With just seconds left in Super Bowl LII earlier this month, editors and reporters in the newsroom of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com gathered around two TV screens in the middle of the newsroom. One showed the game between the hometown Eagles and the New England Patriots. The other featured a rotating series of charts highlighting web traffic and the number of digital subscriptions.
As Tom Brady’s last-second Hail Mary hit the turf of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the newsroom burst into cheers. The Eagles had just won their first-ever Super Bowl. “Alright, work starts now,” Gabriel Escobar, editor and vice president said.
The work had actually started far earlier. Even as preparations for the Super Bowl ramped up in the weeks leading up to the game, that effort built upon months of work at the Philadelphia Media Network, which consists of the three entities, to improve their digital and organizational capabilities.
So while the newsroom was pumping out live coverage online and preparing the next day’s paper, the paper’s staff was on the field handing players congratulatory front pages of the Inquirer for them to hold up as they celebrated on national TV. The advertising and marketing teams were finalizing ads celebrating the new champions and beginning to promote a book the papers were producing to commemorate the season. The circulation and production departments, meanwhile, were preparing for a massive print run for the next day’s paper.
This week in Solution Set we’re examining how The Philadelphia Media Network mobilized to cover Super Bowl LII. The company spent months preparing so it would be in a position to capitalize on the Eagles’ championship both editorially and commercially.
Solution Set is a new weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one neat thing in journalism, share some lessons you can take away, and point you toward other excellent resources. (You can catch up on earlier issues here.)
Before we get started, I need to share a significant disclosure: The Lenfest Institute is the parent organization of PMN. It’s a unique and slightly complicated arrangement, and you can read more about it here. The Institute has no editorial oversight of the Inquirer, Daily News, or Philly.com and we had no involvement in the business-side plannings either. (The Institute did sponsor a digital journalism contest for the newsroom, and you can read more details about that further down.)
PMN had no editorial oversight of this report. They’re reading it here for the first time like you.
I decided to cover PMN’s approach to the Super Bowl in Solution Set this week because it’s an interesting case study for how to make the most of opportunities surrounding a major event, sports-related or otherwise, that captivated the community and then try to apply what was learned through the process to day-to-day workflows.
With all that out of the way, here’s the TLDR version of what you need to know:
• The Challenge: In 2017, PMN totally redesigned its newsroom and also installed a pay meter on its website. The Super Bowl presented an opportunity to build on those initiatives.
• The Strategy: Executives and editors began planning for the possibility of a Super Bowl run in late fall. They put processes in place and developed products to make the most of the moment if the Eagles ultimately made it.
• The Numbers: PMN sent 24 journalists to Minneapolis to cover the game and there were dozens more on the streets in Philadelphia covering the celebrations and championship parade.
• The Lessons: Collaboration is key. PMN shared coverage with the Boston Globe and sought advice from other papers. Within the organization, clear lines of communication made all the difference.
• The Future: PMN hopes it can make the cohesion and sense of urgency that arose around the Super Bowl its “new way of life.”
• Want to know more?: I’ll share some other examples of how news organizations can use big events to try out cool things.
Now, let’s dig in a little deeper:
2017 was momentous for the Philadelphia Media Network.
Over the spring and the summer, the news management decided it had to make a dramatic move to encourage journalists to focus on the digital audience. After consultations with the union, it redefined every job in the newsroom, and made a digital focus a key job requirement. Journalists in the newsroom then re-applied for the newly designed roles and were offered training to ensure they could succeed in their new positions. It was the most dramatic part of an overhaul that changed how PMN approached its journalism. The many evolutions included a restructuring of beats, a significant expansion of the audience engagement team, and the creation of many new products, such as email newsletters.
These changes were all part of the lead up to another major change for PMN: In September, it put up a meter and began charging for its journalism online. Readers now only get access to a limited number of free stories per month before they’re asked to pay.
Something else significant also happened last fall in Philadelphia. The Eagles started winning. And they kept winning. They racked up an 11-2 record before star quarterback Carson Wentz injured his ACL. The team ultimately finished the season 13-3 and easily dispatched its two opponents in the playoffs, advancing to the Super Bowl.
Philadelphia is football crazy in normal times, but as the Eagles advanced through the playoffs interest in the team reached a fever pitch. For PMN, the Eagles’ Super Bowl run was an opportunity to reach new audiences, attract subscribers, and generate extra revenue.
