McClatchy Strategy: Go Big and Small to Create ‘Moments’ With Each Reader

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McClatchy publishes 29 daily newspapers in 28 metro markets that straddle the two coasts, with a good sprinkling in-between. Only one of the markets — Miami — is a major metro, but many of them are vibrant and fast-growing, like Charlotte and Raleigh, Kansas City, Fort Worth, Boise, and Sacramento.

Like other chains of dailies, the company is pouring resources into how to make the long leap from a no-longer-secure print past to an alluring but uncertain digital today and tomorrow. Where once it was the dominant medium in reliable, locally scaled markets, now it must compete in an “etherscape” whose market boundaries can be as small as a sub-census tract in one city or as large as the U.S. or beyond. 

In this Q & A, McClatchy strategists Chris Hendricks (Vice President/Products, Marketing and Innovation) and Dan Schaub (Director of Audience Development) detail how their company is regrouping to prevail in a future where both the upsides and risks are big:

Facebook and other social media platforms, with their huge audience numbers, are commanding the attention of the news media, including McClatchy and other groups of local newspapers. Is there any risk to McClatchy in focusing on those platforms that are so far from your own content real estate?
Chris Hendricks: We try our best to focus on publishing to people first, not platforms. Resonating with readers and understanding them is an art and is extremely important if you expect them to engage with, respond to and share your stories. So, simply focusing on getting all your content into Facebook, for example, is a bad strategy. The focus needs to be on who might be interested in the story and how can we reach them in a respectful manner.

Dan Schaub: Publishing on Facebook and other platforms is no different than what we’ve been doing for years. Single copy editions are a fine example. The goal is to provide content through as many channels as possible, ultimately reaching each and every consumer in our markets, delivering news and information they want in a way they want and find useful.

You talk about “calibrating” your products to your audience. What does that mean?
Hendricks: Individuals’ digital news consumption habits vary greatly. In-market readers tend to engage with our news and information more than out-of market readers. Social readers tend to drive-by, consuming stories recommended by friends then moving on. Readers using our apps are the most digitally engaged and print readers engage at an incredible level. All are valuable. “Calibrating” means understanding the context and reason why these habits or preferences exist and being mindful of reader expectations. It’s foolish, for example, to ask a first-time visitor from Facebook to subscribe to your digital-print bundled product. Each context deserves to be understood if we’re to maximize the ‘moment’ opportunity each reader shares with us. Doing so may ultimately lead to more and better ‘moments’.

Schaub: Let’s say, for example, there are 10 families living on a given street. Each family is different in a variety of ways. Think demographics, lifestyles, wants, desires. Our strategy is to work hard to make connections with each household. If we’re doing our job right, at the end of the day, we should know whether we’ve reached each household. We get this done by tracking product use — print and digital — whether it’s paid, free or mail.

McClatchy spent a lot of time with design and customer-focused consultants working to improve digital and print products at its 29 daily newspapers. What did you achieve, based on numbers?
Hendricks: A few years ago, we embarked on an ambitious and extensive effort to redesign all our print and digital product offerings. Unlike prior redesigns, a heavy emphasis was placed on finding out how our products fit into the habits and lifestyles of our readers and advertisers and then respecting the findings as we re-recreated our products. There’s not enough time to get into the minutiae, but our double-digit digital audience growth since re-launch is a clear signal we’re on the right path.

Homepages are not nearly as important today as they were even a few years ago. What happened?
Hendricks: Search got better and social exploded. More readers today arrive at story-level pages as a result of social referrals, search and content aggregation sites than navigating from a homepage. If you step back from a print, flip-through-the-pages mindset, it’s easy to understand why the efficiency of search and social referrals are winning. I know what I like and want when I search, and my friends, hopefully, know what I like when they refer. Most people are not the read it all from front to back types.

Schaub: The combination of key partnerships and solid marketing efforts really do work to grow our audience. Consumers now come to our content – many times directly to a specific story – through links, newsletters, social site referrals, search engines and other ways. The majority of our readers are best served by links and referrals taking them straight to the content they are looking for. This does not include a stop at the homepage and we’re good with that.

You talk about different audiences. How do they range in size?
Schaub: Segmenting our audience and being able to reach segments is a key piece of our audience strategy. Right now our strategy and solutions allow us to reach or target small pockets of customers, say, 200 households, or reach 100% of the households in a given market. We could, if we wanted to, reach just one household, if it was productive to do so. No other media company in our markets offers the opportunity for an advertiser to reach consumers on multiple platforms via a global or targeted campaign.

To what extent have McClatchy’s innovations worked in spurring revenue and audience growth?
Hendricks: Our year-over-year digital-only revenue growth has been in the mid-teens this year. Most in our industry have not performed at the same level. We’ve seen the same with our digital audience growth. Our local digital audience growth, for example, was north of 15% during the second quarter. That’s performance our digital and traditional publishing peers envy. Some of our peers are flat to down in one or both of these key metrics. I don’t doubt for a moment the moves we made over the past 24 to 36 months were keys to achieving these results. We’re not declaring success though. There is no end to innovation. While we do find things that work and certainly spread the ‘best practice’ or innovation across our markets, the spread is always thought of as the beginning of the next innovation cycle, not the end.

What are you trying to achieve with your pilot partnership with Nextdoor?
Hendricks: As I said earlier, we’re working hard to make sure our content is available at relevant moments in people’s lives. Nextdoor is a logical ecosystem for a good deal of the local content we create and publish. While it has not been a huge audience or traffic driver, we have found that relevant stories resonate well and get tremendous engagement from neighbors, especially when it comes to comments.

Schaub: There’s no silver bullet with partnerships. Often prospective partners come to us looking to test ideas and new products with locals. Nextdoor is similar to many of our partners. We are looking to provide consumers with content and engagement that they value and want at the right moment.

As you grow your low-engagement segments of audience from social media, can this, over time, erode McClatchy’s strong legacy of civic commitment in publishing?
Hendricks: During the downturn, McClatchy elected to not pull back on its commitment to high-quality and public service journalism. Today, that commitment remains a fundamental for our business and employees. While we don’t chase journalistic awards for the sake of winning or ego, we’re always glad and proud to see our commitment and hard work recognized by our peers and industry-watchers, year after year.

But do your low-engagement readers from social media want to read stories about the water crisis or the pros and cons of trade agreements?
Hendricks: We’ll be there when you need us. We’ll gladly be the watchdog on politicians, government and local officials, informing you what may be mundane, until the moment you need it… It’s kind of like a full dinner plate. We will put the greens on it. At some point, you may choose to eat them and appreciate the fact the greens are there. But, in the meantime, we’re not going to force you to eat them.

Tom GrubisichTom 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.