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Q&A: Jennifer Hefty on the Coloradoan's continued innovation

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The women of the Coloradoan newsroom gather for a photo to commemorate National Women's Day on Thursday, March 8, 2018, at The Coloradoan in Fort Collins, Colo.

The Coloradoan in Fort Collins took home the Innovation Award at Colorado Press Association’s annual convention this year, marking the fourth time in the past five years the newspaper has laid claim to that honor: in 2012, 2015 (both Newspaper and Editorial innovation awards) and 2017.

Also in the 2017 Better Newspaper Contest, the newspaper won 27 individual awards, as well as Class 8 Editorial and General Excellence honors.


Coloradoan reporters Saja Hindi and Jacy Marmaduke, content coach Sarah Kyle, news director Eric Larsen, content strategist Jennifer Hefty and former Coloradoan reporter Cassa Niedringhaus hold awards. Megan Larsen Coloradoan reporters Saja Hindi and Jacy Marmaduke, content coach Sarah Kyle, news director Eric Larsen, content strategist Jennifer Hefty and former Coloradoan reporter Cassa Niedringhaus hold awards from the Colorado Press Association's annual awards dinner Saturday evening.

Among the leaders of the Coloradoan is Colorado native and Content Strategist Jennifer Hefty, who graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a bachelor of science in Journalism / News-Editorial, Technology Arts and Media.

She has been with the newspaper for seven years, as a reporter, preprint coordinator, publishing editor, online news producer, planning editor, multiplatform/breaking news coach and now content strategist. We asked her to give us some insight into how the Coloradoan remains innovative year after year:

What are your responsibilities at the Coloradoan, and how do all the cogs in the newsroom work together?

As the Coloradoan’s content strategist, I lead our newsroom’s digital strategy and the engagement side of our organization. This includes working with designers and producers, as well as with our events coordinator and breaking news reporters.

One major change we made in the past year was to bring the breaking news reporters onto the engagement team. Breaking and digital strategy go hand in hand, especially with the need to be immediate and meet our audience in the spaces where they already are, instead of expecting them to come to us. Part of this strategy was to create a new neighborhood watch Facebook group (but more on that later.) It’s important to us that we are connecting with our readers, answering their questions and helping them understand how and why we do what we do.

It’s not enough for a news organization to be “digital first.” You’ve really got to think about your storytelling across multiple platforms. You’ve got to be all in, in all the digital spaces right from the start. We focus a lot on freeing up our reporters to only think about digital aspects of their stories – from videos to infographics to when is the best time to publish the story online and social. Only a handful of people in our room spend time thinking about print. From the outset of story planning we are not only talking about these elements but also SEO and ways to market our stories, which is the responsibility of everyone in the room.


Kate Dorsey, Garrett Costello and Sam Perrault plate the third course during the March Secret Supper on Thursday, March 29, 2018.

What is it about the Coloradoan that makes it a leader in innovation, evidenced by award after award over the years?

Our mission is to “inform, engage and innovate.” Our journalism (or the “inform” piece) will always be our top priority. Beyond that we encourage everyone in the room to think about how to grow their audience, reach new people and really write a story that impacts our readers.

One of my favorite things about this team is we aren’t afraid to fail – we just are committed to failing fast. We try everything. If it works, we develop a strategy and a plan to continue the effort for as long as it makes sense. No idea is too crazy to try. If it doesn’t work, then there’s no harm done, we just evaluate quickly and move on where we need to.

We also take the necessary time to plan and strategize. Planning on the front end allows you time to innovate. Strategizing now and thinking about what your video or voice technology strategy looks like five years from now will help alleviate disruption down the line when emerging tech becomes more prevalent. Create short-term and long-term strategies and come back to them – and again, evaluate at every step of the process.

What teams or individuals would you like to recognize for their contributions this past year?

Everyone in our newsroom plays a part, we couldn’t do it otherwise.

