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talkWhat does it take to be the digital editor at a local news outlet in 2015? When the Gazette Company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was seeking a digital news editor, it wanted “strong news judgment” — someone who could “jump in with strong and innovative coverage plans, sometimes on little notice.” Exactly what you’d expect from an employee-owned media company that operates a 130-year-old newspaper, a local TV station and related websites.

But above all that, at least in the job description, The Gazette also wanted an editor with some distinctly 21st-century, audience-focused know-how, including “the use of A/B testing and heat mapping and other user testing”:

“Our ideal candidate will be able to analyze analytics, identify trends and respond with the most engaging experiences possible. They’ll understand SEO, best uses of social media and will help coach the news team on digital tools and best practices. They’ll be able to understand digital (and mobile) usage of our audience…. They’ll have experience developing day-parting strategies and using analytics to predict content consumption and how to best use resources.”

These skills are an entirely different kind of “who, what, where, when and why” than most j-schools teach.

In today’s news organizations, building audience is almost everyone’s business. And the high-end skills the Gazette was in the market for also seem to be in high demand in many newsrooms.

About two-thirds of the organizations that responded to our questionnaire (20 of 31 or 65 percent) listed expertise in audience development and user metrics among their top five-to-10 hiring priorities for the coming year.

“The skills you need increasingly are a real focus on how a piece of journalism is being consumed — a mobile form versus a ​tablet or ​on the ​desktop,” said Raju Narisetti, senior vice president for strategy at News Corp. “That then speaks to the type of experience you’re trying to create….​Where and how are people experiencing the stor​y?”

Breaking out the responses by target audience, news leaders from local media companies answered much the same way, with two-thirds of those organizations (10 of 15, or 67 percent) prioritizing audience and metrics. But that may not always be the case — especially in media markets the size of Cedar Rapids.

There was a noticeable split between the answers from news leaders at companies with small- to medium-sized local audiences (those that were not in the top-10 U.S. media markets) and the other organizations we heard from. In the small- to medium-sized markets, fewer than half (3 of 7, or 43 percent) listed audience development and metrics as a priority. In larger markets, most local news organizations (7 of 8, or 88 percent) said they were on the hunt for high-end audience expertise. (In some cases, such as the Washington Post and New York public radio station WNYC, these larger “local” outlets have significant national and even international audiences and often seem to share needs with organizations that focus mainly on those markets.)

Social media is a big part of many news organizations’ audience strategies. While those skills were not ranked as highly as audience development and user metrics, more than half of all the respondents (17 of 31, or 55 percent) listed social distribution as one of their hiring priorities. And slightly less than half (14 of 31, or 45 percent) said they would be looking for people with social engagement and social reporting skills.

Social distribution in particular is about more than understanding the art and mechanics of crafting a post on one platform or another. It’s about understanding how each post affects behavior and how that behavior relates to an organization’s overall editorial and audience strategy.  “People still don’t really understand Facebook or Twitter and why people click on things,” said Annie-Rose Strasser, a former managing editor at Buzzfeed who now is with the Gimlet Media podcasting network. “It’s so valuable to understand that — if you don’t have people who understand that, it’s like shooting into the dark.”

But here again the questionnaire suggested differences between local organizations in smaller media markets and the other companies we talked to. In small- and medium-sized markets, fewer than half of our respondents (3 of 7, or 43 percent) prioritized social distribution and fewer than a third (2 of 7, or 29 percent) listed social engagement/reporting.

The overall importance of audience to most media leaders was also plain enough from the journalism job postings gathered for this report. Among those openings were titles such as:

  • Audience Development Manager
  • Digital Engagement Editor
  • Social and Audience Producer
  • Social Media Producer
  • Social Media Editor
  • Social Media Reporter/Editor

Roles like these typically involved responsibilities for posting and engaging audiences on specific social channels; monitoring site analytics and user trends; and sometimes training others to handle some of these duties.

