I conducted user research, facilitated cross-disciplinary collaboration, and implemented cost-effective solutions to improve a community newspaper's digital products and innovate ways to reach new audiences, resulting in a 254% increase in page views and a sustainable workflow for the journalists.
The Herald is a family-owned community newspaper with a history of reporting on Dubois County, Indiana since 1895. The Saturday Feature was founded in 1978 as a visually-driven, front page feature story published weekly. Former publisher John Rumbach believed that the Saturday Feature’s popularity was part of the reason the paper experienced a slower readership decline than most other small newspapers.
"The Herald has this rich legacy of using photography well, displaying it well, in a way that emotionally engages its readers. It's unlike any newspaper I've ever seen."
David Pierini, former chief photographer
In-person semi-structured user interviews ◦ Moderated usability testing ◦ Cross-disciplinary workshop ◦ Affinity mapping ◦ Service blueprint
Post-It Notes ◦ Google Analytics ◦ Adobe Spark
An independent project while working as The Herald's photo editor — a role that also included being the designer and project manager of the Saturday Feature
Completed over 6 months in 2019
In the printed newspaper, the Saturday Feature was treated as a premium story. Time was devoted to reporting the story and then a week-long editing and design process ensured that the story shined in the two to six pages of the newspaper that were dedicated to it each week. However, digitally, the Saturday Feature was treated no differently than all other stories.
I set out to elevate the digital treatment of the Saturday Feature to mirror the quality of the print edition. My hope was that by creating a better experience online, the stories would reach more readers beyond our print subscribers.
The phrase "build on the Saturday Feature tradition" was included in the problem statement as a nod to the long-standing expectation of quality that readers of The Herald had come to expect. The daily readers of the printed newspaper skewed older and included people that lacked internet access and computer literacy. Based on the regularity of reader feedback, we knew that Herald readers were averse to change. Any changes to the digital product should not affect the printed newspaper.
While print subscriptions were declining, The Herald's online presence was growing with a website, email newsletter, and an active social media following. The target audience of this project were adults in their 20s through 40s, subscribers and non-subscribers alike, who accessed The Herald's stories online.
Time and money were the main constraints to consider. A solution needed to be low- or no-low cost to the company, while adding value and accessibility for readers. A solution also needed to take into consideration the workload of the newspaper's journalists. It should be able to be implemented within the current workflow, should not add an unreasonable amount of time and effort, should be sustainable over the long term, and could not require any additional staff positions.
I hoped that a better user experience would help readers see more value in an online subscription to The Herald. The newspaper's publisher saw an elevated online presentation as an opportunity for a new sponsorship package to generate more advertising revenue. Additionally, the main statistic used to entice potential advertisers was the website's page views, a number that would increase if this project was successful.
Scroll to see an online Saturday Feature from Jan. 2019
I led an ideation workshop with photographers, editors, and writers to try to answer the question: How might we use the Saturday Feature to reach new audiences? Four themes emerged: the types of stories we tell, our storytelling methods, how we share stories, and community involvement. The discussion it sparked led to immediate application of some of the ideas.
Understanding the workflow of how each Saturday Feature was made was essential to seeing the opportunities for implementing solutions that worked for both the readers interacting with the product and the journalists creating it behind the scenes. While a new Saturday Feature was published each week, journalists were always working on multiple stories at different stages of the process.
Readers often pitched stories when talking to journalists in the field, via email, or by calling the newsroom.
A monthly Saturday Feature meeting gathered all writers, photographers, and editors to pitch stories. As photo editor, I assessed each story pitch for visual potential and approved those that yielded opportunities for quality photos. A writer and photographer team were assigned based on interests, style, skill, experience, and challenges.
The subjects of the stories were also Herald customers. All interactions must be respectful and foster a positive relationship between The Herald and the community.
The writer and photographer started with an initial interview to get to know the people they are documenting, explain the process, and start reporting. From there, they often worked separately to research, report, and photograph the story while communicating with each other and their editors about their progress.
Readers of the print edition see a Saturday Feature promo ad in the days prior to its publication.
As photo editor, I worked with the photographer to select photos with the black and white print layout in mind. The story was edited for the length constraints of printed pages. I designed the printed layout, which was sent around the newsroom for proofing. Once all changes were finalized, I uploaded the story to the website.
The Saturday Feature is distributed in print to home delivery subscribers and local newsstands. The story is published on The Herald's website. The following Monday, it is shared via social media and email newsletter.
Because editors worked Monday through Friday, the online story was published Friday evening and shared on Monday. After publication, all Herald journalists gathered feedback from the community to share with the newsroom.
I conducted five semi-structured interviews with Herald readers in their 20s and 30s to get a sense of their relationship with the Saturday Feature and how it fit into their reading routine.
