What a semi-old print guy has learned from his digital friends

Aaron Shill | Content Director, DeseretNews.com, DDM | @aaronshill | January 4, 2016

I don’t really qualify as an old print guy. I’ve never worked for a publication that didn’t have a web product. And since I started working in the industry in the late 1990s, the Internet has always been at my disposal — even when it was limited to a single computer off to the side of the newsroom that took 15 minutes to download a photo.

But I also don’t qualify as a digital native. My primary responsibilities since joining the Deseret News in 2003 have always been tied to the print product.

That changed in early October, when I took over the role of content director for DeseretNews.com. During this transition, I’ve thought a lot about change and how, despite being painful, uncomfortable and unsettling, it can be so very good for us.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to write for the Innovation Wire about taking over the Features editor role at the Deseret News in 2010. My staff of four full-time employees had been tasked with maintaining the content and production duties once overseen by 22 full-time writers and editors.

We were put in a position where we had no choice but to innovate. In order to survive, we had to change how we operated.

The five years I spent as Features editor of the Deseret News, and the nearly seven years before that in other capacities, were simply amazing. I can’t say enough about the talented mentors and co-workers I have interacted with.

But despite the knowledge, training and experience gained during those years in the newsroom, the learning curve of moving to a digital-only platform has been steep.

Change can be equally daunting and magnificent. With that in mind, I’d like to share a few of the insights I’ve gleaned from my short time on the DeseretNews.com team and what I’ve learned about journalism in general.

Headlines say it all. It doesn’t matter how thorough, well-crafted or important a story is; it can be failed by a poor headline. Writing compelling and authentic headlines for a digital audience is not just an art form, but also a matter of trial and error. Hopefully, the headline I attached to this column is a bit more compelling than what I would have written a year ago ... something to the effect of “Digital transitions: A journey from print to web.”

Analytics are key. The tools at our disposal that monitor traffic, reader engagement and other key performance indicators are not merely interesting; they’re essential to content strategy. Being able to see the reaction to a story in real time creates a completely new paradigm in how to understand and interact with users.

Stories come in different forms. In a traditional newspaper, there are multitudes of story formats: in-depth features, columns, news stories and briefs, short features, commentaries, op-eds, etc. Why should the web be any different? Not everything that’s posted needs to follow a strict formula, as long as the information meets the standards of journalistic integrity. Photo galleries can be stories. Links can be stories. Videos can be stories. They all provide utility for the user — even if they don’t translate to the printed page.

Get them to come. The wonderful thing about digital readership is that it’s not confined to a circulation number. It’s been amazing to watch talented people work to bring in users through social media and outreach efforts.

Keep them there. Photos, graphics, charts, quotes, polls, videos and links all increase reader engagement and give the user reason to stay on the site.

Perhaps the most encouraging lesson I’ve learned since joining the DeseretNews.com team is that journalism does indeed have a bright future. The audience is there, hungry for content. And journalists have more tools and methods to deliver that than ever before. Doing so, and standing out from the crowd, requires creativity, innovation, commitment to a brand and relentless effort.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a digital native or an old print editor facing daunting transitions in the industry. That learning curve can be navigated, and the view can be magnificent.