Digital Publishing Platforms
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14 months, 141% growth: Lessons from a local publisher’s strategy of besting Facebook’s algo changes

Facebook’s ever-changing algorithms have kept newsrooms on their toes as they try to adapt to the changes. Despite these challenges, the Facebook page of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has not only seen satisfying growth in traffic, but also in almost every important metric, including post engagement and audience retention, over the past year.

The weekly average reach of the Journal Sentinel’s Facebook posts went up more than 500%, from 500,000 to over 3 million between January 2017 and July 2018. While the number of “likes” tripled from 62,000 to over 166,000 during the same period. Traffic from its Facebook page to the website increased 141% between January 2017 to April 2018.

Although the largest newspaper in Wisconsin, the Journal Sentinel, a Gannett property, suffered from cutbacks in 2016. While it wanted social media to play a big role going forward, it was difficult to execute any strategy as the remaining staff would then be burdened with additional digital responsibilities. So for quite some time, the newspaper did not have any strategy driving its social media presence.

From regular newspaper to digital storytelling powerhouse

In January 2017, led by its Social Media Editor, Emily Ristow, the newspaper began focusing on social in a planned manner. They would begin by transforming into a digital storytelling powerhouse to connect with existing readers, as well as find new ones. The goal was to eventually convert the growing digital audience into paying subscribers.

“Throughout history, enterprises that have been slow to adapt to their surroundings have not survived, and this has become the case for local newspapers. The news outlets that are thriving have quickly shifted their business models from print publications to news brands, creating online content that people engage with, increasing their SEO rating and digital advertising revenue.”

Dr. Ben Marder, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at University of Edinburgh Business School

Ristow began with a flagship Facebook page that went live in January 2017. She decided to share stories following a schedule, rather than the earlier way of sharing it as soon as it was published on the Journal Sentinel’s website. The goal was to program their best social content.

Posts were made every half hour, sometimes every hour on slower days. Each slot was assigned a topic (news, business, social story, sports, etc.) or a content type (videos or photos). Scheduling helped maximize reach. For example, posting a meaty piece on a Thursday or a Friday when traffic is higher, or even Sunday, would get it maximum exposure. The digital team also discovered that stories posted in the early morning hours on weekdays did better than those posted in the afternoon.

The best stuff would be saved for prime evening hours. So sometimes a story that was published on the Journal Sentinel’s website at say, 9 am wouldn’t be shared on Facebook until 7 pm. Sports content did best during early evening hours, while the ideal time for political content were Saturday nights. During weekends, feel-good feature stories tended to fetch highest engagement and traffic. Breaking news, however, would be shared as it happened. The schedule was followed religiously. Every shift would have a point person who would schedule the best items as they were published online.

Encouraging discussions on Facebook

After 3 to 4 months, Ristow and her team did a deep analysis of the numbers to find what was working and what wasn’t. Based on the findings, the team reworked the schedule as well as some of the content. Like for instance, Ristow noted that adding text that encouraged a discussion of the newsroom’s political stories sparked more engagement on Facebook compared to something intended to get a quick reaction.

“With some of the political stuff, our first inclination would be an angry face reaction and no comment. Now I think about what I can write to get people to discuss this topic. I avoid the quick reaction altogether,” says Ristow.

Designing the success of complex content

Ristow and her team found that some types of content that were expected to do well fell flat. This led to a harder look at such stories. If something wasn’t finding a social audience, then it had to be worked upon to perform, else it wouldn’t be shared on Facebook. Some of this type of content included investigative and watchdog work which the paper is proud of and pours its resources into.

A creative approach was taken to ensure that investigative content did well on Facebook. Shorter pieces, sometimes videos, on a specific aspect of a longer investigative piece were created for sharing on Facebook. The angle was chosen for its potential to attract a social audience. The shorter piece would link to the complete story on the Journal Sentinel’s website for those who were interested in finding out more.

The Journal Sentinel would also pay to boost investigative pieces on Facebook to reach out to readers who hadn’t liked the flagship page. One such story was on how germs were transmitted on planes and that there weren’t any clear standards on managing the problem. The shorter companion piece of this article, shared on Facebook, was on how one could avoid getting sick on a plane.

While earlier the content shared on Facebook were stories that had been created for the print edition and published on the newspaper’s website. Gradually the Journal Sentinel’s staff started writing stories that were specifically meant to engage with the social audience.

One such post was a poll that asked readers to vote on where exactly “up north” was in Wisconsin. It went on to become very popular, so much so that an interactive map was created on the website on which people could draw a line where they thought “up north” should begin.

The poll became the Journal Sentinel’s most popular non-video Facebook post ever. These purely social stories were not intended for a print run. But quite a few of them did end up in print. One of them even made its way to the front page of USA TODAY.

Integrating social media in the fabric of an organization

“The social landscape is constantly changing, so that means your strategy is going to be constantly changing. Keep your focus on the goal, but be willing to adjust your methods as you go.”

Emily Ristow, Social Media Editor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Ristow says that social media planning should be a part of news meetings and the story creation process. The importance of social media is felt in the Journal Sentinel’s newsroom with a huge laminated schedule displayed prominently. It’s updated as pieces are scheduled and posted. The team also discusses how the previous day’s posts fared and relevant takeaways during their daily morning news meeting.

The entire newsroom is aware of the social strategy as well as how they can contribute. People from outside the digital team also pitch in with their ideas. The current “likes” on the Journal Sentinel’s Facebook page stand at 184,983, continuing the streak of steady growth.

Its continuing success shows that despite Facebook’s frequent algorithm changes, local news publishers can do well on social by following a well-planned strategy, going beyond simply posting or attempting to elicit a quick reaction. Changes cause disruptions more often than not, but they may also be opportunities for growth.