You’ve launched many unique social media projects, among them a Facebook neighborhood watch group, a new approach to courts coverage utilizing Facebook live broadcasts, and a Facebook messenger chatbot that enables readers to customize their news and alerts. You’ve also partnered with the Trusting News Project with the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Tell us a little more about some of these projects and the feedback you’ve received on them.

Our projects in the past year have been focused on building authentic, honest relationships with our audience. The neighborhood watch group was formed not only as a way for us to share our content with residents, but also for them to get to know one another, answer questions and build community.

The chatbot has been evolving since we started experimenting with the technology during the 2016 presidential election. The new chatbot started as a way for our readers to customize their news, and now we’d like to get even more personal in this space. Soon we want to offer folks an inside look at our coverage and make messaging the bot feel like you’re messaging not only a real human, but a friend in the community.

The Trusting News Project encompasses this mission fully. Last year we were focused on several strategies that helped us show our readers that we are different from “the media” and to tell our own story. We need to be transparent and forthright about what’s opinion content, what’s news, what’s an investigation and more. And we need to define what these terms mean in a prominent place. We need to explain to our readers why we make the coverage decisions we do and what discussions go on behind the scenes. The more we can let readers into our process, the more trust we can build with our audience.


Eric Larsen speaks during the Coloradoan Storytellers Project: Going Home at Solarium International Hostel Wednesday, December 7, 2016.

Your digital strategy this year includes experimenting with voice technology, podcasting and refining your video strategy (three of your journalists are FAA certified to fly drones for reporting purposes). Midway through 2018, how is all that progressing and what’s new?

We’ve focused a lot of our efforts at the start of this year evaluating what’s working and what’s not so we can really build in the latter half of 2018. We are laser-focused on defining our target audiences and tailoring our content to meet the expectations of those readers. We fully recognize we can’t be all things to all people – and being generalists isn’t where we will grow. So we are working on developing audience-specific strategies (for storytelling, content marketing and presentation), while keeping our mission on delivering high-quality, in-depth journalism.

Our podcasting efforts are growing and continuing to draw in new readers, and now we are working to expand this storytelling to truly focus on multiplatform approaches. We are also hoping to monetize these pieces in the coming year.

We have focused our video strategy in 2018 in mobile video – creating video that is optimal for viewers on that platform. This includes stand-alone video (no story accompanying it) and video that complements our reporting. We’ve also refined our breaking-news strategy to focus on reporting through video first (and sometimes only through video).

I can’t even express how excited I am to get our drone team up and running. We are going to get our pilots some more training this year and build out how best to use the new technology. We have so many ideas and are thrilled to have this opportunity.

Voice technology continues to be top of mind to me, as I see it as a huge part of the future of local news. Podcasting is a great first step into that emerging technology. Beyond that, our top stories are available on Amazon’s Alexa and we are brainstorming around other storytelling ideas.

What will the Coloradoan be working on this year and next to continue its innovative ways?

One of the projects we are most proud to continue is our scholarship program for first-generation college students, First Class. Over the past three years, we have provided up to $100,000 in tuition assistance for 36 Northern Colorado students. We couldn’t do this without our incredible university and community partners and the generosity of our readers.

This year, many of our events will also benefit this program. We’ve raised nearly $2,000 for this year’s recipients through donations at our food truck festivals and we have several more events yet to come.

More broadly, events will continue to be a large part of our operation in the coming year. From small, community-oriented events that connect our readers to our reporters (we like to call them “Brews and News”) to our bigger events such as food truck festivals and Storytellers nights, building experiences around our journalists and our mission is a top priority. In addition, our events are a new revenue stream for us. Beyond that, they help connect us with people we don’t otherwise reach.

In fact, this week we had a brainstorming session on what we want our events to look like in 2019. We had some wild and crazy ideas (a dog festival, anyone?) and also ideas to expand our current offerings. So please join us for more Storytellers nights in 2019 or buy a ticket to one of our pop-up dinners. Find me there and we can nerd out about the future of local journalism!