Publishers have a lot of work to do these days. Firstly there are all the traditional editorial duties that go into researching and writing great content.
On top of that – a dizzying array of tech choices and tasks.
Media professionals are becoming more and more digitally competent every year, but there’s still a “tech burden” when it comes to choosing all the right tools and using them optimally.
We’d heard about Newspack – a project from Automattic in collaboration with Google, Lenfest, ConsenSys, and Knight – and how they’re trying to ease this burden for publishers.
Their official description:
It’s a ready-to-go, intuitive, revenue-focused publishing platform that will let small and medium-sized newsrooms dedicate more resources to their journalism. Newspack will be simple to set up, easy to use, durable, flexible and fast.
How will it work though, and what will it look like down in the nitty-gritty?
To find out we interviewed Steve Beatty on the Digital Media Growth Podcast.
Steve is the “communications guy” at Newspack, and answered all our questions about the project and more. You can listen to the interview here:
Even better, we’re going to go really deep into Newspack in this article – read on for a breakdown of all the key points that Steve made and a complete overview of the project.
By the end of the article, you’re going to know exactly what Newspack is and whether it can help you find success as a digital publisher. Let’s get started!
Who is Steve Beatty? Steve humorously described himself as a “recovering journalist”.
“I have 20 years experience working in the print newspaper industry in New Orleans at the Times-Picayune and at The Atlanta Journal Constitution”
In 2009, Steve helped to start The Lens, a digital-only news site in New Orleans that did deep investigative work on education, politics, environment and other bread and butter issues.
For the past year, he’s been working with WordPress.com helping to develop Newspack.
“It’s exactly what I wish I’d had 10 years ago when I was starting The Lens. Back then if people had known how little I knew about websites they’d probably have taken my website away from me!”
Steve’s experience has put him in an ideal position to help solve the problems he faced first hand. Let’s move on to Newspack.
What is Newspack?
It’s built on and for WordPress – but is it a plugin, a CMS, a platform, a theme?
Newspack is a modular plugin, a theme and a hosting solution all in one.
The plugin will manage a wide range of publisher-specific functionality, and the installation of all necessary outside plugins. It’s essentially a solution for news sites to outsource the choosing and implementation of their tech choices.
“Newspack is one plugin to rule all plugins”
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“Essentially, once you install the Newspack theme, it takes you through a series of setup screens that ask you different questions. Based on your answers, it runs out and installs the plugins it needs to execute your wishes. This happens in the background, but we do tell you everything that’s been installed and is happening with your system”
The Newspack team are zeroing in on exactly what publishers need, and building a ready-to-go platform to provide it.
“So it’s a platform for publishing specifically focused on news publishers and trying to find the best plugins to achieve particular news goals”
Newspack will cost $1000 per month for newsrooms with under $500,000 in gross revenue, and $2000 per month for outlets with a revenue in excess of that.
In addition to the core platform, the service includes:
- automatic updates
- high-speed video and image delivery
- continuing research into best practices in revenue development and journalism
- exclusive benchmarking against your peers
- a connection to Newspack developers
- membership in a growing community of digital publishers
Why was Newspack built?
Like most good projects, Newspack started with thorough research into the difficulties and pain points of their target users.
“One of the first things we did was commission a survey of more than 100 newsrooms and ask them what their pain points were in trying to publish online. These were all very familiar to me as a former publisher”
What was the primary concern?
“The overriding one – a lot of publishers and editors were afraid to do anything to their website for fear of breaking it. After it was broken they’d have to spend a significant amount of money to hire a developer to come in. It would take them a week to fix a problem that I could probably make happen in 20 minutes”
Steve acknowledged that journalists and media professionals have become increasingly tech-savvy over recent years – but the overall problem persists.
“The tech continues to advance and I don’t know that they’re ever going to completely catch up. Mostly because the journalists need to focus on their forte and that is journalism, not so much how to make things happen on the publishing side of the house”
Newspack seeks to ease this pain point by allowing publishers to devote more of their energy and resources to their core purpose – creating great content – without getting bogged down in too much technical work or needing to hire expensive developers.
Who is Newspack for?