But we also saw some of these same responsibilities embedded and emphasized in the duties for other kinds of open news jobs, up and down the organizational charts of various employers.

At Tribune-owned WPIX-TV/PIX11 News in New York, a Web producer was expected to handle breaking news and a little video editing. But the “ideal candidate” would also be “expert in social media, SEO and other tools to grow PIX11’s digital audience while increasing engagement with viewers.” That meant managing social media accounts “for breaking news, story promotion and audience engagement (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat)”; “live tweeting and audience engagement around newscasts”; and “knowledge of web metric tools such as Google Analytics.” The station’s ultimate goals: “to help grow our audience” and “experiment with new ways to tell stories and reach a wider audience.”

Likewise, Gannett’s Indiana Media Group was seeking a digital producer for the Muncie Star Press and Richmond Palladium-Item who came ready to “collaborate with editors to maximize social media presence.” This producer would combine “exceptional core journalism skills (reporting, producing and editing)” with “advanced knowledge of social media,” the know-how to “engage fan base on digital platforms,” and the “ability to interpret audience data.”

Similar duties appeared in the postings for other front-line newsroom positions — from a freelance digital journalist at KNBC-TV/NBC4 in Los Angeles (who would use a list of social media services “to report and to engage our audience”) to a digital platforms producer for the Minneapolis-based public radio program On Being (who would update “social media spaces” and help “reach audience growth goals for each of our digital channels, including “Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, etc.”).

When we asked if their companies had created positions in the past year that didn’t previously exist in their organizations, many survey participants mentioned roles directly related to audience development, user engagement and/or social media. Among them:

  • a digital producer at KING-TV/KING5 in Seattle “to focus on interactive TV projects, melding social media engagement with TV programming”
  • a team of producers at the Al Jazeera Media Network’s AJ+ to “create content specifically for social networks… [and] engage with the audience in those spaces authentically and create content designed for those spaces and for those communities”
  • a motion graphics producer specifically “for mobile/social platforms” and a Snapchat editor at VOX Media
  • a head of paid social media for Vice, which also created a “platform team” to lead “growth of our digital sites through expert use of analytics…. coupled with editorial intelligence and a deep understanding of habits across the web.”

Another sign that these skills were in high demand: six of the 39 news leaders who answered our questionnaire noted that they had difficulty finding qualified applicants for audience development, analytics and social media positions.

In Their Words: Audience

For leaders from some of the most sophisticated digital media organizations, building new audiences is not simply a matter of deploying social media skills or crunching user data. It’s how those skills are brought together to create editorial experiences that are grounded in an audience’s behavior, needs and expectations.

Annie-Rose Strasser, former managing editor at Buzzfeed (now with Gimlet Media):

“The underlying thing is that people need to understand the way content is consumed….There needs to be more data analysis as related to audience information. Being a reporter hasn’t changed, but the platforms have, so you have to understand what fits on each platform.”

Trei Brundrett, chief product officer, Vox Media:

“Typically, newsrooms can find people who use analytics or can drive social traffic, but these tend to be more tactical. It’s more difficult to find people interested in the ecosystem — who have an understanding of how to serve the audience in multiple places, even if that means the traffic isn’t returning to your site. That level of work and talent is more difficult to find.”

Daniel Eilemberg, chief digital officer and senior vice president, Fusion:

“Data will increasingly play a bigger and bigger role in newsrooms…. The role of analytics is changing for us as a media organization that is so widely distributed, on so many platforms — beyond social media platforms. Just to understand what our audience looks like today. It’s hard to find people who really understand analytics across platforms. It’s a really new thing and there are new platforms emerging every day.”

Keith Jenkins, formerly general manager, digital, National Geographic (now at the National Geographic Society):

New hires “really should have a familiarity with social media — not just social media as a way to stay in touch, but looking at it as a publishing platform. And [they should] understand that the changes that happen in the digital landscape first appear in the social media environment, because it’s so rapid and 24-hour, non stop. It’s a good place to pick up on trends. You don’t have to use everything, but you should use something.”