When Virginia Alonso began as an adjunct to the director of Público, she made a decision that many would consider radical, perhaps even suicidal: she decided to get rid of the sports section.
In a country like Spain, where fútbol (or soccer) is as sacred as going to church, deciding not to cover soccer can be seen as a sacrilege.
"We decided not to cover sports as the rest of the general news media does. (...) We don’t cover soccer or any other sport," explained Alonso. Público only covers sports when they are in line with their editorial focus, or when a highly relevant event occurs, such as a Spanish athlete winning a world tournament, she said.
Eliminating the sports section was part of a broader content strategy of getting rid of news coverage that didn’t attract large audiences and was very time-consuming to produce.
"When I started [at Público], I found a very small team, in which everyone did a little bit of everything," said Alonso, who began her new role at Público in October 2016 after working in news organizations such as 20Minutos and El Mundo. "And there was no specifics of where to look. When everyone looks everywhere, the attention is scattered, and the feeling is that what you do won’t be enough."
Being a small newsroom, her team plans how the stories of the day are going to be told from the get-go, because they produce just a few each day. "It is very important [for us] to focus our stories very, very well," she said.
Narrowing their focus was one of the first goals to fulfill. For this, Alonso and her team defined areas of coverage taking into consideration the newspaper’s editorial line. They called them "the Público flags.”
"And in fact we made them public. We published an article, in which we said these are our flags, and the information will runaround these."
The newsroom and editorial strategy is organized around new thematic areas: Women, Environment, Public Money, Vulnerable Persons, Individual Rights, Digital Rights, as well as politics and investigative journalism, among others. In addition, they created a small team in charge of breaking news and social media, which didn’t exist until then.
"This small team deals with information that comes from news agencies, information that comes from social media, everything that is not our own information, but always limited to our flags," said Alonso.
Focusing the newsroom around these thematic areas established defined roles and generated a significant increase in traffic. "The result in our audience has been exceptional. Not only because of this, but because we have complemented it with other things."
Improvements in SEO and social media. Another task Alonso took on was to professionalize the use of social media in the newsroom. The editorial team began to schedule Facebook posts on weekends, to measure those posts that worked better and to make Facebook Live broadcasts.
"We started using a tool [EzyInsights] that is very useful for us and allows us to see what’s working for other news organizations. As a result of that, we outlined a strategy of what we put on Facebook," she said.
In addition, she hired an SEO consultant to improve the positioning of Público stories and redesigned the desktop and mobile site.
The action plan was implemented in January. Thanks to all these changes, the site is growing its audience 40 percent year-over-year almost every month since February, said Alonso.
More transparency. Another project that keeps Alonso busy is a tool for information traceability. In this era of "fake news," Transparent Journalism Tool (TJTool) aims to describe Público’s news process, from how it the editorial team decided to cover a story to which writers were assigned to cover it and why they decided to use certain sources and not others.
The tool, still under construction, uses open source and can be used by any other news organization. TJTool has the support of Google and was recognized as one of the most innovative tools in Europe by the Google Digital News Initiative.
"It's a superb exercise in transparency," said Alonso. "We the media ask for transparency from public authorities, but we don’t do things transparently."
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via TEDx AlWaslWomen.