Friday Five: #highered takeaways from the New York Times innovation team

Nytimes_hqSince the advent of the online era, The New York Times has been a leader in digital journalism and multimedia storytelling.

Yet, as the recently leaked report from the Times’ newsroom innovation team points out, the organization is struggling — just like the rest of us — to find the ideal approach for reaching new audiences and developing the products and delivery methods that best meet the needs of these new audiences.

On Thursday, the Nieman Journalism Lab posted an in-depth look at the innovation team’s soul-searching report. As I read through the Nieman post last night, then skimmed the actual report this morning, I was struck by some of the similarities between The New York Times‘ struggles and those we face in the higher ed content creation and marketing business. Our challenges may not scale to the Times‘ level, but neither do our resources for creating content. But the Times’ struggles are our struggles. We could find some valuable insights from the newsroom innovation team report that apply to our web, PR, branding or marketing offices.

1. Reconsider the home page

The number of visitors to the New York Times home page has been shrinking. Fewer readers go there to start their journey into the Timescontent. More readers are finding their way to the content they’re interested in from other sources.

Isn’t that also the case with much of our content? Earlier this week, I was looking at Google analytics data regarding one particular news release that was posted on our university’s news site but also linked prominently from our home page. We posted that news release on our Facebook page on Tuesday. The analytics showed that, for that particular day, 89 percent of the 6,000-plus visits to that bit of content came by way of that Facebook post. The other 11 percent of visitors found it through various other sources, including the home page.

The home page problem is probably a thousand times more problematic for a college or university, because it’s supposedly the most visible bit of digital turf in a .edu’s online presence. But what does the data show? How are people finding our content? (Not only news content or storytelling content, but information for prospective students, donors, research partners and myriad other audiences?) Is the home page really the online “front door” of the university when social media has provided so many other pathways.

Maybe it’s time we rethink the purpose of the home page.

2. Experiment more

Nieman picked up on the point that someone not affiliated with the Times created a flipboard magazine of the Times’ best obits from 2013 “on a whim.” that product “became the best-read collection ever on Flipboard. Why wasn’t the Times doing stuff like that on its own platforms, the report wondered.”

The Times‘ rigid approach to reporting and adherence to style and standards sometimes gets in the way of experimenting with new forms of digital storytelling. (Even though the Times remains a paragon of digital storytelling, in my opinion.) “We must push back against our perfectionist impulses,” the innovation team report says. “Though our journalism always needs to be polished, our other efforts can have some rough edges as we look for new ways to reach our readers.”

How about us, higher ed? Are we willing to experiment with new forms of sharing and packaging our content for the audiences we’re trying to reach? Many of us are using tools like Storify to weave together a new approach. But we could be experimenting more.

3. Repackage and reuse

People in the news business can become so obsessed with the “new” that they forget some of their best stories from the past can be repackaged and reused. The idea of the “evergreen” story (one that is not time-sensitive and can run anytime) is nothing new to journalism. But once something runs once, we (those in the news business and those of us in higher ed content marketing) tend to relegate it to the archives.

How open are we in higher ed to reusing and repackaging our previously published content?

4. Tagging our content

“The Times is woefully behind in its tagging and structured data practices,” Nieman reports. It took them seven years after 9/11 to start tagging those stories appropriately. “We never made a tag for Benghazi,” said one team member, “and I wish we had because the story just won’t die.” The report mentions the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal as two news organizations that do tagging well.

How well are we in higher ed tagging our content? The better we tag, the easier we make it for people to find what they’re looking for, and the better those stories fare in online searches.

5. Archive marketing 

We talk a lot about content marketing. What about marketing our archives of content?

The Times has 14.7 million articles in its archives dating back to 1851. Yet the Times left it to Gawker to dig up a 161-year old article relevant to the release of 12 Years A Slave. The Times needs to do a better job of resurfacing its archived content when relevant.

In higher ed, we may not benefit from such a trove of content. But we should think about our archived news releases, magazine articles, yearbook content and other available archived materials that could be relevant today. At Missouri S&T, our assistant director of communications, Mindy Limback, is great at sifting through the archives to find this kind of relevant commencement content.

* * *

None of us is The New York Times. But as I said at the outset, we can learn from the best. Perhaps it’s time for our own “content marketing innovation team” approach in higher ed.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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