“It’s a little bit for everybody. It is aimed at small and medium-sized publishers”
They picked a group of appropriate organizations to participate in a pilot to test things out.
“We started with 12. One dropped out because a publisher changed and they were no longer able to do it, and two of them are more along for the ride as high-level technical advisors. So we have nine that we expect to launch on the Newspack platform over the next month or so, and two others that we’ll launch probably in four or five months. We’re about to announce the next cohort of about 50 publications that we hope will come along in the next few weeks. The goal with those 50 will be to scale up from the 12 to show that we can quadruple that access and have them publish before our year long development period is out at the end of February. So ideally by March 1st we’ll have close to 65 publications online”
They initially had more than 500 applicants, which speaks to the need for such a solution.
The successful applicants were chosen mostly by Newspack partners News Revenue Hub and Spirited Media. (Mary Walter-Brown, News Revenue Hub’s CEO gave us a great interview a while back about audience development and revenue)
A desire to be bold, to experiment and to be on the cutting edge were all highly valued in applicants.
So is Newspack for local publishers, bloggers, niche publications or non-profits?
According to Steve, they don’t discriminate, but it’ll be more for small and medium sized publishers.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to be trying to serve the CNN or Fox news of the world. They’ve got people on staff who can build them the website that they want. What we really want to do is be able to free up publishers to focus on news and let them use any developers they have on staff for better uses than simple website alignment and changes. We’d rather have their developers use their skills to advance the storytelling abilities of a newsroom and help create more good journalism – and we’ll worry about all the technical aspects that they need.”
Their pilot newsrooms are pretty diverse in terms of size, location and editorial focus.
“We have a niche publication called the Hechinger Report – they’re a nationwide publication focused on education. Then we have many other smaller sites that are statewide or city-based. We’re not restricted by anything other than the complexity of a website. One of our other pilot organizations is a major daily newspaper in Bangor, Maine, called the Bangor Daily News. So we’ve got that kind of newsroom all the way down to an outlet with six or seven people in it”
What Plugins will Newspack support?
Newspack is still in development, so they aren’t 100% settled on the exact plugins that’ll be integrated. Steve shared the ones they will support for sure though.
“We will for sure use Google Site Kit, which is in beta right now but combines a lot of the Google publishing tools in one. We will use Jetpack, which is a WordPress product that provides a number of different services from social sharing to backups.”
The initial research they did on publisher pain points is really driving the integrations they’re building.
“A lot of the pain points had to do with writing in one piece of software say Google docs and then switching over to WordPress to publish it. And then copying, pasting out of that into your mail system to send that out. And we’re hoping to just streamline all that in one place”
Newspack Revenue Options
Newspack will have all the integrations needed to monetize your audience.
“We are going to have integrations with some of the large paywall systems that are out there that people can use.. That will be up to each publication to decide if they want those services, the cost of some of them is quite high and something that the publisher would still have to bear themselves”
Ad revenue is covered too.
“We’ll have the ability to integrate with major advertising servers”
There will also be flexible options for audience revenue.
“We’ll have setups for being able to take donations or subscriptions to your site. Also, email services such as MailChimp or Constant Contact and others that will ideally allow you to set up your newsletter outreach without having to leave WordPress”
Audience Engagement Features
Coral is a community-building platform that helps publishers to turn their comments sections into healthy and productive spaces.
The head of the project, Andrew Losowsky, explained on a previous podcast episode why you shouldn’t disable comments.
“One of our pilot organizations is already using Coral and another is considering it. There I go naming specific outfits that we’re going to be working with – Coral is definitely one of them. We’ll have the kind of reader commenting system that people have grown used to as well as options to explore more advanced systems. We hope to be able to provide third-party publishing tools, enabling freelancer or reader-generated content. Of course, we’ll also ensure the ability to send out newsletters by topic”
SEO and Blockchain
We asked Steve about what options Newspack users would have for managing their SEO strategy with Newspack.
“We’ll likely be using Yoast as our SEO plugin, that’ll be something we lean on heavily. We also plan to have AB testing set up for story level and page level changes so we can test, which of these two versions are best suited for the SEO goals that we’re trying to achieve or user experience goals”
They are also working on a blockchain integration. One of the funders of the Newspack project is Consensys, a global company with a vision of creating a decentralised, blockchain-based future.
