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Q&A with news expert Esra Doğramaci: how newsrooms are finding their digital identity

We talk to an expert from Deutsche Welle, BBC, Al Jazeera, and the UN about how newsrooms are mastering the transformation to digital, and the areas still left to optimize.

How are newsrooms rising up to face the challenges of going digital? Esra Doğramaci has some answers. As the senior editor of digital at Deutsche Welle, Esra has vast global experience in digital transformation, fueled by her previous roles at the BBC and Al Jazeera. In her time in the U.K., Esra taught a masters program at City University of London, teaching aspiring journalists about social capital, strategy, and analytics.

We’ve previously featured Esra before, when we looked at how leading newsrooms are experimenting with social video on different platforms. Esra was a unique voice out of the bunch, advocating publishers not to blindly follow what everyone else is doing.

Today, she joins us on the NewsWhip blog to share more of her wisdom. We chat to Esra about how newsrooms are embracing the evolving social landscape, using analytics to optimise content and find their identity, and making sure no one on the team gets left behind.

 

Can you tell us about your role right now?

 

Esra: I’m senior editor for digital at DW, Germany’s public broadcaster which operates in 30 languages. I work in a digital capacity and a lot of the things I do here are about transformation.

The role is not very typical in the sense of delivering a specific piece of content or output, rather you define it. That includes social media, video, digital partnerships, innovation as well as increasing visibility.

When it comes to digital, there are organizations ranging from ahead of the curve to those catching up. To achieve success at any stage, you need to have the best tools in the house, digital literacy, the right team, leadership who supports you (and gives you cover), and go from there. One of the things I love from working in the digital space is the near instant feedback on what you’re doing, meaning analytics. That’s not something you can do with newspapers or even respond so quickly with TV or radio mediums.

 

What’s it like being at a German publisher after BBC and Al Jazeera?

 

Very similar in the sense that all three are significant public broadcasters anchored in TV and all at different stages of the digital journey. The first thing is setting the right foundation: making sure we have the right products and tools in house, that people are trained up, using analytics in editorial decision making and looking for opportunities.

A common complaint you’ll hear everywhere is ‘I don’t have time for this, I can’t include something new into my workflow.’ However what usually ends up happening is by investing in digital, certain processes can be automated and optimised and by doing that you’ll highlight areas of efficiency, and those extra resources and energy can be better invested into other areas including better video, data and visual journalism. It’s true for all broadcasters and publishers, not just DW.

You also see patterns common to legacy media houses and traditional broadcasters who prioritise digital. The landscape continues to change at a rapid pace, so you need to ensure you’re bringing everyone with you on the digital journey instead of an elite team of digital people leaving the majority behind. Monopolies of knowledge like that are never a guarantee for success.

In this case the more chefs you have at the table, the more interesting concoctions you come up with — you have greater latitude for experimentation, different insights and moving forward, usually with much less risk than if you were trying similar experiments on TV or radio. Digital propels that creativity and variation.

 

What would you suggest to other newsrooms looking to start using social analytics?

 

Don’t overwhelm everyone with everything at the same time. Start with what is already available — typically these are YouTube analytics, Facebook insights, Instagram analytics and Twitter analytics. They’re free, very user friendly and there’s no excuse not to have them.

Secondly, don’t assume the TV output process applies to digital — the constant output of stories is akin to spam on various platforms. Instead, take the time to understand what works. Our Russian YouTube channel went from publishing 7-8 videos per day down to 1-2 and by doing so tripled their watch-time. They did this because of getting to know their numbers, understood why their audience was coming to that platform and able to build a regular offering there.

Similarly, something we did with the YouTube team at the BBC and have started here at DW is to ensure that whoever uploads a video to YouTube is responsible for the Content ID (YouTube’s internal copyright mechanism) as well as becoming certified on the platform — in audience development, rights management and analytics. It means that the knowledge cascades and you start to develop a group of people with specialisation in a set of skills that can then be transferred to other people and other tools. So, if you are uploading or creating content for any of these platforms, it’s to your advantage to be versed in the numbers.

