is under the hood is as important as what readers see

When was the last time your CMS (content management system) made an internal change? We keep changing website layouts and improving design, but what the teams have to work with is pretty basic when it comes to the CMSs used in newsrooms. Think about automating processes and reducing as many layers as possible. Take, for example, how reporters file. If your CMS can manage content for all platforms and have one click publishing, you can push out content to all platforms and much faster. This will save reporters time, who in the current scenario have to send stories to TV, print and digital separately. Is your analytics dashboard integrated in your CMS? The newsroom needs easy and faster access to analytics to better understand and cater to the audience. Are you able to plan, publish and analyse social media content from within your CMS? Think about how much time you can save by doing just that as you prepare to publish a story.

Digital roles are no longer the same

Digital teams must evolve as quickly as the new technologies that are coming in. And we are not prepared for it. Newsrooms are structured in the same way as they were 10 years ago; there is a manager, sub-editors, some video resources and social media resources. Even these roles have evolved into more complex job descriptions. Your news desk staff should either include designers and developers or people who understand how to work with these disciplines more efficiently. Designers and developers can help you plan content better and present it in multiple ways. The news team needs to know how to read analytics better. Real-time numbers are okay for a short-term burst but they do not help in long-term planning. Understand what page views really mean; does your team read time spent and bounce rate and take action accordingly? One role that has not evolved is that of the social media editors. They are still limited to creating image shares and publishing them on the relevant platforms. We should look to social media managers as community managers who are continuously listening, learning and building audiences.

Social media is no longer a one way street

Readers are sharing your content and commenting. Listen and talk to them so that you can provide them with content they need. Your website’s comment section is a goldmine for listening. Use social media platforms to push audiences to your website. We need to scale up social media monitoring. There are multiple Facebook pages and Twitter accounts that publish hyper-local citizen reports; get in on these but do it right. Don’t just publish CCTV footage for example on your page; readers want to know what happened, where and why. Tools like Krzana and Dataminr are on the pricier side but super helpful when it comes to social media monitoring.

Think of alternate revenue models

Ads and sponsored content can no longer sustain you or help you grow. A good place to start is by thinking of the different platforms most used in the Pakistani internet space and tapping into them for monetising. Are you experimenting with messaging apps to give readers’ exclusive or contextual content and monetising it? That is the lowest hanging fruit available right now.

Shaheryar Popalzai is a digital strategy consultant at The Dawn Media Group.