In the 2014 Atkinson Lecture, David Skok, digital adviser to the editor at the Boston Globe, explains why the death of the homepage is good for digital journalism.

In the 2014 Atkinson Lecture, David Skok, digital adviser to the editor at the Boston Globe, explains why the death of the homepage is good for digital journalism. Read the accompanying live blog here and watch the livestream, courtesy of the Ryerson School of Journalism. below. 

By David Skok

Thanks so much and welcome. It is my distinct honour to be back at Ryerson University, the place where I solidified and refined my passion for journalism. It is an even greater privilege to stand before a new generation of journalism graduates-to-be. I’ll speak for about 20 minutes and leave lots of time for your questions and comments.

It’s great to be in this beautiful new space. This may have been a parking lot or a gas station when I was a student here. I can vividly recall my time across the street in the Rogers building and what was going through my mind in those early days of my professional career. My first love was broadcasting and so I had only one intention: to be involved in television news.

I’ve taken many turns since then, from radio to broadcast and from digital to print. I’ve been so fortunate to be at the tip of the spear of new story forms, from my time at a now-defunct radio station in Toronto to my decade of service in both broadcast and digital at Global News, where I helped to launch Globalnews.ca.


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I’m now living in Boston, where I’ve recently taken on the title of digital adviser to the editor at the Boston Globe, overseeing the digital editorial strategy for Boston.com—the free site—and BostonGlobe.com—the site associated with the newspaper and its sister sites, which are online verticals that I’ll tell you more about a little later. In my role I also get to help shape cultural change within the newsroom and in the product, design and development teams at the Globe.

As you are no doubt already aware, you have embarked on your calling during a time of immense change, with new technologies disrupting business models and resulting in once-mighty news institutions tackling revenue challenges with cost-cutting measures. One thing that I’m grateful for is that from my time in broadcasting through to digital, I’ve lived through the early days of these changes.

But, I didn’t really have a chance to step back and think through these shifts and the implications they are having on journalism until two years ago when I did a Nieman Fellowship and published a paper called “Breaking News” with Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. Clay is widely hailed as the foremost innovation expert across Silicon Valley and beyond. His theories have been incredibly influential on, among others, Steve Jobs and Michael Bloomberg. Working with Clay gave me a great framework for how to approach the next phase of my career, some of which I was able to put into practice at Global News and again in my current job.

We already know that how we distribute the news has changed. But we are only now beginning to understand how our audience’s habits have been changed as well. By understanding more about how our audiences consume news and information, we can better structure our newsrooms and our stories for what the audience wants.

Any by that, I don’t mean pandering to our audiences with cat videos and Justin Bieber stories 24/7. There is a portion of the Internet that has that market covered! I’m talking about how we can serve an audience that wants a critical take on current affairs and serious news and information.

During my time as a student here, I was afforded the privilege of doing an internship at ABC News Nightline in Washington, DC. I had fallen in love with Nightline while I was in high school when, as a South African emigrant, I watched Ted Koppel interview Nelson Mandela in one of his first interviews after being released from 27 years in prison.

Nightline was a critical, reflective look at the news of the day.  From the Middle East to South Africa to race relations in U.S. prisons, I considered the nightly news broadcast appointment television and I wasn’t alone.

At 11:35 pm every weeknight, millions of viewers would make a point of tuning in live. We didn’t have PVR, and even if you did tape record the program, by the time you watched it, you would already have missed the news.

This was the heyday of news consumption from a publisher’s point of view.

If you wanted to read about the Middle East, you would read the New York Times. If you wanted to follow the Blue Jays winning back-to-back World Series, you’d read the Toronto Star. And if you wanted to get the results of the Quebec referendum, you watched The National on CBC. If you wanted to find out the news, you sought it out.

Well, the times, how they have changed.

The voice-of-god anchor and the editorial board political endorsement have been replaced by the Twitter stream, push notifications and email alerts. In organization after organization, we now hear from our readers, viewers and users of all ages that, “if the news is important, it will find us.”

Just last week, the Media Insight Project released a study that shows just how much news consumption habits have changed.

The average American adult uses four different devices or technologies for their news consumption every week. Pick your poison: TV, radio, mobile, desktop, tablet or streaming media. 

Of course, with these devices they’re relying on multiple sources, not just their daily newspaper and the nightly news.

The report’s authors were unambiguous in their choice of words: “Our findings suggest that some long-held beliefs about people relying on just a few primary sources for news are now obsolete.”

Digital journalism is not immune to these challenges. It used to be that we could rely on the bookmark and the saved favourites on the Internet browser to drive daily, ritualistic audiences to our homepages.

