Re­por­tory per­son­al­izes email news­let­ters

Newspapers & Technology Magazine - - Front Page - ▶ by Sarah Zook man­ag­ing ed­i­tor

Here at News & Tech we’ve been cre­at­ing and push­ing our own email Date­line news­let­ter since the early part of this cen­tury.

The email news­let­ter plat­form, pop­u­lar in the 1990s, is hav­ing a ma­jor resur­gence. In a re­cent study by Pew Re­search Cen­ter, 15 per­cent of read­ers con­sis­tently con­sume news through emails. And about half of those are very loyal to that path­way. In­deed, most news con­sumers — 65 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the Pew study, are loyal to a spe­cific way of re­ceiv­ing on­line news.

“Push al­ways works over pull,” said Tracy Clark, Reynolds Jour­nal­ism fel­low and founder of Re­por­tory, a per­son­al­ized email plat­form for news­pa­pers. “Any­way a pub­lisher or com­pany can push with­out an­noy­ing the user draws in read­er­ship.”

Re­por­tory is born

Clark started think­ing of draw­ing in read­ers right out of jour­nal­ism school. She at­tended the Univer­sity of North Carolina’s School of Me­dia and Jour­nal­ism and be­gan work­ing at The Roanoke (Vir­ginia) Times shortly af­ter grad­u­a­tion. In 2008, par­ent com­pany Land­mark com­mu­ni­ca­tions started shop­ping its news­pa­per prop­er­ties and Clark was left feel­ing like there had to be a bet­ter way to keep news­pa­pers rel­e­vant.

“Pa­per and peo­ple are just too ex­pen­sive,” the pub­lisher told her at the time.

“I started think­ing about busi­ness plans of how to cut back on costs,” Clark told News & Tech. “I thought ev­ery­thing is so man­ual and why are we do­ing one product for ev­ery­one when ev­ery­one wants some­thing dif­fer­ent? It just seemed su­per waste­ful.”

With the In­ter­net and mo­bile tech­nol­ogy grow­ing at a rapid pace, it seemed like an op­por­tu­nity to per­son­al­ize and au­to­mate.

Clark at­tended busi­ness school and kept ru­mi­nat­ing on the best way to help news­pa­pers to­ward more per­son­al­iza­tion.

In 2011, work­ing with her former ed­i­tor from The Roanoke Times, she de­cided to try to build a plat­form that could per­son­al­ize con­tent.

“Ev­ery other in­dus­try was per­son­al­iz­ing con­tent and me­dia. Just not the jour­nal­ism in­dus­try,” she said.

One main com­po­nent was sep­a­rat­ing them-

Push al­ways works over pull

— Tracy Clark founder of Re­por­tory

selves from an RSS feed, Clark said.

“We wanted to cre­ate an en­tirely new ex­pe­ri­ence and a whole new per­son­al­ized product for read­ers where all the con­tent was in one place,” said Clark.

In its first it­er­a­tion, it was a web in­ter­face and mo­bile app with email for push.

“We part­nered with NewsCred and pulled in six dif­fer­ent pub­lish­ers, in­clud­ing CNN, AP, Forbes and Dow Jones,” said Clark. “We wanted enough con­tent in our data­base to build a per­son­al­iza­tion engine.”

Pi­lot pro­gram

The chal­lenge came in try­ing to figure out how to match up a per­son’s re­quests with the con­tent on the back end, Clark said.

The idea was to per­son­al­ize con­tent in three ways: news source, cat­e­gory and key word. Peo­ple could say they only want to re­ceive news from The Wall Street Jour­nal, or they want to read sports and en­ter­tain­ment, and in­clude key words such as spe­cific teams or ath­lete names.

Then Ap­ple News and Flip­board came out and while the in­dus­try as a whole was figuring out that per­son­al­iza­tion was es­sen­tial, pub­lish­ers were still lag­ging.

“Pub­lish­ers are su­per weary of giv­ing up con­trol to these big tech gi­ants,” Clark said.

So she started work­ing with Reynolds Jour­nal­ism In­sti­tute to figure out a way to make this kind of tech­nol­ogy ac­ces­si­ble and use­able for pub­lish­ers.

Clark built an in-house product for news­pa­per pub­lish­ers to of­fer sub­scribers.

“We fo­cused on the email plat­form be­cause email is all the rage right now,” Clark said.

The Re­por­tory plat­form was pi­loted through the Austin-Amer­i­can States­man.

“We white-la­beled the whole plat­form so that it looked just like the States­man’s email plat­form,” Clark said.

The ex­per­i­ment set out to do an ap­ples-toap­ples com­par­i­son of how a per­son­al­ized email sys­tem works when com­pared with the tra­di­tional ed­i­tor-cu­rated email.

The ex­per­i­ment went on for six months, with 150 users. Half were given the State­man’s tra­di­tional mid­day email dubbed “Mid­day Break,” and Clark’s per­son­al­ized Re­por­tory of­fered up per­son­al­ized se­lec­tions based on reader’s pref­er­ences.

Open rate, clicks

The sys­tem is com­pletely au­to­mated and only the reader sees the end product, Clark ex­plained.

All the news­pa­per’s con­tent is pulled into a data­base and an al­go­rithm runs based on three fac­tors — source, cat­e­gory and key word. For the States­man ex­per­i­ment, source could in­clude the news­pa­per, As­so­ci­ated Press or both. First the al­go­rithm asks can we find a best match for all three?

The plat­form had to come up with ten ar­ti­cles per day to match Mid­day Break and pro­vide an even com­par­i­son.

The ex­per­i­ment lasted from April to Septem­ber and gath­ered quan­ti­ta­tive data — likes and clicks — as well as qual­i­ta­tive.

“At the end, read­ers were asked to take a sur­vey,” Clark said. “Ques­tions were based on qual­i­ta­tive met­rics like hap­pi­ness, sat­is­fac­tion and how will­ing a reader was to share it with a friend.”

While an aca­demic re­search as­sis­tant is still work­ing on the fi­nal re­sults, Clark said the ini­tial find­ings are in­cred­i­ble.

“On my plat­form the av­er­age open rate over six months was 75 per­cent and theirs was 38 per­cent,” Clark said. “The click rate was 14.5 per­cent on Re­por­tory and 5 per­cent on the tra­di­tional States­man email.”

Clark is now wait­ing on the re­search pa­per to be re­leased and is plan­ning to take the plat­form to con­fer­ences and pre­par­ing to show it to pub­lish­ers.

“We get that pub­lish­ers might have a worry that they are giv­ing up ed­i­to­rial con­trol if you per­son­al­ize the news be­cause peo­ple are just get­ting their own lit­tle siloed ver­sion of the world,” Clark said. “But it my opin­ion, that’s what they want.”

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