They’re also behind Civil, a blockchain journalism start-up.
“We’re going to work with the folks at Civil. We are just a little over halfway into our year long development period of this and Civil has not really come into play yet. We expect them to be more involved in what we’re doing as we move along. But we think, like everybody, that there’s great promise and a great future in working with blockchain technology”
The overall point is that Newspack isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. They aren’t seeking to invent new functionality as much as bringing the existing best options together and integrating them.
Their FAQ states that they are looking to support:
- Mobile delivery
- Search engine optimization
- Advertising delivery and management
- Feed ingestion
- Headline optimization
- A/B testing
- Subscription and membership services
- Email marketing services
- Lead acquisition tools
- Advanced analytics
- Social-media and newsletter integration
- Subscription services
- Features like AMP and PWA
Their MO is to work with their pilot partners along with rigorous research to find the absolute best tools that the WordPress community has to offer.
Finding, vetting and choosing the best plugins out of a huge range of options is a daunting task for many smaller publishers right now, but Newspack will take on this task for you.
“We’ll keep a constantly evolving, highly curated catalog of plugins, adding when we find new gems and culling the list when others get outdated”
Publishers will still be presented with several options, so things won’t be rigid and the solution can be customized for every outlet’s individual needs.
“We’re providing a news website in a box and the box can get a little bit bigger or a little bit smaller depending on your needs”
The same thing goes for plugin choices.
“We’re gonna integrate one or two choices of most things while giving the nod to a few others. For the most part, though, we’re not gonna let you decide that this plugin over here with three downloads over the past two years is a good idea”
Steve recalled that when he was starting The Lens, he wished that there had been someone to guide him on these tech choices step by step.
An Evolving Solution for Publishers
One of the goals moving forward is to develop a solid community around Newspack. Based on regular feedback from partners along with requests for new functionality, Steve and the team can stay on top of the shifting trends in the industry and requirements of publishers.
“Publishers come to us and say they need x functionality. It’s either an emerging need in the community or one that’s never been adequately addressed. We’ll find an existing plugin that works best for this, work with the creator that plugin to make sure that it’s completely compatible, won’t hurt efficiency, won’t have conflicts with the system, will be AMP compatible. Once we make that part of the basic Newspack build all the publishers get that benefit, so this is going to be very much an evolving product that takes all users needs into account and adds them together into one big conglomeration, so all the users in the hive mind get to benefit”
News site in a box = cookie cutter sites?
Although a lot of Newspack sites will be using the same plugins on the back end – that’s where the similarities will end.
“Under the hood, there will be a lot of the same components, but the look of it can be very, very different”
It makes sense that partner sites will be powered by the same plugins. After all, one of the key driving principles behind Newspack is that small publishers share common needs and pain points when it comes to tech choices.
On the front-end though, the site’s design and presentation can be completely customized.
“That’s one of the beauties of WordPress’s relatively new Gutenberg block editor. It’s been around for about a year now, and it’s a giant step in the direction of drag-and-drop, what you see is what you get on your screen for building a homepage. So there’s no more kind of guessing when you’re in the back end.”
Steve and the Newspack team are also adding to the block editor.
“We are building something called the homepage article block that adds a lot of functionality. We’re also working on another block that will be like a “roll your own block” – where you decide how you want the first item to look and the rest fall in place. So if you want a column with five stories in it, however you set that top one up will be mimicked all the way down. You’ll have the ability to exclude or include things. So if you want your latest news column to run your latest news, but not include obituaries or opinion columns, you’ll be able to set that up easily”
Steve mentioned that one of the guiding principles is “less is more” visuals.
For most medium sized digital publishers, endless customization and fancy visual effects is neither necessary nor desirable, and may be counterproductive.
The theme will cover any styling needs.
“There is a Newspack theme, but I think a lot of people have gotten used to the idea of a theme being a template, and we’re definitely trying to separate those two concepts. The theme is more for styling issues, not for setting you up with these rectangles on your homepage to have to be filled in a certain way”
The fundamental visual elements of Newspack – themes and blocks – will also provide all the customization options needed for brand expression through a well assembled site.
