4 things you're missing without a vibrant contributor network

Jacob Hancock | Managing Editor, Deseret Connect, DDM | @jacobhancock | May 1, 2015

The first thing news executives and managing editors say when they imagine the complexities of running their own robust contributor network is, “We can’t afford the time and resources to pull it off.”

And to be fair, who can blame them? Any responsible news manager is already squeezing available resources like everyone else in the news industry to get the next issue out. Breaking from the norm to chase a seemingly too-good-to-be-true opportunity to save cost is risky on an already tight budget, especially when tomorrow’s deadline is … tomorrow.

But for the next 10 minutes, forget about tomorrow. Think two, five or 10 years ahead. Envision your newsroom integrated with a network of contributors, freelancers and contractors from around your community — even the world — who can add page views, diversity, social media juice and an opportunity for your staff to focus and specialize.

Steady traffic impact

In the first quarter of 2015, community authors and photographers in Deseret Connect (Deseret Digital Media's contributor network) published 4,429 articles, about 1,500 per month, for a total of 31 million page views.

Each averaged about 7,000 page views but were higher or lower depending on which of our sites they were published. Contributor stories mixed with staff stories on our news sites averaged about 2,300 page views. Our special-interest sites, which are fueled with 100 percent contributor content and driven hard by social media, averaged 9,300 page views per story.

A surge of newsroom diversity

No matter how large and diversified your newsroom is these days, adopting a contributor model means an exponentially broader spectrum of expertise, backgrounds and qualifications — all staple ingredients for telling compelling stories.

Our 5-year-old, 5,000-member network includes authors from every state, race and nearly 50 nationalities. They range from high school sports writers and photographers to Oxford fellows and airline pilots, more lawyers than we like to admit, and a crowd of health care and clinical psychologists and therapists that we wear out with publishing opportunities.

It’s always surprising the curious personalities a network will attract — "American Idol" finalists, constitutional legal historians, home inspectors, professional athletes and even a graduate of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. We’ve also somehow attracted a U.N. family policy expert, several New York Times best-selling authors, a host of religious leaders and NASA engineers.

To see a contributor network as a one-way operation — they submit a story; we publish — is a common but narrow view. Correctly engineered, your network should be a two-way operation, allowing editors to pitch story ideas to various groups of writers, or a single author, while also allowing reporters a way for searching the talent network for quotable sources in their own journalistic endeavours, based on keyword searches of the author’s bio.

It’s a Rolodex for a new century. Often a member’s geography is more relevant to the issue at hand — a flood, fire or other natural disaster — than anything on his or her resume. We can filter a search by country, state, and city — or a custom mileage distance from each. When a small town experiences a flood, requesting details and photos from a narrowed list of news-friendly community members around the affected area is a three-minute process.

Got the whole sharing thing down #awesome

Unquestionably, contributors are more passionate about sharing their published work than the average reporter, increasing views, community loyalty and engagement. Newsrooms have carved out positions for social media gurus, configured Facebook and Twitter staff trainings, and have even gone as far as implementing reward programs for incentives for staff to be more proactive about sharing, but contributors are naturally #awesome in this department. And it should come as no surprise. In fact, most use more than one platform to get the word out.

And when asked about the ratio of social applications used to share their stories, 73 percent of contributors advertised their published work on Facebook; 68 percent used email — to an average of 22 recipients — and 48 percent via their personal blog. They also use Twitter 38 percent of the time.

Generally, there’s less motivation for reporters, who are paid the same for covering the same beat yesterday, today and tomorrow. Contributors are rarely paid. (That’s not to say they’re not compensated.) Instead they’re spending valuable hobby and leisure hours to finish stories covering a sport, historic event, novel, movie, new technology or fill-in-the-blank-with-anything-you-can-imagine. It all means they have a higher motivation to get as much mileage from it as possible.

If a 0.11 percent CTR is considered great for a broad marketing campaign on Facebook, according to Quora, imagine the ever-increasing value of dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of authors in your community sharing your publishing brand with enthusiasm, and not the kind of baked excitement bloggers feign when they’re paid to mention a brand on their blog’s Give-Away Wednesday. It's authentic excitement. We don’t have to imagine that loyalty. It’s now part of our publishing culture.

And of course each social share is worth a multiplier, too: 4.5 and 10.5 page views per visit for DeseretNews.com and KSL.com, respectively (not including any classified ad traffic).

It forces you to focus

One of the great strategists of our time, Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter, says strategy is largely about choosing what you’re not going to do anymore. And that’s especially true for media companies that no longer compete just for local ratings and zip code distribution, but against an endless (and I mean endless) buffet of an everything-goes Internet menu.

A contributor network, if embraced, will give you decent coverage in areas best suited for their style and expertise, while allowing you to move your most valuable and expensive resources, your reporters, to go deep where you can have a competitive advantage, where your audience needs them the most. For starters, you’ll find talented contributors to help fill gaps in sports and all types of feature content, including photo galleries and listical-type articles.

Unfortunately it’s neither affordable nor strategic for a publisher to adequately cover most of the traditional subjects of the past, especially with any real depth. Unless you’re going to produce world-class quality movie reviews, for example, there’s little reason to spend significant staff time on it. The market, yes, including your local one, is already saturated with sophisticated and attractive movie review websites and apps.

Covering all things for all people — in a desperate struggle not to lose anyone — is the opposite of strategy, according to Porter in his standout Harvard Business Review essay “What is strategy?” Instead, he says, you need to be a strong leader who decides target audiences, who, like all strong organizations, decides on your trade-offs. You need to decide “not to serve other customers or needs and not to offer certain features or services” to maintain a competitive edge. And, all the while, you’ll have to continue to fight off distraction and compromise — strategy’s foremost enemies.

Five years ago, the Deseret News print features department did just this. It downsized from nearly two-dozen full-time staff members to a single writer and four editors. It decided books, movies, music, TV and theater reviews aren’t its core, professional competency. It focused staff resources in areas chosen for its editorial emphasis to grow a national audience, which it has, both in print and online.

And although there was a clear trade-off — contributors write more feature content than staff – the Deseret News didn’t give up on its feature sections altogether. Talented editors manage, schedule and edit stories from more than a dozen groups of contributors. The operation churns out about 48 quality contributor feature articles for the Web each week, about 20 of which are printed weekly.

Of course if you don’t have to reduce staff, you’re one step ahead. Consider promoting one or two reporters into a contributor publishing editor role right away to increase efficiency. Reporters who may typically produce three to eight stories per week on their own can be trained to handle roughly three to four times that amount in a mature contributor model.