Wendy Metcalfe is not your average editor-in-chief. For starters, not only does she oversee editorial operations, she’s also in charge of marketing and customer service – "essentially anything that touches the subscriber," she says.
At the World News Media Congress in Glasgow, Metcalfe described how she was drawn to take a job with Canada’s Brunswick News because of how entrepreneurial the company was when it came to digital subscriptions. "They were agile, they could be fast, and they were ready for more dynamic change across the organisation,” she said.
Brunswick News publishes both daily and weekly papers, which have hard paywalls, with no metered access.
Now, nearly three years later, Metcalfe shared five key aspects that have helped her organisation get ahead and stand out. "When I look at the journey, there are five things that have to gel and really work together and break down silos to bring real change,” she said.
- Quality journalism and products
As we heard several speakers in Glasgow say, high-quality journalism is the starting point for success.
"What I really enjoy at Brunswick News is that the journalism and the journalists are at the very heart of what we do, and they are absolutely essential to the growth," said Metcalfe., Editor-in-Chief, Brunswick News, Canada, speaking at WNMC.19
Earlier this year the company launched a new mobile news website with an interesting twist that is somewhat similar to the single-sign-on concept that advertising alliances among publishers sometimes use.
"What is unique about our site is there is one URL, but there are actually 10 different papers in there to sample from,” Metcalfe said, adding that the site was built in-house and that they are now heavily focused on optimising it.
Readers also have multiple options for personalising their user experience through the website, she said.
- Customer-first structure
Metcalfe then highlighted the importance of putting the customer right at the centre of what they do.
As mentioned above, the company's sites are fully paywalled, so Brunswick News knows their users and the content they are consuming. "We have a 360-degree view of the customer, and we're making sure that we are serving them in the best possible way," she said.
Equally important, and connected to all the other steps for success, is making the most of data, she said. "One thing that really was important to get right from the very beginning was data," Metcalfe added. "You all know how important data is – but how quickly it can become too complicated."
Brunswick News' goal, she said, was to simplify analytics in such a way that an editor, a reporter, someone in marketing or in customer services could look at a screen and quickly know what action they should take in order to improve either the journalism or the quality experience.
"I think the whole point here is to have that data so that we can use it to improve everything we do. It's not to direct the journalism; it's to empower and inform the journalism. This has been absolutely central to the model we've had, and we've almost doubled our engagement with unique users on a daily basis since we launched this journey."
- Engaged teams
While they are trying to engage readers, Brunswick News also seeks to ensure that their staff and teams are engaged as well, and a key way they are doing this is through training. "We're all quite aware that sometimes in newsrooms, training can go amiss," Metcalfe said.
Brunswick News has a monthly training course for employees. "We train every month, all of our staff from all three departments, and we expect an 80-percent pass level. That is not to be critical of the scoring – it's to make sure that the training is really working and if somebody needs something else, then we'll retest and supply them with better training." The aim is to make the training highly relevant and personalised, she said.
"We've all been through training sessions that we leave and we don't retain anything. Here, there's a lot of back and forth: What do you need? What can we train you on? Do you need legal training? Systems? Is it data, or how to write better headlines, or how to take better photos?"
Metcalfe said they also try to avoid having training where it's someone just coming in and "talking at our teams." For example, for a photo journalism training, she said they had an expert come in and take the work that their journalists had been doing.
"She critiqued with them how the pictures could have been improved, so it's fully engaging. It's been a very important step for us, and all of these little pieces came together to actually lead to growth in the newsroom," Metcalfe said.
- Clear vision
Brunswick News is clearly focused on producing journalism that makes a real difference in people's lives, Metcalfe says. "News matters. There's a higher calling in journalism. It's not just the breaking news and the community news. We have to look at things like 'change journalism'," she said.
She said she constantly asks her newsrooms the questions, "Why does a reader want to come to us?" and "How do we give them the value of their hard-earned money to spend it on our journalism?"
Metcalfe added that Brunswick News is currently a finalist for a Michener Prize (similar to the Pulitzers in the US) for a series they did after finding out through "old-fashioned sources" that there was an ambulance staffing crisis, which meant that some people were being loaded onto make-shift stretchers and put into the back of SUVs and driven to hospitals by their loved ones rather than professionally trained health care workers.
"And basically through a whole lot of reporting it led to dramatic change – so much so that it became a lead election issue," she said. "The government fell in New Brunswick and a new government rose, and I've never seen anything so profound in all my years in journalism.
"And really, that's where we build trust," she said. "That's where we change public policy. And for me as a journalist, that's what makes me stand here after decades in this business and feel that it's as important now, if not more so, than it was in the past."
She added that the investigations took some "18 months of grueling journalism that was aimed at making life better for people in New Brunswick, and I don't think there is any greater feat in journalism than to be able to walk away and say 'We truly saved lives.' "
She said the mandate she brought to the company's newsrooms was "to hit that higher bar all the time, not just one investigation – every day." Citing a current example, Metcalfe said they've discovered that schools in their area have not been keeping precise track of how many children or teachers receive vaccinations. With the current widespread measles outbreak, that's becoming a real problem.
"I see it as a responsibility for us to give a voice to people in our community to fix this, and there's no greater challenge, and I'm very honoured to have that responsibility for our readers."