8 lessons from public radio's 'Digital Day'

Digital Day, held at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., focused on five different themes in digital journalism: change, audience engagement, platforms and products, storytelling and strategy. (Jenna Sterner/NPR)

Like most news organizations, the challenges facing public radio are large and varied — and many of them include the word “digital.” Earlier this week, NPR and Washington D.C.’s WAMU co-hosted a rare gathering of digital staffers from NPR and Member stations ahead of the Online News Association conference. Dubbed “Digital Day,” it was a chance to meet in person and develop fresh ideas about how we might tackle our shared challenges and better serve our collective audiences.

Attendees heard from digital leaders at NPR and stations who shared best practices and case studies on a variety of topics in digital journalism, including audience engagement, change, strategy, platforms & products and storytelling.

We’ve highlighted some of their lessons below, along with links to slides and handouts. Find the full agenda here and catch up with the conversation on Twitter.

1.) Don’t wing your newsletter

Newsletters take work — and a bit of trial and error. If you’re thinking about launching a newsletter, take some time to learn from NPR’s Senior Product Manager for Listener Journey, Lauren Bracey Scheidt, and three public media stations that have been there and done that (and are still rocking it).

WBUR in Boston, KQED in San Francisco and St. Louis Public Radio each have their own strategies for newsletter management but share some common practices.

A clear target audience

Know who your audience is and how they engage with your newsletter — then interact with them. Ki Sung, a senior editor with KQED’s MindShift, spends a couple of hours every week engaging with readers who mention MindShift on social media.

A manageable workflow

Like with story or social media planning, you should have a game plan for newsletter creation and distribution. For your workflow, identify who will tackle which parts of forming the newsletter and when their work should be completed. Brendan Williams, a digital media specialist who works with St. Louis Public Radio’s Look Read Listen newsletter, says you can’t experiment with what works for the audience if you don’t have a system in place.

A product management approach to content development and testing

Loop in all the departments involved with producing the newsletter for testing what works and what doesn’t for the audience. WBUR’s Executive Editor for Digital, Tiffany Campbell, said the station’s product managers and newsroom had different questions about the success of their limited-run podcast newsletter, Magic Pill, so they built a joint learning plan to address them all.

Slides: Product managing your newsletter
Related NPR Training post: Want to start a newsletter? Read this first

2.) Radio talk shows are better with internet

The internet is great for sharing your stuff, but it’s also great for meeting your audience where they are — and staying there with them. Niala Boodhoo, executive producer and host of Illinois Public Media’s The 21st, and Gabe Bullard, producer for WAMU’s 1A, focus their digital strategies on connecting with listeners, not accumulating clicks.

Using social media platforms does provide a boost in web traffic for 1A, but page views aren’t the goal, Gabe says. “The engagement is about making this show as good as possible for the people who tune in.”

They say different social platforms are good for different things:

  • Facebook: Building an audience around a topic and then pulling the live comments and questions
  • Twitter: Sharing background information and live tweeting or answering listener questions during the show
  • Reddit: Sourcing with a devoted, engaged audience
  • Hearken, SMS/text message: Asking listeners more pointed, thoughtful questions and getting in-depth responses

3.) Public radio listeners are a key demographic in the smart speaker market

“Alexa, play NPR.”

There is strong potential for smart speaker adoption among public radio listeners, especially podcast listeners, according to NPR research. NPR’s Audience Insights, Digital Media and Story Lab teams have been working to understand the attitudes and behaviors of public radio listeners regarding smart speakers and voice assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa.

Susan Leland, associate director for NPR’s Audience Insights, and Wesley Lindamood, senior interaction designer for NPR Visuals, shared some of their findings:

  • NPR listeners have been more likely to adopt smart speakers and are more engaged with the devices.
  • Listeners turn to NPR on Alexa when they have availability to listen for an extended period of time.
  • Using a voice-controlled interface is new and awkward. We need to put extra effort into helping users find and access our content on smart speakers.

Slides: Smart speaker user research findings
Related research: NPR & Edison: The Smart Audio Report

4.) Talk about the digital story early and often

It can’t be emphasized enough: good digital storytelling begins in the planning phase.

Teresa Frontado, the digital director at WLRN in Miami, has some tips on how to better integrate radio and digital story production. It starts with tackling the workflow.