Knowing the right metrics is important. A lot of analytics tools are geared towards marketers/marketing which is great for counting eyeballs but don’t suit audience development or content optimisation in newsrooms at all. I began following NewsWhip on Twitter a few years ago, and in times since, when I was teaching at City University, I would flag [Newship] to my students simply because they were comparing specific and actionable right metrics (engagement and interaction rates for instance), versus what we call the vanity or PR numbers on things like reach, clicks or impressions. They look good on aggregate though of limited value when you’re developing content and optimising your social media/digital operation.

 

Is there resistance against using social analytics?

 

You’re always going to find resistance. Digital hasn’t been around that long compared to print, TV or radio and the vast majority of people in journalism will have that traditional background. Despite social still being considered the shiny new thing in town, and typically used by people under the age of 35, digital and in particular social media will have resistance from those who just won’t buy into it, take it seriously or apply old thinking to something where old thinking doesn’t work so well (such as seeing social as the modern day variant of ads to newspapers).

A good example is Al Jazeera six years ago. Then, the wider news operation didn’t seem to take our new media team seriously, people thought we were tweeting and watching cat videos all day long. Now two things have happened; the new media team no longer exists as the social/digital function has been absorbed by the newsroom, and as a result, publishing on these platforms is now a must whereas it previously was dismissed as peripheral. Now everyone is jumping to do a Facebook live, go to a YouTube event or be on Instagram. That enthusiasm wasn’t there six years ago. There is a greater awareness of the importance of the digital landscape, because of the sheer growth and numbers, and naturally, news folks want to be part of it.

 

So what does this understanding look like now? Do publishers get it?

 

There’s been a slight change in the conversation. Up until a few years ago it seemed everyone was looking over their shoulders and copying or aspiring to BuzzFeed, Vice or AJ+. Now you see brands focusing more on what their USP is, and in doing so, thrive. A good example is the New York Times. They push out a lot of links, which is normal for a newspaper on digital. However they also publish videos on Facebook, not too many, and not really following any of the rules around social video such as working without sound, square, captions, 60-90 seconds and so on. What they’ve done is come up with a way of publishing content that is guaranteed to perform and I’m guessing they know that because they know their audience, they know their numbers.

The same can be said of Channel 4 News, they don’t overproduce video or turn every story into a video. They pick those that emotionally resonate with their audience and by doing that can take hard news content and translate into something which works incredibly well on social.

Another one is the World Economic Forum. Their audience are typically identified as people in the global elite, age 55 and above, and unlikely to be on digital or social platforms. However, a few years ago, they brought people on board who took a staple of the WEF — data heavy dense reports and translate them into social videos which a completely new, younger audience could understand, access on platforms they were on and the result is reaching new audiences.

The WEF was not a player in the digital space at all, yet they’ve been able to repackage their data into content in a way that is accessible and consumable.

You do still see publishers struggling. The Reuters Institute put out a digital video report in 2016 showing that there’s an over-saturation of video, and text still matters. Despite this, video continues to be pumped out by publishers with too often a cookie-cutter approach.

 

Can you tell us more about the shift to individual brands?

 

Organisationally, you should know what you stand for and what you want to achieve. I love that on the back of the BBC ID card, it lists its values, the first of which is “Audiences are at the heart of everything we do.” That’s where we have to begin, knowing your audience. Al Jazeera fetes itself for being the voice of the voiceless and covering the global south – they do stories in a context that you’re not going to see elsewhere and they have a very different perspective for it. CNN will offer world news from a U.S. perspective, just as the BBC does from a British perspective.

Your audience will come to you because of what your unique offering is, not because you’re being inauthentic or trying so hard to fit in. I’m seeing a lot of legacy media companies getting a little too excited with emoji’s in updates in an attempt to ‘get down’ with a younger audience. They often come across as inauthentic, and audiences see through that.

Besides knowing who you are and what you are good at, it’s also about finding opportunities and experimenting. I’m really interested to see what NBC’s Left Field — a digital studio established by NBC this year, is going to be doing.

 

With so many users not remembering the source of what they read on social, how can a brand get remembered?