“The thing that I love so much about [The Saturday Feature] is that it gives you a look into people in the community that you otherwise wouldn’t know. It’s a good reminder that we’re all human and we all have our own stories and our own struggles, right here in the same community. I think we all want to feel connected and seen and heard, and I think that these do a lot for that.”
kelly, interview participant
The strategy for reaching new audiences with the Saturday Feature was to embrace new mindsets and to integrate free tools within the current workflow: publishing Saturday Features using Adobe Spark, using social media tools to schedule Facebook and Instagram posts, and launching a Saturday Feature email newsletter. They were implemented over several months and both the content and workflow was iterated on as we gathered feedback from Herald stakeholders and customers each week.
Stemming from our cross-disciplinary workshop and reader interviews, new mindsets were adopted in how the Saturday Feature was created and shared.
Community Engagement & Involvement: Rather than just aiming to share the stories with the community, we wanted to create more of a two-way dialogue. The simplest example would be to engage more in social media comments on a story. A deeper approach would be to involve the community directly in the ideation and creation of stories.
New Storytelling Methods: A typical Saturday Feature followed a linear narrative story line, through both the photos and the words. We challenged ourselves to think outside of the limits of the black and white printed format and use methods to change the ways we reported and presented stories to create more variety and appeal to more audiences.
I implemented the use of Adobe Spark to create web pages that can be embedded on the Herald website and shared directly to social media. The page launches with a lightbox effect in the user’s browser, so they do not need to leave the Herald site to view the story.
The Spark pages are also mobile-friendly and display visuals well. I set up custom templates using The Herald’s preferred typefaces, so the web presentations felt consistent with the print editions. The tool is easy to use and requires no knowledge of coding, so anyone in the newsroom could create a Spark story, if needed.
Once we were more confident in the online presentation of Saturday Features, the News Editor and I re-evaluated the way we shared the stories online. Since we worked Monday through Friday, we looked for solutions that let us prepare the stories on Friday to publish on Saturday.
On Facebook, the Saturday Features were shared on Monday afternoons, after the daily stories were shared. We switched to using Creator Studio to schedule the posts to publish on Saturday.
Saturday Features were rarely shared on Instagram. I started using Later and Link In Bio to schedule photos and the story link to post on Saturday morning.
The Herald sends out a Daily Headlines email newsletter Monday through Friday. Previously, the Saturday Feature was grouped with local news in Monday’s email. I worked with our developer to create a newsletter that showcases just the Saturday Feature and can be scheduled to send on Saturday. The Saturday Feature story is also included in Monday’s Daily Headlines newsletter, now under its own heading.
I conducted basic moderated usability testing with five participants interacting with Saturday Features in various forms: the print edition, Herald website, Spark edition, and e-Edition (a web tool that allows readers to view the PDF of the print edition) of the same stories.
The Spark pages were a favorite, with several people saying they previously never read the Saturday Features online but have now made it a habit because it was a better experience.
“This looks like the print Herald. This is something that Jasper residents from the early 1900’s would be like ‘Oh yeah, that looks like The Herald but on a website.'”
“This is so much more interesting and interactive because the photos actually look alive.”
“This is obviously the superior way to open an article.”
While readers had mixed reviews for the e-Edition and Herald website, the print edition was well-received.
“There’s something that I love about a good old fashioned newspaper. It’s comfortable, it’s reliable, it’s familiar. It seems like an old friend.”
New approaches for new audiences. Expanding the types of stories The Herald covered plus utilizing creative storytelling methods were ways to reach new audiences outside of the Saturday Feature’s typical linear narrative format. Meet Gen Z, an instant film portrait series showcasing diversity among the area’s youth, was a result of this approach. It was the most viewed Saturday Feature of 2019. The Voyage of Life is also an example of a collaborative photo essay produced by the whole photo staff, using multiple viewpoints to explore one topic.
Community collaboration. Involving the community through events, partnerships, and social media interactions can make stories more collaborative and strengthen The Herald’s relationship with readers. The Final Chapter, a partnership with elementary students to document their school's last year, was a result of this approach. It was a rewarding experience in mentoring budding journalists. Another example, Poems from Home, published poems submitted by readers and illustrated by Herald photographers during the coronavirus pandemic. It was very popular with readers, who kept sending in poems to the Herald long after the deadline, leading to additional installments being published.
Thinking of the audience. The shift in mindset was most noticeable in how journalists pictured The Herald's audience. Previously, we imagined older people reading their Saturday morning newspaper over coffee. Now, we were thinking of how people would come across the story on Facebook and scroll through it, experiencing color photos interwoven with the words, accessible on their phone anywhere they were. The time-tested production of the printed Saturday Feature was not altered, though sometimes we were tasked with translating a digital-first story into print layout, rather than the other way around.
In 2018 – before the increased effort in the digital Saturday Feature – stories received an average of 818 page views. With the implementation of Spark pages and the launch of the Saturday Feature newsletter, the average number of page views rose to 2,080, an increase of more than 250%.