Before a reporter heads out on assignment: Have a conversation about the story idea with both radio and digital editors. From there, define digital assets and engagement tools, then talk about deadlines.

While the reporter is in the field: Make sure the assignment responsibilities include gathering audio, images, video, documents, data, maps, etc. Think about how different assets can enrich reporting.

When the reporter is back in the newsroom: Tackle the story for both mediums — write the audio script and digital version. Then, send the work for edit and production. Finally, share it. (At WLRN, a story airs on radio, publishes on website, becomes available on an app and is then circulated on social.)

Slides: Digital Story Planning 3.0: Yes, you can make it happen in your newsroom
Handout: WLRN reporter’s workflow

Kelsey Proud, WAMU’s digital managing editor, also suggests several questions to answer for engaging stories and projects. Here are a couple:  

  • What is the specific need you’re trying to fill or question you’re trying to answer? Can you boil it down to one sentence? Do that.
  • How do the people who need this information or are affected by this topic consume information? What tools do they use? In which digital places do they gather? Is the community digitally connected or do they engage with each other in other ways?

Slides: Seven questions for engaging journalism
Handout: Seven questions you should answer for engaging stories and projects

Related NPR Training post: How to weave audience engagement into your reporting process

5.) You are not a robot — quit tweeting like one

If you’re stuck in a rut and tweeting like a robot from your organization’s branded account, delete those 140 characters (or worse — 280). It’s time to create your organization’s social media persona.

Brandon Echter, the digital managing editor for Science Friday, says there are a couple of accounts you can draw inspiration from. Like Wendy’s.

Brandon also points to ProPublica as a news organization that has a strong voice on Twitter. He says they do a good job threading and creating a narrative through with older stories.

So, how do you make your branded account sound human?

Answer this question: If your organization and/or radio show were a human, who would they be and what would they care about? That human shouldn’t necessarily be your public face or show host (you never know when they might retire or leave).

For Science Friday, that meant thinking of themselves as “the really excited person at a dinner party who wants to tell you about this cool thing they learned.”

Slides: How to make your branded social account sound human
Handout: Social media persona worksheet

6.) Social audio offers something, but not everything

Is social audio the panacea for non-visual content? The short answer: No.

Mathilde Piard, a project manager in NPR’s Programing department, says getting people to listen to audio on social media platforms is hard — and the context in which people listen to it is important.

She says automated video clip players, like “audiograms,” are a nice option because they require a low lift and are worth it if you don’t have better social or visual sharing options. Hand-crafted video animations, on the other hand, only justify the additional labor if they will have a large audience, she says.

Slides: Social audio: Is it the panacea for non-visual content?

7.) Think before you boost

If you’re going to spend money boosting the reach of your social media posts, Adrienne Lavidor-Berman, digital revenue and marketing operations manager at WBUR, says you should consider a few things first.

  • Think about the platform. Paid social on Facebook is different than paid social on Twitter.
  • Set goals. What are you trying to accomplish with paid social? How many people are you trying to reach?
  • Start with really good content before you get to the paid social part.
  • Always make a call to action. Tell the audience where they can download the podcast or get more content, etc.

Slides: To boost or not to boost? How to use paid social media to drive listening

8.) Facebook groups need good caretakers

Facebook groups can be great for building community around issues listeners and readers care about. But if you’re starting one for a newsroom project, have a maintenance and troll plan in place.

WAMU’s audience editor Chris Chester and KCRW’s senior digital editor, Caitlin Shamberg, have both created groups for podcast projects — Metropocalypse and There Goes the Neighborhood: Los Angeles. They shared some tips on managing Facebook communities for anyone thinking about making a Facebook group around a story project or a certain issue.

Think about the audience first

Who would want to join this group? Are there enough people interested in this topic? Does this issue/beat have a large following already?

Consider how the organization will be involved in the group

Who will moderate comments or enter into discussions with group members? Could that be a podcast host, reporter or a group of people?

Look at ways the group can be a community

How can members interact with each other? How can members interact with the programming associated with the group outside of Facebook?

Slides: Facebook groups: How to win fans and influence producers
Facebook group starter kit

Isabel Dobrin was an NPR digital news intern.