It wasn’t uncommon to see news websites with as much as 85 per cent of all traffic originating through the homepage. The 70-30 rule has always been the gold standard for traditional news organizations. But, as a recent study by Chartbeat analytics confirms, digital native websites get only 30 per cent of traffic coming through the homepage, with 70 per cent coming through search and social.

These digital native sites have flipped traffic patterns on their head, and as a result, they have figured out that the key to growing audiences is not by focusing on the homepage, but rather, by focusing on the side-doors that bring readers to your content.

Ultimately, we are in the business of making sure that our stories are read by the largest amount of people needed to invoke change or measureable impact.

So, how can we do that in broadcasting when we no longer have appointment viewing? How can we do that in print when we no longer have the circulation to rely on? Or, in my case, how can we achieve that impact when we no longer have the homepage to rely on?

I would propose that we’ve entered the age of “organic journalism,” where every story is a homepage, every beat is a site and every author is a brand. And where our goal as journalists is not just to write and produce stories, but also to curate topics and build communities around our areas of shared interest.

PART I

Let’s start with the story form itself.

If we accept that the homepage is diminishing in value, then that would mean that, by extension, every story has become its own homepage.

It’s quite simple really. Nothing matters more than the story experience because, ultimately, it’s what will define your site.  

This past weekend, we at the Boston Globe published an investigation that took months to report on the troubled past of the son of long-time Red Sox announcer Jerry Remy. This is a big story in Boston, where the Red Sox are treated like royalty. Our investigation revealed that Remy’s son, Jared, had terrorized five different girlfriends beginning when he was 17 years old and that the courts repeatedly let him off with little more than probation. Jared is now in jail charged with allegedly murdering his then-girlfriend last August.

The industry standard for quality engaged time spent on an article is roughly 60 seconds. The average time spent on a story is closer to 30 seconds.

In the hours following the publication of the Jared Remy story, our users spent more than five and a half minutes reading the article, interacting with the associated timeline and watching the video report that accompanied the piece.

Why did they do this?

Two reasons:

  1. Because the report was powerful, gripping and accurate.  It was high-quality investigative journalism at its finest.
  1. Because at the most basic level, the story actually was able to load onto the page and serve up the relevant items to the user in a reasonable amount of time and with a positive user-experience.

Organic journalism means taking a story-centric approach to every decision that you make both at the journalism and the product level.

Ask yourself: if I, David, were coming to your page and only this page, what could you do to keep me sticking around, interacting with your content?

If you’re a print journalist, bring a camera and shoot some video. If you’re a broadcast journalist, learn how to build an interactive timeline.

Having said that, don’t fall in love with one platform or one tool. Data journalists tend to fall in love with their data.  Developers fall in love with their code. Reporters fall in love with their words.

When gathering the elements for your stories, be mindful of your own biases and stick to the core question: what’s the best way to serve the reader’s experience in understanding the story?

This also goes for the development and design of the website. What was once the domain of product and development teams has now become a critical part of what we do as journalists.

As the young political commentator Ezra Klein, who runs the popular site WonkBlog, pointed out when he left the Washington Post to join Vox Media, for today’s journalists, the content management systems we build matter just as much as the stories we write. 

WordPress now powers almost one-third of the Internet and has become so popular because it provides a digital native, story-centric approach to content production.

If every story is a homepage, it means that both the journalism and the user experience at the story level need to be good enough for your audience to engage with your content.

PART 2

If the homepage is dead, it also means that every section front now needs to stand on its own, independent of the main brand. Why is that?

Here’s the dirty little secret that we don’t like to admit: When that Saturday Globe and Mail or Toronto Star lands on your doorstep, it is filled with goodies that most people will never read. 

Think back to when you were younger. Perhaps your mom would read the news section, your dad would read the ideas section and your little brother would grab the sports section. But very few members of the family would read the entire printed newspaper from A1 to G8.

This used to be “good enough” for our readers because they didn’t have any other options. 

But with the Internet and now mobile, there are cheaper, faster and “good enough” options that are far more efficient for the reader than waiting for the Saturday paper to arrive.

When disruption occurs, what it means is that we’ve overshot the needs of the consumer and have made ourselves vulnerable at the bottom of the market to new disruptors who can come in and pick off our business units one by one.

So, instead of waiting for the Saturday paper to arrive, your mom has already read the news of the day by scanning her Facebook page. Your dad has gotten his ideas fix by reading leading opinion makers on Twitter. And your little brother has gotten his Leafs fix by scanning Bleaching Report.

The only way to fight off these disruptors is to create your own version of these niche verticals so that you, too, can grow an audience in specific areas.

