By Josh Mabry, News Partnerships

In 2012, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans’ oldest and largest daily newspaper, made a strategic shift to become digital first. This meant restructuring the newsroom, changing workflows, and thinking about how to tell stories directly on Facebook. With the extensive reach of NOLA.com, the digital home of the paper, they are now the largest media company in Louisiana.

Publishers have asked us how organizations like NOLA.com made that shift and incorporated social storytelling into their newsroom. So we talked to Carolyn Fox, managing editor of news for The Times-Picayune and senior director of content at NOLA.com, and Mark Lorando, editor of The Times-Picayune and VP of content for NOLA.com. They took us through an example of how a single story grew from a Facebook Live to the front page of the next day’s newspaper, as well as their tactical strategy for becoming digital-first.

The Evolution of a Story From Facebook Live to Print

A tornado ripped through New Orleans on the morning of February 7, 2017. Diana Samuels, the editor in charge of severe weather coverage, alerted the newsroom and 25 people across their reporting, photography, editing and social teams pitched in. By the end of the day they had over 56,000 interactions, 4 million page views, and 3.3 million video views on Facebook. Here’s the evolution of that story.

1. As reporters raced to the scene, the newsroom reached out to residents that captured video of the tornado and shared that to the NOLA.com Facebook Page.

 

2. The editor sent one reporter to go live on Facebook to cover the devastation.

 

3. A freelancer provided drone aerial footage to highlight the extent of the damage.

 

4. Photographers posted photos to both Facebook and Instagram throughout the day.

 

5. Social editors at the paper put together a short video, giving tips on what to do in the aftermath of a tornado.

 

6. As reporting trickled in, NOLA.com published stories and updates on their website and shared Instant Articles to their Page.

 

7. The day after the storm, the strongest elements of the stories above made their way onto the front page of the print newspaper.

 

The Times-Picayune’s Strategy for Becoming Digital First

With over 180 years of culture built around the daily newspaper, the change to digital first wasn’t easy. Fox and Lorando share their strategy, where they stumbled, and how they set themselves up to quickly produce high-quality stories across multiple platforms.

Make the digital desk the only newsroom
The first, and most difficult step was to remove the separation between the print and online newsroom. They joined with NOLA.com, which had been a separate company, and focused all newsgathering operation on creating digital content, with a separate production team curating that content for The Times-Picayune. Having the entire newsroom function as “the online desk” helped change reporters’ mindset around how to think about stories. “After that first tactical shift, it took four years and many, many difficult experiments and failures, but now the newsroom is very instinctively telling a major breaking news story in real time using a whole range of digital products,” Lorando says.

Build a diverse team of journalists
For NOLA.com, having the right combination of veteran print journalists and reporters whose skillsets are digitally native helped create a more dynamic organization. That mix allowed reporters with different sets of skills learn from each other and elevate quality across all platforms.

Create content directly for Social
Initially, the publisher’s thinking was to drive traffic back to the website. Now, some of their focus is to work creatively on Facebook itself. According to Fox, Facebook Live lets them compete with local television stations. Editing and sharing original videos has helped with growth and sponsorships. And Instant Articles has elevated the brand by improving on their mobile web template and giving a better experience to readers.

Foster an adaptive culture
Lorando constantly reiterates to his staff that the rules for digital storytelling are always changing. Putting the newsroom in a mindset of constant adaptation has helped shift instincts over time. A notable example was when photographer Chris Granger witnessed a boat rescue during a major flood. “He texted and said “I can take a photo or go live,” I said “go live.” Now he doesn’t ask about that,” says Fox. “That instinct to even ask that question doesn’t happen without four years of building the culture.”

Tailor workstreams to the reporters’ interests
Initially, Fox and Lorando built a uniform checklist of digital best practices and audience growth goals for all reporters. Now that the newsroom has across-the-board digital proficiency and a multiplatform mindset, they tailor the reporters’ goals to the format they’re most excited about — whether that’s Facebook Live, Instagram, or diving into comments. “Different people in the newsroom are better for certain things,” says Lorando.

Create a realistic but aggressive posting strategy
Currently NOLA.com posts around 36 stories a day to Facebook. To ensure the posts can reach their full potential, NOLA.com uses a new content checklist — one that’s more nuanced, but still ensures certain outputs are being met. Chief among them are that an article or video’s headline, thumbnail, and excerpt are optimized for social media before being published.

Utilize insights to better suit what the audience wants
As part of the shift, NOLA.com became more data-driven — using insights to incorporate audience data into coverage decisions. Reporters and editors across the newsroom use CrowdTangle to understand what’s trending in the market and inform their daily posting decisions. “We’re now more thoughtful about what we post, and how to use evergreen content,” Fox says. “ Newspapers were very subjective in assessing what readers care about. But now we can see what people were actually reading and sharing.”