Hi. As you might have guessed, my name is Todd Adams. I’m the chubby, bald guy in the picture, which was taken at a recent APSE convention. More information required? I’m the one in the middle, looking uncomfortable in a suit. I’ve applied for the Senior Sports Editor job in Charlotte/Raleigh, and I was asked to take a couple of days to look at those websites and put a plan together on how I would attack the position. I figured this plan might get passed around to a few different people, so why not just put it all online? Easier for everyone, right? Here’s what I came up with…
You’ve got talented writers and it shows. I’ve been studying the websites for a little over a week and most stories were good. It seemed like the beat writers had a good handle on what’s important and on what the readers wanted to know. This is important. I genuinely believe that one of the best ways to increase page views is to have consistently great content.
However, not much attention was being paid to the websites themselves (I realize this is almost entirely because you are down three sports editors). In Charlotte, the sports centerpiece usually stayed the same for long periods. In fact, on four of the past eight days, it was the same at both 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. It’s important to change them much more often, so readers always feel like they are getting something new.
Also, although there was a steady flow of new material, the most important stories were often buried by less critical content. Monday’s story about Duke basketball player Trey Young is a good example. It was big news that he was staying in school rather than going to the NBA Draft, but that story was pushed down the page soon after it was posted. One story pushing it down was on Clemson baseball. Another was about South Carolina women’s basketball. Neither probably carried as much interest and shouldn’t have been displayed more prominently. Charlotte did have a lot of content on its site, for both local and national stories.
That was Raleigh’s biggest issue. Its centerpieces were updated frequently, but it didn’t have enough content flowing into its feed. This was especially true of local content – which I realize is probably because college basketball season just finished and those reporters were taking much-needed breathers. However, Charlotte did a much better job of supplementing its site with regional and national stories, to keep the feed fresh for returning readers.
I also had an issue with how Carolina Hurricanes content was played in Raleigh. There is no doubt that, with the playoffs in full swing, the Hurricanes are the most important story in that area. And the website gave that content great play. However, in a playoff situation, once a game has been played, older content becomes much less important, and the N&O site often had stuff from earlier in the week displayed prominently. Sunday is a good example. Game 2 of the series was Saturday, and the next day one of the five stories on the upper right portion of the page was Thursday’s Game 1 game story. Also, the Game 2 preview story from Friday was in that area. By Sunday those stories are ancient history. It would have been much better to put more content that was written Saturday or Sunday in that spot.
On both sites, stories often lacked needed attention to detail such as hyperlinks, related stories, full names in headlines, etc. Some could have used tighter edits, too. I also thought they missed some opportunities to utilize alternative story forms. For example, the “Five points for the Hurricanes going into Game 3” story might have been done as a story gallery. The four-minute talking head video of Mack Brown might have been better as a video gallery with the most exciting parts of Brown’s audio combined with photos from the spring practices. Now is also a great time to do some Carolina Panthers/NFL Draft podcasting.
The good news is all the problems I saw can be fixed easily. There doesn’t seem to be a lack of effort on anyone’s part, just a lack of time because of your unusual sports editing situation.
Here’s my action plan:
• I’d give attention to detail to every story. Obviously, that would include a good line edit. But I’d also make sure that photos and videos are attached; that there are hyperlinks to other content; that related stories are attached, and that they are relevant; that stories have good headlines, making sure they help SEO and attract reads; and that they are slugged well, again focusing on SEO (this can’t really be fixed after the fact, but it’s still good to check to make sure whoever is creating stories is doing it well).
• I’d make sure the websites are updated regularly, and the hottest and most important stories are well displayed. I’d also plan with reporters to make sure there is a steady flow of content.
• I’d make sure every piece of content gets a vigorous social media push.
• I’d work with reporters to make sure they are using proper mediums for every idea. If something is best done as a story, let’s do it as a story. If it would be better as a video or a story gallery or a podcast, then let’s do that.
• I’d help produce content when needed. Some of the best online materiel is simple stuff that reporters don’t have a lot of time to do and can be done from the desk (example: times and TV schedules for NCAA tournament games).
With tighter budgets and smaller staffs, planning is more important than ever. I’ve found that you’ve got to plan to plan – meaning that you’ve got to have a planning strategy and make sure to clear out time to do it. It is also important to note that circumstances sometimes force plans to change. I won’t be too rigid to adjust when needed.
