What does digital-first mean to a mostly print-centered publisher? It’s about re-organising ourselves in ways that are logical for readers and ourselves, said Zuraida Ibrahim, Executive Managing Editor at SCMP, during the recent WAN-IFRA Indian Media Leaders e-Summit conference.

As part of its digital transformation, and its efforts to show the right content to the right audience, the publisher identified four key markets very early on. Hong Kong today makes up only 10 percent of SCMP’s audience, but remains an important segment being the core subscribers of print and online editions. 

“The US, and parts of Southeast Asia, notably Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore, are now among our key markets. That means our coverage has to be dynamic and nimble to adjust to the needs of the audience. We are very mindful of this and are obsessed about the need to reach out to different audiences,” Ibrahim said.

The dynamic newsroom

In February 2020, SCMP revamped its website and today has four separate home pages geo-targeted for its four key markets – Hong Kong, Asia, the US and “International.” The publisher has been seeing a large share of its traffic coming directly through its website. Each edition is carefully curated based on a mix of editorial judgement and live data. 

“We still have the morning and evening budget meetings to discuss the stories, but we also maintain a very dynamic and live budget where we plan stories to be published almost every hour or so barring breaking news. Even today we are very conscious of SEO. We are very big into doing keyword search and finding out how our competitors are faring,” Ibrahim said.

With the help of analytical tools the newsroom tries to get a sense of what is being read in each region. On top of monitoring the overall traffic, the digital team filters data further by geographical location, the type of traffic and so on and drills down to the granular details.

Ibrahim noted that in addition to off-the-shelf data boards, the team has built its own analytics dashboards.

“Our data team does a daily dive of where the traffic is coming from, who is reading us and our mantra is how do we try to meet our readers at their point of need,” she said. “Beyond the daily grind they also monitor longer term trends and provide insights to editorial.”

What is particularly important is that the data and its monitoring is not restricted to the digital team.

The entire newsroom looks at the available data, starting with individual reporters who look at the “waxing and waning of traffic to plan for publication times” as Ibrahim says.

Every individual has his or her own dashboards and screens have been deployed in the newsroom showing Chartbeat 24×7.

Covering Hong Kong protests and COVID-19

Today, coverage of live events, their packaging and presentation has become all the more important for SCMP, providing the publisher great opportunities to be creative and ace the digital game. 

Since the protests against the new extradition law began in Hong Kong, SCMP has been focusing on building in-house tools to run its live blog, which has proved quite successful.

“When the protests started we had this live blog going on, sometimes for eight to even 12 hours,” Ibrahim said. 

“We no longer just think of the story as just the story, but we obsess about the assets or the furniture that amplify the story, that allow us to reach out to the audience in different ways,” she added.

Apart from the live blogs the team also introduced video embeds which would be updated regularly, thanks to reporters and photographers on the ground.

SCMP also maintained a very active social media feed and tweets were embedded in the live blog to keep the content flow going.

The collation of daily data helped the team to later put together their award winning multimedia graphic, which Ibrahim described as “yet another attempt to tell the story in a different way.”

“Sometimes it’s the details that escape the big picture. So we went a little deeper to look at things like the gear the protesters wore, the tactics they used to resist the tear gas and so on. This was a very successful multimedia presentation that resonated well with our readers,” she said. 

For COVID-19 coverage, the team introduced a widget to show around the clock data in association with Johns Hopkins University. This turned out to be extremely popular, attracting hits from people who wanted the data on a daily basis.

“Later we tried the same with the vaccination rates in Hong Kong. That again has done very well,” Ibrahim said. 

Recognising that the pandemic is going to be one long-running story, the team also introduced a microsite to serve as a good repository of content.

A guide to operating a digital newsroom

For SCMP, building a digital-first culture has been “partly a talent challenge, partly a training challenge and partly a leadership challenge,” Ibrahim said.

“I think the first thing is to get your reporters on board,” she added. “You must not be ageist and think only younger people can be digitally savvy. The most important thing is to educate your reporters to be receptive and nimble to change and experimentation, and to give them the room to fail.”

Then comes breaking down the walls. Make every big story a cross-desk, cross-department effort, Ibrahim said, so as to explore different angles and different ways of storytelling. 

“Earlier, we used to think of the IT guys as the people we call when our computer is down. But now at SCMP they are the product team, and they have a very important role in helping us shape our platforms in a way that we can reach out to the audience, engage them and retain them,” she noted, and cited the experimentations they have been doing with storytelling tools.

“For example we have set up a knowledge page which tries to mimic Google discovery in terms of predicting the questions that you want to ask,” she said.

Other departments, such as marketing or the audience growth team, also do a lot of initiatives to push SCMP’s content – from native advertising to newsletters to other promotional content.

Helping staff to embrace data

Even after executing all these, it could be hard to get the newsroom staff to embrace data. Ibrahim said this happens to be the third piece of the puzzle.

However, at SCMP, the digital-first approach is today baked into the newsroom culture, she said, thanks to a series of measures they’ve adopted.

“Data metrics are used and discussed in the newsroom daily. They inform our newsroom decisions. We do a lot of A/B testing of our headlines. We sleep and dream and live data. It also helps us to shape the stories that we want,” she said. 

“We track our local, regional and global audiences. We go down to the granular details and over time, we have also introduced some elements of AI where we try to push content that we think you might be interested in.”

Data sheets on such metrics are shared with reporters every day in a transparent manner.

This has gone a long way in educating the journalists, warming them up to a digital-first culture and changing their mindset to counting data as a vital tool to pursue quality journalism.

Other measures, such as a lot of internal training, cross functional collaboration and focusing on best practices at every level, have helped SCMP bring people along during the change process.

But what about print when you go all digital? According to Ibrahim, it’s not a good idea to neglect print and this is the fourth part of the equation.  

“Think of print like your prom night where you dress up, put on your best face and be on your best behaviour. It’s a good showcase of what you are capable of doing online and helps your brand name at the newsstands,” she says.

Ibrahim also reminded participants that even though we are in the digital-first era, publishing houses must remember the basic values of journalism. Being trustworthy, being accurate with facts, playing fair and giving all sides to a story – are fundamental virtues that are more important than ever before.

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