Robertson (Rob) Barrett has occupied major posts in the digital divisions of some of the nation’s top news organizations: ABC News, Time magazine, Los Angeles Times, Tribune Media and Yahoo. Last month, he became President of Hearst Newspapers Digital, where he oversees the digital operations of 15 dailies and 34 weeklies.
Hearst’s nameplates include the San Francisco Chronicle, a longtime rival to the now-defunct San Francisco Examiner, where William Randolph Hearst began the media empire that bears his name. In this recent Q&A with Street Fight, Barrett talks about what he’s learned in two decades of digital news and how the “new digital landscape” will shape what he does at Hearst.
What’s the biggest challenge for metro papers likes Hearst’s?
A decade ago, it was balancing regional or metro news with neighborhood-level information. Metros were no longer needed for national news, but they didn’t have big social networks or other scalable tools to help get truly local traction. Now, I think it’s balancing national, pop culture and viral content with metro news. There’s pressure and an economic need to maintain reach, and it’s almost impossible to do that without mixing in the same kinds of viral items users can get in many other places.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the best digital editors use real-time data, editorial experience and raw talent to create a mix of all this that attracts local consumers to their sites and apps daily. (Brandon Mercer at SFGate.com and Andrea Mooney, who just made the Houston Chronicle’s Chron.com the top publication on Facebook, according to a report last week by Engagement Labs, and their teams are great examples.) All this helps create reach, which we need to survive and grow as businesses.
When you were the head of digital at the Los Angeles Times, your team did some deep drilling on the scope of homicides neighborhood by neighborhood that created a lot of attention. Do you plan to bring any version of that approach to various subjects at Hearst?
The L.A. Times’ Homicide Project and blog (the brainchild of a print reporter) were a great example of drilling down on one important issue. But this was less for local neighborhoods than about opening the broader local audience’s eyes to the magnitude of unreported murders in L.A. as a human and public-policy issue. Metros should do more of that and Hearst Newspapers has and will, in print and online. But we’ll also leverage and curate the new digital landscape at the local and regional levels, seed our news coverage with what we find there, and partner more often with large technology platforms as their local expert.
Is technology giving regional papers opportunities to expand and improve local/community coverage without bringing on excessive staffing costs?
Of course, in a very basic sense. Social platforms, smartphones and increasing amounts of public online data (on real-estate transactions, crime, etc.) have made even shoe-leather reporting much more efficient. For better and for worse, a lot of reporters don’t even have to leave their desks to cover breaking news and generate scoops.
But all these efforts can do for true community coverage is bring efficiency to talented reporters and expand the pool of non-reporters who can be watchdogs, neighborhood sherpas, critics and debaters. The contributor model is wildly uneven but here to stay in everything from Bleacher Report to Huffington Post, and Facebook (through curation by friends) is now the primary source of news for U.S. adults.
But research and common sense tell us that local people care deeply about brands and quality in content, and local news organizations have a huge opportunity in building, staffing and curating islands of highly relevant and purposeful community coverage within and alongside these new frameworks.
Is there room at all Hearst dailies for major, data-driven coverage like the Houston Chronicle’s “The Million” series from last year? If so, what are some subjects that might get that kind of treatment?
There’s absolutely room, but we’ll make even more room by taking the data model from the occasional big-splash project into daily reporting and information streams in our digital products and services. A series like “The Million,” which looked at how immigration has reshaped Houston’s landscape economically, socially and even physically, took a lot of effort to get off the ground. But that story’s not over. It’s never going to be over. The data, interviews and leads from the series can be jumping-off points to follow and reshape numerous beats about the life, players, issues and opportunities in the expanding universe of Houston, and some of the Chronicle’s (and Hearst Newspapers’) digital products will feature all this. And some of it will likely be combined with deeper data and attract entirely new swaths of digital and print subscribers.
Nancy Barnes, Editor & EVP for the Houston Chronicle, and her team are now working on another data project locating all the dangerous chemical plants in the region — an effort we could expand across Hearst Newspapers. Nancy told me “San Francisco could use data to tell the full story of the economic slums that have been created by the huge spike in real estate taxes. San Antonio did a data project last year, documenting all the pollution coming out of the Eagle Ford. Newsrooms need to embrace data projects as a core part of their mission — they help you tell the truth more fully.”
At the L.A. Times, you said building local audience was most important for the digital paper. Without the higher paywalls that most newspapers elsewhere have adopted, is this an opportunity for Hearst Newspapers to grow their local audiences significantly?
A week or so after I got to the L.A. Times in January 2005, we held an “emergency” meeting with the top execs and the full editorial masthead. The headline of the meeting was that while the paper still had the largest print circulation of any metro, latimes.com had only 4 percent reach in the L.A. DMA. Four percent!
John Carroll and Dean Baquet had led the Times to five Pulitzers the year before, but the L.A. Times had never recovered its mojo on local news since it overreached with several expensive regional print editions in the Nineties. It had hired many former New York Times editors and simply wasn’t a local — or even regional — paper anymore. The website reflected that. Most visitors were one-and-dones from Drudge or Google, from out-of-market, with no brand loyalty or interest in returning several times a month. Yet the local users we did get came much more often, despite the lack of local focus. That’s of course the case in most sites with local brands.
The Hearst Newspapers free sites, like SFGate.com and Houston’s Chron.com, have done a fantastic job of engaging local audiences and consistently see up to 20 times the monthly page views from in-market visitors versus the out-of-markets. But there is much, much more opportunity.
The digital staffs really built momentum with Facebook and other social platforms last year, and now we’re increasing that focus on distributed publishing and drilling down into specific in-market audience segments wherever they spend time. Our premium sites do in fact have paywalls, but these are critical to our local-user strategy. As part of that, we’re going to focus intently on specific content that local residents don’t and can’t get anywhere else, and in areas deeper than general news.
With Hearst Newspapers having both free and paid sites, does that mean that most “premium” editorial content flows mainly to the paid model?
We’ll be increasing the focus on high-quality content and creating deeper digital experiences in both the premium (paid) and free models. A critical shift, however — for Hearst or any local/regional news organization — is rewriting the definition of “premium.”
Right now, many quality news sites with pay walls equate “premium” with “quality journalism,” where the paywall encircles the most expensive, ambitious and time-consuming public-service journalism. That’s not how the minds of consumers necessarily work. They want quality in all their experiences, and research tells us they read impactful investigative reporting on free sites and still need quick, daily information within quality “premium” bundles as well. We expect to experiment aggressively to create both free and paid bundles from the ground up to anchor even higher CPMs in our free offerings (our programmatic and direct-sold CPMs are similar) and higher conversation to our paid products.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.