Lunchtime Speaker

Thursday, August 2, 2018

12:30pm – 2:00pm

Tim Gardner, USA TODAY Sports

Tim Gardner of USA TODAY Sports, breaks down how his team uses analytics, real-time trends, social alerts and more to connect with their audience — and chase after prospective readers. From hardcore sports fans to soccer moms to entertainment junkies, the sports staff at USA TODAY tries to capitalize on each audience segment with varying content and approaches.

Notes from session:

Background on Tim.

  • Started with USA Today in 2002 as an intern. Part-time in Lifestyle, part-time in Sports. Spent 5 years covering college basketball. Currently been with USA Today for 16 years.
  • Reporting has changed over time – when the internet was introduced there was a dot com team that was completely separate from the news team.
  • Now it’s all about what can be done to get in front of you as mobile media users. So when a story is published the headline needs to be right, the content has to be accurate, and it has to be a topic people are interested in.
  • How do we get the best outcome? Data analysis is necessary.
  • Anyone can be a writer. But managing the content needs to be strategic for viewership.
  • Turn around has gotten so quick, but we need to be sure to stay strategic.

Connecting with your audience.

  • For promoting the content you need to find an image or video. It is so important.
  • From there, can you use any strategic tactics to increase viewership? Include a photo gallery? Create a unique graphic for a unique audience? Use the stats you have – twist and spin to find a unique angle.
  • SEO is so very important. Every single story is required to have four fields filled out: Page title, keyword, meta description, and descriptive URL.
  • It’s important that each story has its own focus in order to get the coverage you’re looking for. Take a chance so the story can be found.
  • The nimbleness to think about that when drafting a story in 2 minutes so that you can break a story or get a piece out is the time we live in.
  • Headlines need to be unique – different from others writing about the same story.

Tracking a story.

  • Pressing send can seem like the end of the story – but it’s just the beginning of the story for the internal team.
    • You need to track a story to better understand what your audience wants and needs to stay committed to your outlet.
    • Must check key metrics: page views, unique users (more important), time spent on page, page views per minute.
    • Analyzing your website traffic is important, as well as using analysis tools (please see a list of those below).
    • From there, make sure your organization is adapting to the data you are receiving. Must always keep asking how could we have done better.
    • Organizationally, USA Sports is changing to match how they are tracking hot topics and reader interest.
  • So what does the process look like?
    • Come up with a story, write it, set it up with SEO, share, have a conversation with the audience if needed. Copy editing from print to digital – need to find the hook within a story. It has become more and more important to engage with our audience in the end.
    • Target content for the specific audience – our audience tends to be older, but we want to make sure the folks who are coming are staying and being engaged. MLS is a bit younger audience, do Q&A’s instead of a long-form piece. Be strategic!
    • Once you’ve evaluated how a piece is doing, you have a completely separate conversation with products team. Determine what changes need to be made? What modules are working, what needs to be revised or updated.

Lessons learned over the years.

  • Having the right language the first time makes all the difference in creating a snowball effect.
  • Adapting to audience needs. USA Today used to be reporter based, now it’s all about a digital lead. Now the team includes a photography licensing business, videography used for big events, and social teams who attend events to highlight what the fans want to see.
  • Starting to pre-writing stories. Pull content together using the information you have. That doesn’t mean always being at the event, but understanding the landscape as a whole.
  • We can’t NOT cover trending news, so we must determine what we can take from trending news and turn into long form. Take the information we have and pair it with historical knowledge. How has a contract changed in the last year? What does a relationship look like?
  • The time of day which stories come in is important. Not first thing in the morning, lunch is better. When does your audience have time to properly review? In terms of subject lines, you MUST A/B test, less than 100 characters can tell you if you should keep reading or not. As best you can run tests! Use that information to drive the next time.
  • Politicians and players now make their own news using social media. It allows them to tell their story. We try to use to lean into that inside information and take the next step and share.

Tim’s toolbox.

  1. SharkBeat: Real-time analytics tool. Then track folks through the life of a story.
  2. Adobe Analytics: Where did people come from, how did they interact with content.
  3. Pressbox: Reporters can go see how their stories have done with the readership. Getting 30-year journalists to think in these ways is difficult. Just because an author thinks a topic is


  • Money quotes: how long do you A/B test? The tool used by USA Today team currently chooses, sometimes just 5 minutes other times a full 24hrs.
  • Reporters now have to deal with readers – How have your reporters responded to having to deal with readers? Some are embracing it – but it does take a lot of time. Have to keep going back to the audience to continue the relationship and continue getting the most out of it.
  • How do you anticipate what people are going to be interested in? Adobe analytics – keeping track of topics along the way and reviewing year-over-year. The team checks Adobe on a daily, weekly, monthly view.
  • Is there a movement for more curated pieces? Yes and no. Currently, USA Today is moving to reduce enterprise desk, creating more long-form pieces. With a desk just for hot topics. It’s all a numbers game – what is working best?
  • What kind of testing are you doing for well-performing headlines? Testing is really helpful, tweaking one word can completely change the outcome. They do not share the same story with different headlines over and over like some other platforms.
  • How does the NFL recover from their current crisis? Not sure – the issue is so devices. They are trying to toe the line. The one thing the NFL can’t do is lose their players. They don’t really care about their audience, they’re still top dog in sports. But they definitely don’t want to get on the President’s bad side.
  • How do you decide who covers a topic? For such a wider issue such as the NFL, how do you know who gets to cover the story within USA Today? You fight for it, not physically, but must fight internally to get access to some stories. All about communications. Must use the assets you have access to, use folks on the Hill to co-author. The focus must be talked about internally to determine how to tackle the story.