How El Tiempo takes an academic approach to digital strategy, democratizing data

For El Tiempo, digital transformation has included a new perspective on data as a way to listen and respond to its audience. Lucas Moretti, a customer success manager at Chartbeat, held a virtual conversation with Digital Content Manager José Antonio Sánchez, discussing the Colombia-based outlet’s digital transformation, along with the hurdles and lessons learned along the way.

Our discussion with El Tiempo: Highlights and video

Below, we’ve highlighted a few excerpts from the fireside chat, edited for length and clarity. For the full conversation (en español), watch the first session below from the SIPConnect Online conference held on July 31.

Can you tell us a little about your role at El Tiempo?

As audience manager, I’m the connection between the editorial team, the product team, the commercial team, and the technical support team. In particular, my role is focused on getting a holistic view of our audiences, how they are behaving, what issues they’re facing, and looking at the metrics and asking, “What are the key performance indicators that we have to use or establish and measure to get to know our readers much more?”

Can you share some of the tactics you have used during this process at El Tiempo? What has surprised you the most?

We tell our editors, sub-editors and reporters that this is not a newspaper, but rather an academy and it is an opportunity to learn every day. And it is, perhaps, one of the few places in the world where you are paid a salary to learn. Many years ago, we combined [operations] and created a multimedia newsroom. At first there was resistance, but (the teams) learned that they had an opportunity to gain experience — in television, radio, making podcasts and videos — and they adapted really well. Now, when we explained that we have to move towards decisions based on data, well, we also used the same strategy.

In a newsroom, you can have ambassadors, people who support you to make changes, but there are also some opponents. You have people who oppose making changes because they are used to the way it is. So what we did was identify those opponents and convert them … by giving them important positions in the digital team. At the same time, we sent our younger [opponents], those who sometimes looked at data with disdain or looked at it like, “These guys don’t know, they just want a click, they just want the trending topics” to the most important sections of the newspaper as a kind of academic exchange. The other thing was making sure we had the support of the top executives, the people who manage the newsroom, the deputy director and the director, who … gave us that north star and support we needed.

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Tell us a little more about the transition. How long did it take? At what point did you feel like the team really began to make decisions informed by data?

It started about three years ago more or less. We established a KPI for each editor and each section of the newspaper … and we began to monitor them and teach them how they could achieve their goals. 

I was saying recently to a group of friends that, in the last editors’ meeting, they did not only discuss issues of how to cover an event … but we went more than an hour just discussing data. And the questions of the editors, the more senior ones, the ones that had a difficult time (transitioning to data), they were now saying things such as, “Well, but this variable that we have here, how does it impact a reader’s Engaged Time?”, or “How can Recirculation help me achieve this goal?”

Can you further discuss El Tiempo’s emphasis on “quality data”?

Our work has been focused on the question, “How do we reach a larger audience?”, but now we need that audience that reaches us to stay with us. And we need to understand another set of indicators. So we now need to focus on Recirculation, on dwell time, on engagement, and on other metrics that are quality metrics. We started a training program for new employees where one of the first sessions is on Recirculation with the help of Chartbeat. And it was wonderful because, at first, people only looked at their story ranking to say  “I’m in first,” “I’m in second,” “I’m in third”. When we took data from our Historical dashboard or Advanced [Queries], we could see the discussion had already become much more sophisticated. 

Today, let’s say each section has a Recirculation goal. So we say, we have to maintain a Recirculation of 14% so that there is a greater consumption of our content. And then we look at loyal users, those who are more likely to buy a digital subscription in the future. And we told (our team), “Well, look, this is the history we have. The historical average we have of loyal users is 29%, so all of the sections have to be above that 29%. Now, we see that the conversion has to be [informed by that data]. So, if all returning users come to our site less than eight times in 16 days, we say that they have to come to our site more than eight times in 16 days. And that will be your goal … but we are going to help you achieve it.  So, the discussion was able to begin with Recirculation and from there we could [create goals around] reader loyalty.

Why did you choose now, in the middle of a pandemic, to begin a subscriptions strategy? 

Well, the opportunity to generate a new revenue engine, an income generator, has always been expected, because we all know that advertising revenue has been falling for several years. Advertising in digital has been increasing, but not enough to support an operation as robust as that of El Tiempo or other media companies in Latin America, Europe and the U.S. 

We also noticed that user behaviors have changed. So we identified that need, incorporated new roles internally — new data analysts in video, in articles, in social media — with the strategic intention of the company that, in the future, there is a  possibility of building a digital subscription program. Now, this has been accelerated, or could have been accelerated by COVID-19, because it is no secret to anyone that revenues began to decline even more and that several of the companies that entered this process of digital acceleration could not do so in the way that we could.

Is it going to be necessary to make any changes in the structure of the newsroom so that it produces more premium content that encourages more people to subscribe?

Even last year, we as an organization did generate premium content. We have content that is always on the agenda: what is covered, necessary, and is dictated by the day-to-day. And then there is trending or trend content, which is what allows us to fill the top of the conversion funnel. And in this process of turning the newsroom into a data-driven organization, we have found that some sections have a responsibility. There are some that have a responsibility to bring more readers, and there are some that are more oriented to retain readers. So, in investigative journalism, we have had an investigative unit for many years, that is very much aimed at building loyalty. But we also have the section called Colombia, which covers all regional and local issues, that is oriented towards volume.

“You have to lose the fear of change.”

How can you do this, particularly as you have a remote workforce?

It is not easy, but I already believe that we are able to adapt to change. You have to lose the fear of change.

Who do you partner with across the organization to accomplish your goals? 

We have a great partnership with our business intelligence team. We made sure that they were not only there to work with the commercial side of the business, but that they sat with us in the newsroom … to not only address our questions and goals, but also propose new topics.

Since you started working from home in March, has anything that El Tiempo and you and your team have achieved been surprising?

We demonstrated that we could be anywhere in the world and continue to work and remain connected. There’s also the fact that dashboards and data help guide our discussions. In other words, since the daily verification of information was maintained, there was no interruption in any way to our workflows or our processes. And that opens the possibility that, let’s say, we have a new mentality and connect with our readers in a different way. 

Many times we are locked in our newsrooms without noticing what is happening outside in our neighborhoods or homes. So that has been like a kind of an experiment. Moisés Naím, the famous Venezuelan journalist, told us that this COVID-19 is a preliminary experiment for the issue of climate change that we have to face. So I think this is an experiment for the issue of both climate change and the future of journalism. It’s forced us to confront ourselves with a reality of saying, “This must be done and it must be done now, and we must not be afraid of doing it.” And you can change. In other words, you can always change. There is no need to be afraid of change. 

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What message do you have for editors who may be in a similar position to yours? 

I would go back to the beginning of the talk and say that they should look at [their organization] as an academy. We are all in a learning process, and what we are validating today may have to be updated tomorrow. 

Second, it’s important that they look for partners. This is a partnership with vendors, with colleagues, and even the competition as well. And third to enjoy it. I have really enjoyed this time, although I have been working at home for more than 120 days. 

And I think being informed by data is best, because journalism is a work of passion, is it not? Emotions play a big role. Watching the last season of [television show] “The Crown”, Queen Elizabeth is talking to one of her prime ministers, and the prime minister tells her: “I don’t let myself be governed by emotions. I am a data man, and by that I make the best decisions.” I don’t want to spoil it for anyone … but it seems to me that it must be so. In other words, emotion also counts, I will not say it does not, but it is good that, in our discussions, data always plays a central role, and not the “it seems to me”, or the “I believe”, or “readers like it”. No, there is data that tells you very well what is happening and what your audience wants, and you cannot ignore that.

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