“You can present something in a magazine format if that’s your choice. For an investigative piece or long term story you can all end up dedicating more of the page to visual elements that are more beautiful, engaging and help you tell the story better. At the same time it still provides all the basic news elements that people are used to. Even if you want to go for a straight old-school newspaper look, you’ll essentially be able to do that”
Future Directions for the Newspack project
There’s a lot of work being done all the time to bring Newspack to launch. Just take a look at the various “swimlanes” they’ve got going right now.
Even so, they have a vision for the future and how they see Newspack evolving in the years ahead.
One of the key benefits of Newspack to participating publishers will be the community aspect, and close interaction with other publishers facing similar challenges – along with the Newspack team.
Steve hopes that this will grow over time and they plan to encourage its development.
“Whether it’s on Slack or whatever the app of the moment is for team communication. – we’ll build a community that lets people get in touch with the developers and each other about what it is they need. None of this has been finalized, but I can envision a weekly Newspack newsletter. We’d let you know all the updates that have been put out, what features have been added and spotlight a few. We could have case studies showing explaining publishers needs and choices and let them explain certain features and how it works”
They’re also planning live events.
“We’re planning our first Newspack conference, which will take place at the Poynter Institute in St Petersburg, Florida in November. We’re inviting folks from each of our pilot organizations as well as the next 50 or so. We expect to have 120 people at our first conference including developers and funders. That’s nothing like a ONA or NABJ or some of the bigger conferences out there – but we expect someday we’ll join those ranks as more and more people join Newspack!”
Will Newspack really help publishers?
I asked Steve what made him most excited about Newspack.
“The ability to help publishers breathe, and to easily do the things that they want to do. Publishers will go to conferences like Ona and they’ll see a cool feature or something that they want to do. They think ‘great -I’m going to go back to my newsroom to make that happen’. Then they run into that buzzsaw of reality. They realise that the publication they looked at had this tool built custom, it’s on a different CMS and they really can’t do that”
Steve hopes that this kind of problem can be overcome. If a publisher gets excited about a certain feature they’ve seen, and it looks like a solid fit for Newspack, it can be incorporated into the platform and they can get what they need without too much hassle.
“They can request it of us and we’ll make that part of Newspack, which will benefit not only that publisher, but all the others that are participating. The chance to standardize the offerings, and for all the publishers to know the tools that the others have and how they’re using them really creates the chance for a lot of exciting advancements. I think it’s great that over the last 20 years, publishers have experimented with different ways to do it, but there’s been a lot of duplicated efforts and we hope we can smooth that out”
We asked Steve if he thinks that Newspack can help in the fight to create a sustainable future for journalism.
“We’re all out to save journalism. It’s not so much the journalism that needs to be saved, but the revenue. That’s why we are focusing on making sure that there’s an easy system in place. If someone wants to run programmatic ads from a network or local sales that they do themselves, they can just upload the creative and be able to take in reader revenue. We’re working with the News Revenue Hub to also optimize how they use the tools. The tools are there to seek out revenue and make it easy for someone to make a donation in a couple of clicks, but the question is how can they best put together a message around that to maximise results. Clearly if the money’s not coming in, the journalists aren’t being hired in, the work’s not getting done, and we definitely want to make sure that the work gets done”
It’s clear that Steve’s previous experience as a publisher struggling with tech drives his passion for this project and helps his team to understand their current and future users. The overall goal is to make the industry that little bit healthier.
“We really want to make sure that this is the thing that makes publishing a little more pleasant, a little easier and a lot more revenue focused. The ability to raise the money that hires the reporters and editors that underpin our democracy is so critical. This is a project that’s been a passion of several people involved from the beginning and people like myself that have been down this road before. Anything we can do to help those coming after us and make their lives easier is something that makes us smile.”
We have a similar mission at MobiLoud and agree with Steve that the more tech solutions can free up publishers and news organizations to focus on creating brilliant content – the better for them and the better for everyone.
A big thank you to Steve for answering all our questions about Newspack in great detail.
Head over to the Newspack blog for more information on the various parts of the project.
We’ll be following Newspack closely too and covering any big news on the Digital Media Growth newsletter: sign up for our weekly commentary on all the key stories from the world of digital publishing.