Pitch Session: The Story Meeting Has Evolved
Publishers have figured out that audiences want different things from print and digital products, but the newsroom has lagged behind.
The New York Times—an institution firmly rooted in print, but progressively championing a digital future—made a drastic shift to its editorial planning process in February when it ended its famous Page 1 pitch meetings.
Instead of deciding which stories would greet readers of the print edition, editors would vie for prime spots on the homepage.
“These changes are intended to ensure that our digital platforms are much less tethered to print deadlines,” executive editor Dean Baquet said in a staff memo. “It’s worth noting that the tradition of selecting Page 1 stories under the old system has long made The Times distinctive. We are seeking to preserve the rigor of this process, but update it for the digital age. Desks will compete for the best digital, rather than print, real estate.”
By now, most publishers have recognized the same underlying fact Baquet has—consumption habits differ from print to digital—and they’ve taken steps to account for that in their products. Differences in fundamentals like frequency and story length are almost universal.
Fewer publishers have taken equivalent steps to alter the manner of coming up with those stories though. Editors still often operate under legacy processes, holding the print product at the center of the brand’s universe. That may make sense from a revenue perspective—print still pays the bills at a lot of magazines—but as digital production continues to gobble up resources, it’s increasingly out of touch with newsroom realities.
American Banker turned the process on its head four years ago, says Marc Hochstein, the publication’s editor-in-chief.
“In the old days, the main goal of our daily morning meeting was to find out what we were going to put on Page 1 [of a daily print newsletter],” he says. “Now, it’s figuring out what we have for the homepage, or what we have to send out as an email blast. We don’t conceive [of stories] as: ‘This is going to be the cover of the magazine.’ We think: ‘This is going to be a traffic driver for the site. And, by the way, we can drop this in the issue of the magazine.’”
With a daily newsletter in addition to its monthly magazine, American Banker was already attuned to the pace of the Web, so its changes have been more about adopting a digital-first mindset than making procedural adjustments. The meetings themselves are still largely the same, Hochstein says. A handful of his top deputies and lead editors from related titles at parent company, SourceMedia, get together for roughly 30 minutes each morning.
The purpose of those discussions has evolved along with the reader habits and product mix. Hochstein says one of the most important habits he’s tried to instill in his team derives from the fact that space limitations are practically nonexistent on the Web.
“Stuff that’s left over in your notebook that you weren’t able to fit in the story doesn’t have to end up on the cutting room floor anymore,” he says. “It’s a matter of making sure that you’re seeing opportunities to get additional content out of the reporting that you’ve already done. You don’t have to let it go to waste just because it didn’t make sense in the context of one particular story.”
Video production has also become a critical piece of content production, though Hochstein admits it took some time for his team to find a process that worked. Ironically, less planning has made things easier.
American Banker’s approach to video started off fairly regimented. They’d produce one clip per day in which two editors would have a scripted conversation on a topic du jour for three minutes.
“It wasn’t very effective,” Hochstein says. “It was a bit contrived and there’s enough of that already on CNN and CNBC.”
Now, they aim to get one video up per week, typically bringing in a guest for an interview. A 30-minute conversation yields a few longer clips that they can deploy over the course of a few weeks. They aim for evergreen content, so they’re not under pressure to publish. Moreover, it gives them plenty of time between guests. Hochstein says they don’t even really have a booking process. If a big industry name is in the area for the day, American Banker will ask them to stop by the office. With the lag time between the shoot and publishing, there’s some built-in leeway.
While a laissez-faire approach may work for video, the team has carefully rethought the way it strategizes for editorial over the long-term. Instead of coming up with themes and topics for each issue, they’ve identified central industry events that are going to drive the news cycle throughout the year.
It’s a subtle difference from how most media organizations plan, and not wholly distinct from a traditional edit calendar—many magazines have some timely, event-based coverage—but to go all-out is a crucial distinction for a Web-first enterprise.
“What are going to be the events that drive traffic to the site over the course of the year?” he says. “We figure those out and put in some work ahead of time.”
Each month, editors develop a package around a specific topic that has a connection to a pre-scheduled financial event like industry gatherings or major reports. A typical content package will include at least one lengthy feature, and a multimedia element.
As print continues to cede ground to digital, publishers should realize that it’s not just the product that has to adapt—the process behind it needs to evolve as well.