But to truly capitalize on the moment, PMN would need to lean on the new muscles it developed throughout 2017, including its renewed emphasis on digital journalism and its pay meter.
The Super Bowl was on February 4, but planning for the Eagles’ playoff run and eventual berth in the Big Game began much earlier. By the end of November and into December, editors and executives were trading emails about the Eagles. The newsroom created an Eagles playoffs channel on Slack.
The early discussions focused on things such as budgets and potential messaging to advertisers and subscribers. In the newsroom, the dedicated Slack channel helped editors and journalists establish clear lines of communication as they worked to optimize their workflows.
“The value of that was not necessarily anything specific content-wise that came out of those early discussions, but more that it established the lines of communication and it got on the sports editor’s radar early that news wanted to be involved in this and had ideas,” express desk coverage editor Emily Babay, told me.
She continued: “We started practicing our own game week walkthroughs of the audience team going over the game day plans with the sports department about what was coming and when our SEO editor got involved with the full slate of content when it was on the smaller scale of the regular season, so it was less overwhelming for everyone as we scaled up around the post-season because we had already gotten into the rhythm of what an Eagles week looks like.”
Babay coordinated all of PMN’s coverage across desks and made sure the newsroom knew how stories were progressing.
She organized a number of Google docs and spreadsheets, which were pinned within in the Slack channel. They kept track of deadlines and which stories were in progress as well as key logistical details such as style notes and how stories should be tagged in the CMS.
The Super Bowl was the latest in a number of big events PMN has covered over the past two-plus years. Pope Francis visited the city in September 2015, the Democratic National Convention was in Philly in 2016, and Philadelphia hosted the NFL Draft in April 2017.
PMN dispatched dozens of staffers for each of those events, but it never had a dedicated point person to manage the coverage and ensure clear communication between desks. (They also had three separate newsrooms for some of those as well.) But with journalists spread across Philadelphia and Minneapolis, where the game was played, PMN executive editor and senior vice president Stan Wischnowski emphasized that a central role was important for the Super Bowl.
“That was a huge upgrade to our overall coverage,” Wischnowski said. “[Babay] did a magnificent job keeping all the trains running, not just on time, but making sure that we were as innovative and experimental as possible…that was a big learning. I wish we would’ve had a project manager attached to those earlier ones. A single person who served as the maestro, so to speak.”
By December, PMN’s marketing team began working with the newsroom to begin production of a commemorative book that would be ready to publish if the Eagles ultimately won the championship. Newsroom staffers collected photos, rewrote captions, and prepared the pages. This way, if the Eagles won, they’d be able to drop in Super Bowl coverage, pick a cover, and get the book printed to capitalize on interest in the team.
Marketing solicited bids from various publishers but decided to work with Pediment, a publisher based near Portland, Ore., which specializes in these types of quick-turnaround commemorative books.
PMN is selling the book — along with other merchandise — through a newly launched online store. The company had long planned to debut an e-commerce platform, and it had been working for months to build it out. The store was scheduled to go live February 5, the Monday after the Super Bowl, but PMN decided to expedite the launch to take advantage of the added interest.
PMN is selling everything from front page reprints to canvas sneakers, and it’s all created on-demand so the company has no inventory it has to maintain.
“We were very fortunate that the marketing team was ready with that new store to make commerce very easy,” PMN publisher and CEO Terrance C.Z. Egger told me.
“It was a home run, an absolute home run. Hopefully, while people were passionate about getting that day’s paper through the store…they were introduced to the store and had a good experience, and they’ll come back to us when it’s their child’s birthday or their spouse’s birthday,” he said.
Meanwhile, throughout the playoffs, and then even more so after the Eagles advanced to the Super Bowl, the marketing, product, and advertising staffs worked to create advertising products that could build on the excitement of the game. For instance, PMN created a standalone Super Bowl landing page on its website, which allowed the newsroom to highlight its Eagles reporting and then also provided another high-traffic area to sell ads.
On the print side, PMN created cheer cards and underdog masks, which were sponsored and inserted in both the Inquirer and Daily News in the lead up to the Super Bowl. They were also handed out at the championship parade.