 

By being authentic and unique. A great example is what DW Business is doing with ‘Dress Code.’ Business audiences are typically skewed towards older males with financially dense stories which don’t really resonate with a younger, social media audience. However the team at DW went for something so obvious yet so different. They’ve created a set of fun, shareable social videos, that stray from a typical business narrative, with a series based on fashion do’s and faux pas. They’ve become the most popular set of videos the Business unit produces for social platforms, done with the usual flair and perfect delivery by presenter Gerhard Elfers, with an underlying message that quality and seriousness matters.

That kind of content stands out in a sea of typical business reports, lends itself to being shared, watched beyond a few seconds, all ingredients in formulas for success.

As a brand, do know what you are delivering on each platform or are you putting the same thing everywhere without any platform proposition or strategy? Again it comes down to knowing your audience and spotting opportunity. The key metrics to pay attention to here are interaction rates, retention rates and active subscriber numbers. That shows you the level of engagement your audience has. If you can lift those numbers by taking the data and apply it alongside your content to see whats work, what can be saved and what can be cut, you’ll have a much better content offer, your audience will thank you for it, share, and thats how you get remembered.

 

What do you think of the current trend of publishers breaking out into niches on social, like NowThis and VICE?

 

I wouldn’t encourage breaking out unless you have a substantial following. Doing otherwise does risk diluting your brand. However, taking calculated risks is a good thing — you may discover that the mini brand is actually strong enough to stand on its own. We have an example of this — longer form and feature content was the best performing content type on our DW News YouTube channel, and branched off into their own DW Documentary channel.

We’ve seen 200-800% growth on various metrics in less than two quarters which demonstrate that there is a separate appetite for the DW documentaries versus a channel that combines both short news pieces and long form.

The overall goal is to create an engaged audience. It used to be about aggregate numbers, now it’s about how long your audience is staying with you — how far down are they reading, how long are they watching. Those kinds of insights feed right back into content strategy. News media has been contracting for some time – there’s less and less resource, especially for local publishers. So if you’re spending resources putting TV packages together, you don’t necessarily want to do something completely different for social. You can however figure the way you’re covering a story — for instance perhaps your audience doesn’t watch or read agency type news packages but does stick around when there is a face explaining the same story. Those kind of numbers are constructive again and can be fed into strategy.

 

One new way is that brands are taking these social media experiences offline and becoming more transparent, right?

 

Yes, exactly. Monocle magazine doesn’t do much on social media, though they do make an effort to meet and engage with their audience. They arrange a handful of meet-ups around the world and in July hosted their quality of life conference in Berlin, where readers could meet the editors and contributors in person. That kind of offline engagement creates brand loyalty; subscription fees buy you something more than the magazine, and you become part of that group.

Another publisher in Germany, Taggeschau, were being trolled on their social accounts. They offered a Facebook Live where their audience could ask editors any questions. Of course, the trolls didn’t show up. It was however an opportunity to connect with others and lift the veil that we sometimes have between the newsroom and the audience.

These kind of examples are important particularly in the current environment where media is under extra scrutiny from various political sections or perceived failure of having covered issues effectively. The media outlets that do well, are the ones who step back and answer those basic questions — who are we, what are we about, who is our audience and what can we do better? Those digital numbers can definitely be a starting point in this relationship.

 

This seems like a break from traditional publishing. Before, we spoke to our audience, now we have a relationship with them. What are your thoughts?

 

It’s stunning that people are still talking about this, because it was a point of discussion five to seven years ago already. It’s no longer one way, top down approach, the audience does expect to be served, at least digitally. A relationship now is much more than moderating comments, which in the digital scheme of things is somewhat outdated- a lot of these social companies have filters to weed out certain types of speech and algorithms surface comments.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times is known to personally go answer questions when an article of his is published on the New York Times Facebook page. That’s another level of engagement and transparency. Al Jazeera English’s The Stream routinely sources stories and content by talking to their audience on various social platforms. Tools like Hearken are literally listening to the audience and letting newsrooms not just dictate what’s on the editorial agenda, but listen to what the audience is interested in as well and use that collective intelligence in covering stories.

 

Thanks a million, Esra! Being authentic, willing to experiment, and staying aware of meaningful metrics are integral for succeeding in the digital age. For a look into your own newsroom’s analytics and top engaging posts, try a free demo of NewsWhip Spike