GREAT IDEAS

Innovation in perspective

How it's done in Norfolk, Va.

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Sometimes the biggest innovations are little ones.

In Erica Smith's three years as online editor and director of digital strategy for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, change has been intended to make things easier in the newsroom and on the website, www.pilotonline.com. From creating a single app to keep track of a story to cutting the number of steps a reader must take to get a digital subscription, Smith wants the digital product to be accessible to readers and comfortable for the newsroom staff.

"A lot of times, especially in this industry, we think about innovation and it has to be this big thing, like you've saved the industry and solved all the problems," Smith said. "But when you really think innovation, it can be much smaller. It can be something that solves a problem, that makes things better."

Smith was recently named Local Media Digital News Innovator of the Year by the Local Media Association. Among her previous career stops were the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a start-up marketing agency called RealTime/STL that was building its own local news website (www.realtimestl.com) but did not survive, and St. Louis Public Radio before joining the Pilot. She is working on a graduate degree in an entrepreneurial technology program at the University of Maryland.

One of Smith's early moves was the creation of an improved tracking system in the newsroom. Previously The Pilot put together a print news budget and reporters filled out assignment forms for photos and graphics. This system left the digital editors unsure about what stories were going to be posted and when. Reporters filled out multiple forms while editors chased around trying to track things down.

The replacement was an app with website post times and print publication days along with whatever was going with the story, be it a photo, a graphic or something else.

Another creation was the Pilot's own Facebook messenger bot. Smith said a graphics employee wanted to create one, and the reaction was "Why not?" Today, the messenger bot is in its third generation as refinements are made.

"I think that we have some flexibility because we are locally owned. We don't have to wait for corporate to sign off on things or to tell us to do things. I think that has some big advantages," Smith said.

The job originally involved overseeing the seven-person digital team, but these days Smith plays a larger role in the newsroom. The job also encompasses oversight of the news library and the photo and video departments. Overall, print and digital are considered more of a single entity produced by the newsroom, she said.

A new feature is "Glad You Asked," a news story generated by a reader's question. On Monday, the topic was whatever happened to a new Kroger Marketplace that was going to be built in particular area. The answer? It's on hold, indefinitely.

On the website, the Pilot is pushing digital subscriptions and part of the initiative is making it easier to get to "Done," as Smith puts it. Overall the digital staff is trying to cut the clutter that leads to complaints about slow downloads.

"A lot of it turned out to be the different vendors and third party scripts and applications we were running," Smith said. "It's an easy way to solve a problem, so you add that thing to your website and then you realize, well if this video player is going to run all the time, it's going to take an extra two seconds for the site to load."

In an effort to ensure that the newsroom staff knew and understood the digital tools available to them, the Pilot launched the "digital news academy." Rather than a top-down management edict, every newsroom employee was surveyed about what skills they used and what they needed. The survey allowed staffers to confess if they never really learned how to shoot video or take photos with a smart phone, for example.

The result was weekly basic classes in photography, shooting a quick video, writing headlines, understanding analytics and making better social media posts.

A future project she's thinking of involves incorporating a "top news" function into Alexa and Google Home with refers to pilotonline.

"Any kind of change or innovation takes more than one person. Here especially," Smith said. "If I didn't have the digital team that I have now, we never would have accomplished most of these things."

For more information, contact Erica Smith at e.smith@pilotonline.com.


Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes is a veteran journalist based in coastal Alabama and is a regular contributor to SNPA. Reach her at jbnicholes@att.net.

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