The newsroom, marketing, and advertising teams also worked together for special print sections and commemorative editions of the paper both before the game and then after the Eagles won. By knowing what coverage the newsroom was producing, the marketing and advertising teams could better promote it and sell ads against it.
After all this preparation, one thing remained: the actual game. PMN held a party for employees who work in its printing press so they could watch the game before getting to work. It also pushed back its print deadline to give the journalists more time to get coverage in the paper.
And PMN knew that there would be increased demand for print copies of the paper, especially if the Eagles won, so it added additional print runs, brought in additional staff, and rented additional trucks to add more capacity. Some trucks even had to make multiple delivery runs.
PMN sent 24 journalists to Minneapolis to cover the Super Bowl. The team on the ground included sports and news reporters, photographers, and an audience engagement editor.
Back in Philadelphia, 60 journalists were involved in covering the celebrations that erupted throughout the city immediately after the win, and 70 journalists covered the championship parade, which drew an estimated 700,000 people into the streets.
PMN has sold 13 times the number of single copies of the Monday papers than it sells on a typical Monday. That day’s Inquirer and Daily News were kept on newsstands for extra days, and PMN set up kiosks across the city, including outside its office and at the championship parade, to sell additional copies.
The papers also published special commemorative editions on the Friday after the Super Bowl, which included coverage of the championship parade. Those editions sold 25 percent better than a typical Friday. It also sold $1 special issues at the Eagles’ championship parade on Thursday.
PMN charged $4 per copy for those two special editions of the paper. (Single copies of the Inquirer and Daily News typically cost $2.)
Egger said the Inquirer decided to charge more for the papers because of the investment it put into its Super Bowl coverage. He said PMN spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on its coverage, though the company declined to share an exact figure. (PMN even booked a helicopter for the parade so a photographer could make aerial photos.)
“It wasn’t cheap to have 24 journalists in Minneapolis for eight days,” Egger said. “The number of journalists we had on the streets here. The extra pages of content. It was an expensive proposition. We wanted to make sure we got our investment back on that, and we wanted to make sure it was a unique product. It wasn’t your normal day’s paper. In terms of what went into it and what it cost to produce.”
PMN signed up 5,636 print and digital or digital only subscribers in the two weeks preceding and the week after the Super Bowl. In just the week after the Eagles won, the paper added 2,560 subscribers — its largest week since it had a rush of new subscribers right after the launch.
About half of the readers who subscribed after hitting the pay meter were from outside the Philadelphia market.
And PMN is currently running a promotion offering a 52-week subscription for $52. That deal also includes a copy of the commemorative book. 2,102 people have signed up for that deal.
PMN plans to run the deal through the end of February. It’s also planning on using old-school techniques such as direct mail marketing, kiosks, and telemarketing to pitch the deal to potential subscribers.
It’ll also likely use the book, or other commemorative Eagles options, to promote subscriptions as the new season gets underway.
And, of course, it’ll work to retain those subscribers so they’ll stick around even after the Super Bowl excitement dies down.
Through Feb. 12, about a week after the Feb. 4 Super Bowl, PMN had pre-sold more than 10,000 copies of the book. Nearly 9,000 back issues of the papers from the day after the Super Bowl through the online store. The back issues cost $15 each.
However, PMN is charging more for people who are trying to buy 10 or more copies since it figures they’re likely reselling them. (A frame shop around the corner from my apartment is selling framed copies of the paper for $119!)
• Collaboration is cool: To help figure out its Super Bowl strategy, PMN consulted with newspapers in cities that had recently been to the Big Game or won championships. The Seattle Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, and The Boston Globe all shared their experience on everything from staffing needs to how many extra papers should be printed.
Still, PMN took its relationship with The Boston Globe a step further. The Eagles played the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, which was taking place in Minneapolis. As a result, PMN, the Globe, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune shared coverage throughout the Super Bowl week.
They ran each other’s stories online and in print with editors’ notes describing the partnership and encouraging readers to subscribe. Globe and Inquirer columnists also participated in Facebook Live discussions that each paper broadcast on their respective pages.
“Going forward, we’re talking about big election nights or big breaking news” as opportunities for partnerships, Wischnowski said. “There’s a lot of opportunities to maximize our efficiency through these partnerships. It’s the name of the game.”
