“He’s a person you’d wish you’d always had around long before you actually hired him.” Somebody really said that.
Name Brand Business: A turnaround story
In the middle of my successful run in the Tribune’s Sports department, the editor and managing editor came with new orders. I was to turn around the Business news department.
How that would happen I was free to figure out. If little remained from before, fine. As with every department, our newsroom’s values served as an outline, but nothing I inherited in Business was sacred.
I found a department with little portfolio with readers, particularly on chicagotribune.com. Our Web report was an afterthought.
Time for a new plan
In the final quarter of 2014, we analyzed the department’s strengths and weaknesses as our customers saw them and devised a way forward to bring the department to currency.
The plan, introduced in January of 2015, was “Name Brand Business.” It would be Web first. For some stories and packages, it would be Web only. An overhaul of the culture was part and parcel.
We chose different business news to cover and how we covered it. Through the spring, we made hires and built teams to cover a range of core beats that our readers were most interested in consistently consuming.
As we built those teams, we also reorganized our physical space to reinforce the philosophical changes. Editors coalesced in a pod, each positioned to be as near as possible to the reporters they were teamed with. That included moving myself out of my office to a desk smack in the middle of the department, unheard of for a department head in the Tribune’s newsroom. No biggie. That old office makes a much better snack room anyway.
As we gained momentum beginning in the middle of the year, we built our portfolio online, dramatically increasing our contributions to chicagotribune.com as well as our presence on social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. Through 2015, the big, measurable metrics were up:
• Veteran reporters doubled their productivity, some even more. New hires met that pace. Staff content usually led the way among our most-read stories, a full turn from where the department was headed before, with wire stories leading the count.
• Comparing January to December of last year, page views increased by nearly 25 percent a month. Unique readers increased by nearly 47 percent.
More people reading more of our work, all with a smaller staff. It’s a modern reality in many industries, certainly true of every media organization.
Stories came in all sizes. Some took hours while others required weeks and months. We kept our little corner of chicagotribune.com active and alive with news that was important and interesting, news that brought readers in while also working on long-form stories that gave them a reason to stay longer.
The plan continues today. As it took hold, metric reports tracked our progress and performance multiple times daily, weekly, monthly. Reporters and editors were given tools to measure audience response, so we all could make adjustments as we went. We pursued the kinds of stories that were journalistically sound and true to our mission while being of great interest to our readers. We just did a lot more of it.
As we decided what to do, we were just as clearly deciding what not to do. We made hard choices about how we’d spend our most valuable and precious resource: our staff’s time. We left behind perfunctory reporting to spend our time on difference-making stories that resonated with our readers in the time they spent on chicagotribune.com.
Turning a department from its trajectory is never easy and seldom smooth. Deep-seated issues required listening, thoughtful dissection and, when the time came, unflinching decision-making and resolve. It took repetition, instilling new philosophies, resolving gray areas and showcasing successes. We had mental and emotional hurdles to clear.
We got over our inhibitions. We listened to our audience. They told us the way forward to securing our future as a report. The Business staff delivered and still does. They made it happen. I’m incredibly proud to have been among them. I’m better for the time I spent there, no doubt.
Click a face, see what they had to say about developing Name Brand Business with me.