With Rover, David Arkin Takes a Mobile-First, Enjoyable Approach to Local News

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To create a totally new experience in hyperlocal news, American Hometown Publishing CEO Brad Dennison came together with David Arkin for the third time in their intersecting careers to launch an experiment at the cutting edge of tumultuous change in the local newspaper business.

In this Q&A, AHP Chief Strategy Officer Arkin details how the company’s brand-new publication Rover—launched two weeks ago in suburban Nashville—aims to present news to its readers as an “enjoyable experience.”

What is Rover doing in the Nashville suburb of Green Hills that isn’t being done by other local news providers?

Rover first and foremost is blowing up the traditional storytelling model by thinking about what the reader really needs to know in the story and how best to deliver that information.

That’s just not how traditional newsrooms function. They cover stories and events and write…and write…and write. We’re flipping that. We’re saying, you can’t just keeping writing—you have to focus your efforts around capturing attention, regardless of the platform you’re on.

We do that by looking at each item and thinking deeply about the information we need to provide and then the design experience we need to deliver. And this is all for mobile. It’s where our audience is, and we have to realize that a reading experience that packs a ton of info and layers nicely for deeper reads is essential today. In the development of our design, it was very interesting that we started on the small screen and then finished with our print design. It’s why the print experience is so fast and enjoyable for the reader.

What’s your goal with the reader?

The goal is to not make the reader work hard for the information and actually make reading our products an enjoyable experience. Imagine that!

As we built both print and web, our goal was to develop features throughout that gave readers lots of choices in a single article—a deep narrative dive, a quick list of questions we’re answering, a map that outlines the movement of a project.

It’s funny, our reporter asked me recently if she should actually cover a meeting in a narrative format. I laughed because she was asking like it was an option that we just don’t use often. We’re building an expectation with our staff that we need and want this to be different and for them to understand why. That question from our reporter drives that home in a big way.

How does this work out in actual coverage? Some examples?

We are taking what is traditional coverage and working to make it come alive by delivering information in bite-size portions so it’s perfect for mobile consumption.

Take our coverage of Nashville picking a site for its new soccer team. As we worked to explain what the story meant for readers, we decided, as opposed to a traditional narrative, posing three questions would be more effective and would get to the root of what people wanted to know, which was why is the stadium location not determined yet? Newspapers just don’t approach their coverage like that.

Then there’s our coverage of the Metro Nashville School Board’s approval of raises for teachers. First, we covered the budget in a news story the night of the meeting when it was discussed. We then explained to readers how funding worked and then created this shareable headline that makes it easy for the reader to understand salaries over the years and by position by using inline charts. In print, we used many of those elements to offer a nice glanced-down package with graphics.

Budget stories are painful for readers to get through, but guiding them through the process with points and data makes it more consumable.

Readers always have questions about issues that interest them. How do you meet that curiosity?

We’ve built a few features like our “Your question answered” feature where we have explained why potholes were so bad this year. We also answered a question in our real estate section about the impact on property values when tall skinny houses get built. We’ve also built into all of our stories small calls-to-action that ask readers what they want us to look into.

What kind of editorial staffing does this kind of coverage require—more or less than conventional coverage?

Our staff understands how to use digital tools effectively. They are not traditional journalists. We are meeting daily to discuss coverage, creating numerous shareable news and feature lists, developing newsletter content, covering and promoting Rover at events, and engaging with readers and sources on what they’d like to see.

Typically, a reporter views reporting as talking to two sources, gathering information, and writing an article. Our process is engagement with readers first to hear what they want, daily brainstorm on the best approach, and then the development of lots of small pieces of information that add up to something wonderful in the end. It’s really different.

The NashvilleNext Plan proposes to bring major changes to Green Hills, although key transit improvements, including Rapid Bus service in the heavily congested Green Hills-Midtown corridor, are apparently dead with the recent defeat of the municipal transit referendum. Will Rover be covering what happens to the NashvilleNext Plan, especially in the face of the transit defeat and its impact on Green Hills?

We are definitely planning on writing about NashvilleNext and actually doing it as we speak. The kinds of stories we do take more than reaching out to a source or two to find out why they think the transit referendum failed or what should happen next time.

A good example is our cover story for our first edition. It was about a realignment project through the main road in Green Hills. The project is part of the NashvilleNext plan. There had been a lot of rumors about where businesses were going to go, and when, and disruption. Our story laid out a timeline for the project (it’s basically over three years), showed a map that helped you visually understand where each business would be relocated to, answered five burning questions on traffic and noise, and talked with business owners on the impact.

Other hyperlocal publications have both print and digital editions. You previously were at one, Community Impact Newspaper, which serves the metro areas of Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Houston. There are other utility-focused print-digital hyperlocals like Community Impact out there. So, what’s different about Rover?

There are lots of great hyperlocal products out there. I think ours is pretty different, though, and is set up for longer-term success. While we definitely focus on news, we have more of a lifestyle slant to what we do. Many of the models out there—some of the online-only ones—either are very lifestyle- and entertainment-focused or are hard news and investigative. And then you have a few that do some entertainment and mix it with local business content. We are really combining all of that: entertainment, business, and hard news.

The other big difference is that we are doing this on both platforms and have expectations for the business that we will deliver on both. We’re not picking a path. Advertisers are showing interest in a half-page ad just as much as they are asking us what kind of content marketing we can build for them digitally or what sort of digital services we can offer them. So, the content combination, the storytelling approach, and the multi-platform focus, not just on the content but for the business, feels different than what’s out there.

You wrote recently that local news would be more compelling to readers if it was presented with a “breaking-news attitude.” How are you doing that at Rover?

A “breaking-news attitude” is about coming in with the right attitude and pushing until you’ve got it right. An example of that is our newsletter. We started out with an aggregated newsletter and have transitioned now into a morning theme, like things to do this weekend on one day and road closures on another. So much of a “breaking-news attitude” is about the energy you are bringing to your team and the community. That energy is felt by the tone of the product but also on the amount of content you are providing. You can see on our print pages that tone coming through the words and design, and digitally it’s screaming at you through the more conversational headline-writing style we have taken, and the beautiful UX we have designed.

These are, overall, difficult and in some cases dark times for local news. But you and AHP CEO Dennison see Rover as the “future of news.” What signals are you and the rest of the AHP team getting that make you so confident about the future of the industry?

The tone you’re hearing from us is optimism for the company we’re building. We don’t even think of ourselves as being in the same bucket as “the newspaper industry.” This need to save ourselves by constantly running over there, then over here, then back over there—that’s not who we are. Brad operates our newspapers efficiently and effectively. The story since he took over is impressive. Our legacy properties are doing great. Our new properties are doing great. He brought me here specifically to invest in a home run with Rover, and I think that’s what we have.

So when we think about the future, we have this incredible new product in Rover that we expect will scale, great new acquisitions in highly desirable markets, and strong performance from the company’s current properties. How could you not be optimistic about that situation?

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.