Tracking best practices in the business of digital news

By Jake Batsell

The birth of Prince George last month was a record-setting bonanza for digital news outlets, particularly those in the United Kingdom. But in North Wales, the Daily Post was content to concede real-time Royal Baby coverage to its media brethren throughout the Commonwealth.

A week before the prince’s birth, I visited the Daily Post newsroom in Llandudno Junction, Wales, just across the river from historic Conwy Castle. Editor Alison Gow told me the newspaper’s website would duly acknowledge the newest member of the Royal Family — particularly since the infant’s father, Prince William, had spent the past four years stationed at an air force base on the nearby Welsh island of Anglesey.

Beyond that minimal coverage, Gow said, DailyPost.co.uk would stick to its mission of serving the practical, up-to-the-minute information needs of its digital readers in North Wales.

“The Guardian will live-blog the Royal Baby birth, and there will be masses of it,” Gow said. “We wouldn’t even try to do that, because it’s not what readers are coming to us for … they’re actually coming to us not to know if she’s had a baby. They’re coming to know, does that mean I’m going to be disrupted this weekend because Anglesey’s having a parade? It’s that kind of touchstone information that they’re interested in.”

As Gow explained why her newsroom would not be chasing Royal Baby clicks, I heard echoes of the baseball analogy Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith often uses to describe the Trib’s philosophy of “hitting them where they ain’t.” The very week the Tribune launched in November 2009, a national news story erupted in its backyard when an Army psychiatrist shot and killed 13 people at nearby Fort Hood. But the Tribune, which focuses on statewide politics and government, chose not to send any reporters to the scene.

Instead, the Tribune led its home page the next day with a story about the top 50 state employee salaries, spotlighting the database that soon would become its signature, most popular interactive feature. “From the very first day, we were about politics and public policy and government,” Smith told me during an interview last year. “We don’t cover things that are not in our wheelhouse.”

The Daily Post’s wheelhouse — at least on its continuously running North Wales Live blog — is serving a mountainous, coastal region with timely, useful updates about traffic, weather and other breaking news. “It’s incredibly rural here in North Wales,” Gow said. “What we’ve got are large counties with smaller population centers, and they’re not well connected by the infrastructure in terms of roads … so being networked is really important for (readers) to keep in touch with what’s going on.”

When the Duchess of Cambridge went into labor on a Monday morning, the North Wales Live blog did mention the pending royal birth — but with no greater fanfare than dispatches about a weekend factory fire, road projects and a local woman who was rescued from the sea.

Later that afternoon, as worldwide media continued to camp outside St. Mary’s Hospital in London, the Daily Post topped its homepage with a story about a man who got stuck waist-deep in the mud, along with rotating photo galleries of local events. The royal birth was acknowledged, of course, but it was clearly secondary to the Daily Post’s local mission:

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It may not be glamorous to focus so relentlessly on the local and practical, but it’s an approach that has made North Wales Live indispensable to its readers. When floods engulfed the region last November, the live blog served as an information hub so vital that police referred people to it. “All these sorts of things just mean that they look to us for a go-to source,” Gow said.

Of all the factors that define a news organization’s mission, deciding when not to join the pack can be a telling moment — sacrificing journalistic ego in favor of serving readers’ needs.

Jake Batsell (@jbatsell), an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University, is spending the 2013-14 academic year as a Texas Tribune Fellow based in Austin.

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