At the Boston Globe, we recently launched a new tech vertical called BetaBoston. It’s one of our sister sites that is focused on the vibrant startup scene around MIT and the Seaport District, an area that rivals the incubator scene of New York City and Silicon Valley.

The fascinating and rewarding element of BetaBoston’s coverage is that even though we are willing to cannibalize the Globe’s audience, what we’re seeing is that the crossover readership between the two properties is relatively small.

Two weeks ago, we had a story that ran on page one in the print edition of the Globe written by the BetaBoston team that was picked up by Digg, Reddit, TechCrunch and others. If I were to draw a Venn diagram showing the amount of readership that read the BetaBoston story in the Boston Globe and BetaBoston, the intersection would have been minimal.

By focusing on BetaBoston as its own tech beat vertical site, we are, in fact, growing our overall visibility and readership.

We are looking at launching additional verticals that are of Boston but necessarily from Boston. By that I mean that the goal of these verticals is to grow our overall readership across the country and around the world, not necessarily focusing on in-market audiences who will continue to find this quality reporting in the Globe as well.

Another important part of treating every beat as a site is that curation becomes critical.

We are not arrogant enough to assume that we can be the only voice on tech culture in Boston. Internet ethos is based on the idea of reciprocal links and aggregation. There are millions of websites out there; our job as the voice of tech that is of Boston is to curate those links and provide the portal for one-stop shopping.

The same applies to our free news portal site, Boston.com. If our major in-market competitor has an exclusive story, we will link to that story. If we create a daily newsletter, we will include the best round-up of links related to our beat on the web. If we have a columnist, that columnist will include what she is reading as part of her columns.

The value proposition changes when we consider the beat as its own site and not a sub-brand of the homepage.

PART 3

The third piece of the organic journalism puzzle is the reporter, herself.

I recently heard a best-selling author give a talk about the publishing process. Aside from printing the book and dropping it off at bookstores nationwide, the publishing company that she had signed with had left her with virtually no plan for how it was going to sell her book. So it should come as no surprise, then, that the book wasn’t selling.

This author’s singular focus was on getting her book promotion and publicity. She booked her own events, pleaded with reviewers to write about it and organized her own media events. Finally, after almost two years, her efforts began to pay off. That author was Rebecca Skloot and her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has now been on the New York Times bestseller list for 155 consecutive weeks.

That is the reality of the publishing industry today. At first glance, this sounds like a nuisance for the author, but here’s the thing: nobody understood the subject material better than Rebecca did, and as a result, nobody knew which networks she could target that would care about her book better than she could.

Like authors, journalists need to cultivate their own brands by building communities around their area of interest. This will drive loyalty and, ultimately, readership.

Along with having a very high engagement time, the story on Jared Remy that we published this past weekend received most of its traffic through social media and incoming links from other digital publishers.

Today’s journalists need to understand that if every author is a brand, that means your work is only half done once you publish your story. It is incumbent on the reporter to market their own material by cultivating influencers in their subject area and to build relationships with niche publications that can drive traffic back to their stories.

It’s important to emphasize that this isn’t about simply “broadcasting” a link on Twitter. It’s about cultivating a community and building a network.

FiveThirtyEight’s founder and data journalist, Nate Silver, political blogger, Andrew Sullivan, and the aforementioned  Ezra Klein are some obvious examples from the U.S. Andrew Coyne, on Canadian politics, and Bruce Arthur, on sports, come to mind as two Canadian journalists who have effectively built their own communities by engaging in a conversation with their audiences. It is, after all, called, “social media” for a reason.

If you can foster this relationship, then your audience will read the story because they trust you and feel a loyalty to your brand. 

CONCLUSION

You’ll notice that throughout this lecture, I’ve interspersed print, digital and broadcasting metaphors. This is intentional.

As you embark on your journalism careers, it’s important to focus on the job of being a journalist in whatever form that takes. Don’t get hung up on the platform, the byline or the signoff. Those are all byproducts. 

Nothing matters more than the story, its relevance and the community that can be built around it.

People may not come to us anymore to find the news, but if we are able to focus on the journalism, provide a sharp focus and build a community around our journalists, then we will find them.

Ultimately, that will bring us closer to what remains our mission: generating an audience for our reporting that allows us to have a positive impact in our communities.

This is what drives me and—I hope drive all of you—to remain curious, question authority and always be fair in your reporting.

Thank you to the entire Ryerson journalism faculty for inviting me here today. A special thank you to Ivor Shapiro, Marsha Barber and Jaclyn Mica for organizing this event. It truly is an honour to be invited.

With that, I’ll be happy to take your questions.


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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.