By sharing lessons and coverage, the papers were able to help each other out and build relationships that they can utilize in future events. Similarly, they also provided added value to their subscribers by showcasing differing perspectives.
• Keep in touch: Beginning the Monday after the Eagles won the NFC Championship, leaders from across the organization began meeting on almost a daily basis to discuss their plans for Super Bowl coverage.
Each department shared what they were working on, and ensured that everyone knew what was expected of them. They’d go back and forth about things such as what coverage was forthcoming so advertising and marketing would know what to expect or whether editorial would give up some color pages to meet advertiser demand.
“A lot of times I would come from a meeting and I would come back and have like 60 emails after [being gone for] like half an hour,” Pat McLoone; managing editor, sports told me.
“Most of them were advertising or circulation related, and you just had to work your way back up. Everyone was going hard and fast and wanted the information as soon as they could,” he said.
A similar emphasis occurred on the departmental level. The newsroom had its workflow systems in Slack and Google Docs.
On the advertising side, Egger held a pep-rally style meeting with the entire staff to provide context for the organization’s overall goals and to get people excited for the Super Bowl. The advertising team also sent out a daily email with updates on new ad products, language that should be used with clients, and what had been sold.
“Every single day there was this great all-departmental email that was keeping track of the progress, giving appropriate kudos to successful salespeople, and keeping the team fired up for this opportunity,” PMN chief strategy and innovation officer Michael Zimbalist said.
The last week before the Super Bowl was beyond hectic, and by emphasizing lines of communication and by making sure that everyone understood their role, PMN was able to take advantage of the moment.
• It’s a long haul: After the Eagles advanced to the Super Bowl, the sports desk knew it would have to fill two-weeks’ worth of stories before the actual game.
So, it decided to take a step back and plan out its stories in the most efficient way, and because of all the planning that went into the coverage, they knew there were other Super Bowl-related stories that could help fill the paper and the website.
“It’s against your instincts, but there’s a part of you that has to hold back your very best stuff for the last week,” McLoone said. “We really tried to map out the last two weeks of big stories. That’s really where Gabe Escobar and the newsroom effort was terrific. That A1 story or top digital hit, it didn’t have to be something from one of the four sports writers. It often was, but it could be a great city or business piece that was related.”
That system that Babay, the coverage editor, anchored in the newsroom was developed throughout the Eagles’ playoff run. As a result, the newsroom was able to tweak its processes and improve things as the post-season progressed.
During the playoffs, immediately after a game, a quick game story and a couple columns were posted to Philly.com within minutes of a game finishing. The live blog that had been going through the game was switched to an as-it-happened type of story.
And relevant news stories were also published. After the NFC Championship game, a story about how to get Super Bowl tickets was posted right away.
But by the time the Super Bowl arrived, the newsroom was able to streamline things. Staffers knew which URLs to use to maximize SEO and also to file faster once the game went final.
Typically, the sportswriter covering the game would plug in the final score and file their story. But during the Super Bowl, they had pre-filed their story and a producer filled in the final score and published.
“Normally we’re fine waiting 10 minutes for his story to come up,” McLoone said. “On this one, we weren’t willing to wait 10 seconds. When we were positive they won, we were hitting the button and it was going up right away.”
That small change saved five to 10 seconds, Babay estimated, but given the competitive nature of the story and the fact that traffic to Philly.com tends to peak after Eagles games, that minor tweak was worth it.
“It felt good to be in a position where we could think about optimizing something that small because we had the basics covered,” she said.
Babay also focused on training reporters on tools such as ScribbleLive, the liveblogging platform the newsroom was using, so they wouldn’t have any trouble once they were out in the field reporting and filing dispatches.
It’s worth spending some extra time during the build-up to the event working to make sure everything is organized and everyone knows their role so things go as smoothly as possible once everything starts. Babay also said it’s worthwhile to make sure that staffers know how their work fits into the overall coverage plan.
Additionally, by using these big planned events to brush up on digital skills and mobile-first reporting, journalists will be ready to use those tools again if there’s another major event or an unexpected breaking story.
• Be prepared for any outcome: When making plans around a big sporting event, you have to be prepared for the fact that things might not go your way.
PMN had a lot riding on the game. There was the book, which staffers had already been working on for weeks. It had sold ads that were only going to run if the Eagles won. (In fact, some advertisers provided two versions of each ad — one to run if they won, one to run if they lost.) PMN had even printed front pages that it was going to hand out to players on the field after the game.