• SHORT TERM: Running a web operation demands serious planning to ensure fresh content. I’ll have a daily content schedule of stories, blogs, videos, galleries, etc., and work with reporters to ensure regular flow throughout the day. This means producing some content that might only go online. It also means publishing content when it will have the most impact, regardless of when it is filed.
• WITH REPORTERS: I’ll have weekly meetings with reporters to plan out what they’ve got coming for the next seven days and long term. This is an excellent way to make sure they are producing the most interesting content and doing the best story forms. It also ensures that the reporters and I are on the same page. I’ll also have short daily check-ins with each reporter to see if the plan needs to be adjusted. Finally, I will always be available to talk with reporters, including when I’m “off.” And when I’m speaking with reporters, I will cut off other distractions and give them my full attention.
• WITH OTHER EDITORS: I’d also want to have a weekly meeting and daily updates with the other sports editors in the group to make sure we are all moving in the same direction. These relationships are going to be critical to the success of the Charlotte-Raleigh team. I’d also make sure to communicate with editors in other departments, as needed.
• IDEAS: I’m a huge believer in occasional idea planning. What I like to do is get three or four reporters together and meet away from the typical work environment and have them each pitch a few content ideas. These can be larger stories or projects, or other ideas like videos, multimedia or podcasts. I like to do these in groups because that seems to produce exponential creative brain power. The group often builds on ideas in amazing ways. I’ve used this technique for a long time, and it never fails to produce.
• LONG TERM: Upon leaving a good brainstorming session, the last thing I want to do is let ideas die on the vine. I won’t use all of them, but I want to get moving on the good ones immediately. While some will have a quick turnaround, others will involve long-term planning, and I want to get that process started. That means working with the reporter. But I also like to bring other departments in early because they’ll often contribute in unexpected ways. Plus, it is much easier to get them on board for the hard work that will come later if they are part of the process early. If long-term planning is done correctly, some very impactful and satisfying material can be produced.
• YEARLY REOCCURRING: There are well-read stories that can be done every year. We need to plan for those and make sure we’ve got needed materials on hand. For example, college football coaches get big bonuses for making bowl games. Every summer, we need to make sure and FOIA the contracts of all area college coaches – which can come in handy in various other ways. Then, at bowl time, we just look up the amount of a coach’s bonus and produce an easy story that we know will be well read.
• BIG EVENT: We’re lucky in sports because most of our big events are scheduled. We know that the ACC Tournament is going to be in town, which allows us to get on top of it. I’d work with reporters and other departments (photo, online) to make sure our resources are properly deployed for maximum impact. And I’d make daily schedules that include assignments and deadlines for all sorts of content – including stuff like Facebook Live updates, blog posts, videos, photo galleries and stories.
• BREAKING NEWS PART 1: Some breaking news can be planned for. Everyone dies, and we know when people are getting old. We can create a coverage plan for the death of a prominent coach, owner or former player. The same is true with significant coaching firings and hirings and free-agent signings and departures. There should be good plans in place for all of these, updated regularly, and well communicated to everyone. When possible, some content should be produced in advance (obits, galleries, etc.).
• BREAKING NEWS PART 2: One of the more difficult environments to plan in is when there is unexpected breaking news. It is still important to try and get a plan together, even though it will be done on the run while dealing with other things. Sometimes, a five-minute huddle with other editors and reporters can make a huge difference in the quality of content. And in these situations, it is vital for other departments to know what content is expected and how they can contribute. I’d take charge in and make sure it all gets done quickly and accurately.
I’ve been following the Observer and the N&O reporters on Twitter for a week or so, and they all seem to do an excellent job. A couple of them could be a little more conversational, but they all seem to communicate well with their readers and push their content regularly.
I checked out the papers’ Facebook pages, too. There doesn’t seem to be much of an organized push there, especially on the weekends. This is probably just a staffing thing, but I’d make an effort to ramp that up for sports.
Pretty much all sports content should be pushed out on Facebook and Twitter, sometimes more than once. This should be a regular part of the process. So many people get their news through these two social media platforms (or from search engines) that they must be utilized every time. I’d take care of pushing content on company pages and my personal pages. I’d also make sure reporters continue to push stuff from their personal accounts, too.