All of it would have been for naught if the Eagles lost, but everything had to be in place to properly take advantage of the opportunity if they won.
When it came to the book, for instance, the marketing team had prepared social media campaigns, banner ads for the website, and ads to go in the print paper to sell the book. The circulation team had worked out its deal to sell the book as part of a digital subscription. Because all of it was prepared ahead of time, PMN was just able to press a button after the Eagles won and make it go live.
“It was instrumental for us to take advantage of that first push. If we had to wait a day or two we would have lost momentum to other products that were flooding the market at the same time,” marketing specialist Elizabeth Parks told me. Parks managed the book project, and it was her first big initiative since joining the company in December.
Ultimately, all of this worked out for PMN, but the company decided it was worth the risk either way.
“We had to own this,” Egger said. “We had to make the investment.”
• Remember the big picture: While it’s easy to think of big events as one-off things, it’s important also to put them in the context of your larger organizational mission.
Within the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com newsroom, the Super Bowl was an opportunity to build on its larger goals for the digital transformation of the organization. For 2018, the newsroom has five primary goals, and Wischnowski said it was able to address many, if not all, of them through its Super Bowl coverage:
Having those larger goals helped the newsroom frame its coverage and make decisions about which projects it wanted to pursue. The Lenfest Institute sponsored a contest that gave cash awards to journalists who excelled in a number of different digital categories, such as who was able to promote the most digital subscriptions and who engaged in the best conversations with readers on social media.
The audience team, for example, has spent the past few months building up the #OurPhilly hashtag on Instagram. A photo with that hashtag is included in the Inquirer’s new morning news digest every day. For the Super Bowl and its aftermath, it used the hashtag to encourage readers to post photos of themselves cheering on the team and celebrating. They also created a landing page for #OurPhilly on philly.com, which highlighted some of the best user-submitted photos.
“We had hundreds of photos that came in from all the fans,” Wischnowski said. “That was very popular. That’s that different demographic that we’re getting. Even with all the resources we have, we can’t cover it all. Having our own users contributing…there’s this exponential value of having those sorts of devices to turn to in big events like this.”
For PMN moving forward, it wants to ensure that the momentum and collective urgency with which it worked during the Super Bowl can translate to day-to-day operations. Egger, the publisher, said he wants to ensure that this type of collaboration becomes “our new way of life.”
“Our biggest win out of it, it sounds corny, was selfless cooperation by every department,” Egger said. “You don’t produce something like this, both digitally or in print, with all facets — content, marketing sales — without tremendous cooperation.”
For Zimbalist, who just joined the company in January, the Super Bowl was an opportunity to dive straight into the deep end. Throughout the lead up to the game, Zimbalist said the ad team took steps to emphasize its digital offerings to advertisers. He said he’d like to see digital continue to be discussed and thought about on equal footing to print.
“Because everyone was together and because everyone was talking constantly about it, hopefully, we began to build a little bit of a reflex that everyone that goes out should be thinking about all the things we have to offer and how do these offers include the totality of our offering.”
He also said it’s important for smaller teams throughout the organization — from the newsroom to marketing and ad sales — to replicate the urgency, emphasis on communication, and the understanding of what their roles are as PMN continues to evolve how it operates to become a more digitally focused organization.
Zimbalist said he’d like to see “groups of four or five each knowing their role, getting it out in the market, and then beginning to look at what we offer as a collection of products and opportunities and not one massive product called the paper.”
• Last year, CJR reported on the state of PMN’s digital transition and how it implemented the meter.• Here’s a Poynter story with more details on how the Inquirer, Globe, and Star-Tribune shared Super Bowl coverage.
• Big sporting events, such as the Olympics, give news orgs an exciting opportunity to experiment with cool digital storytelling formats. These events are scheduled and you know when they are ahead of time, so you have plenty of time to develop neat things. Nieman Lab has a roundup of some of the highlights of the 2018 Winter Games.
Phew. You made it all the way down here. Thanks for getting this far! How has your news org covered massive events? What did you think of PMN’s playbook? Anything else to add? Have an idea for what we should cover in a future issue? Send me an email. I’m at [email protected] I’ll share some of the responses in next week’s edition.
See you next Thursday!