I also like to use social media to keep an eye out for breaking news and to see what sports fans are saying. It is the fastest way to gauge the mood of the sports fans, and sometimes it can be quite helpful in identifying good content.
We should also experiment with using other social media besides Twitter and Facebook. Pinterest, for example, can be great for displaying meme’s from games (find a good photo, put the score of the game on it with maybe a headline, and then link the game story to it). We need to remember that this is an evolving world.
Also, we should all stay informed about the different demographics for the various social media sites to help determine how and where we want to make our pushes.
Finally, social media can be a great reporting tool. Reporters should be versed in the ways to use all the different social media to help them. A great example is Linkedin, which can be used in many ways to help report stories.
I believe training is critical to success. It is also easily overlooked because everyone is busy and organizations can no longer much afford it. But we can’t afford to ignore it.
First, I’d look for ways around the cost issue. There are a lot of free online seminars that are very helpful. And often media organizations will have training seminars at little or no cost. It’s important to know about these and take advantage of them. Also, I’m sure there are a ton of bright people in other departments in Charlotte and Raleigh who could give the sports department some effective, free training on things like SEO, social media and online headline writing, just to name a few.
I’d want to stay updated on a variety of issues. SEO is a big one. Google is constantly changing and it is good to have an occasional refresher on best SEO practices. Training on other digital best practices will be important, too. I want to be the guy pushing the envelope in the digital realm, and to do that I’ve got to stay updated. I’d obviously try to pass that knowledge on to other editors and reporters.
There’s lots of training that reporters could get, too, that would help them in the digital world. For example, I attended a News Train session a few years ago on how to use LinkedIn for reporting. It was fascinating. Opportunities like these can really help even veteran reporters grow. We’ve just got to keep our eyes open for them and encourage everyone to utilize them.
As a final note, everyone should know how to use Chartbeat so they can track how their posts are doing and learn what works best on their beats.
To wrap things up, I brainstormed a few ideas that might work in North Carolina.
The record books
This is an idea I recently had for Springfield but never got the chance to start. In Illinois, the Illinois High School Association does a great job of keeping records for various sports. It keeps them updated on their webpage. I was browsing one day and came across some interesting records, some of them from athletes in our coverage area. This got me thinking that some records probably have some very cool stories behind them. And once you start digging, you invariably come across other exciting stuff, so who knows where it might have led. The idea was to do a series of stories, no more than one from each sport. And then add in sidebars and boxes with the records etc. I still think it is a great idea and would work in North Carolina just as well. I envision it as a high schools project, but it could be considered for the ACC as well.
This was an idea that we had in San Diego that we kept going for a couple of years, although I think they stopped after we left. The idea is to throw out a question – such as “Who are the greatest athletes in North Carolina history?” Our staff would collectively pick our top 52 and rank them and then release one a week during a calendar year, as part of a regular package that could include a story, video, photo gallery, etc. The last 10 weeks of the year we count down the top 10. The idea is that you start a new question every year and keep it going forever, making it one of the things the sports department is known for.
I think both markets would benefit from developing simple team sites for our major college football and men’s basketball teams and professional teams. These wouldn’t need to be overly complicated. They could just include each team’s schedule, with television information, and a roster with basic bios on each of the players and coaches. They wouldn’t need to be managed much at all and would be a source of free page views. And we could hyperlink back to them frequently. For example, every time a player’s name is mentioned in a story, you could hyperlink back to his bio page.
High school site powered with community-generated content
This is a long-term idea, and not fully developed. But with so many students and parents at practices and games, I like the idea of giving them a place they can post pictures and videos. The site would have to be monitored by someone. But high school kids love watching videos of themselves, and this might be a way to bring in a lot of content at a low cost.
Who is going to replace Coach K? project
It’s time to start thinking about who is going to replace Mike Krzyzewski at Duke when he retires. That will likely happen in the next few years. There are a lot of former Duke players and assistant coaches out there coaching at other colleges right now who would be strong candidates. There are a few current Duke assistants, too. Have these men all been set up to compete for this job by being asked to show what they can do at places like Marquette, Northwestern and Central Florida? Do they feel any pressure? This is a complex story and one that doesn’t need to be told until Krzyzewski announces that it is his final season. But if we started thinking about it now, using the extra time to get access when we can and explore avenues that nobody else will have time to report, we could be in a position to write a fantastic story when the time comes.