Almost five years ago, Luke Lewis was hired by a fledgling online news brand to build both its readership and its editorial team. Now, having left that title millions of readers better off, the BuzzFeed UK launch editor has been enlisted to do much the same thing for i.
In print, i is regarded as a rare modern-day success story. The concise national newspaper, now in its eighth year, recorded an average daily circulation of 257,223 in January, about 100,000 more than the Guardian’s. Online, however, it trails way behind its peers. In lieu of audited figures, owner Johnston Press boasted of inews.co.uk having 1.4 million unique browsers a month in 2017. By comparison, The Independent and The Sun have more than 5 million each – a day; Mail Online 14 million.
Lewis, who started at i last Thursday as head of audience and will now be responsible for growing the brand digitally, has been in this position before. He likens the setup he’s walked into, where there are only six staff dedicated to the website, as akin to those early days at BuzzFeed.
“Top of my priority list is building a team,” he tells The Drum. “We’ve got 10 people that we want to hire straight away.”
Part of his strategy is to build out sub brands around money, travel and sport, "areas where i has particularly close relationships with its readers" and which could eventually be monetised into sponsored content products. There’ll also be a focus on ‘explainer’ articles intended to make sense of topical stories and "present the news in a way that’s different from competitors".
“My ambition is to make the sharpest, voiciest [sic] and potentially funniest explainers on the internet,” he says.
What Lewis won’t try to do is compete with every rival for every story. “As a small team you need to focus on the areas where you can play to win,” he says. “I just want everyone on the digital side to ask themselves two questions when deciding what to publish: is it distinctive? – are we giving people a perspective that they’re not getting elsewhere? But also, fundamentally, is it deepening the connection we have with our readers?”
This notion is at the heart of Lewis’s plans for i. He pledges, for instance, to make a “distinctive feature” of reader feedback and says he will “explicitly solicit” reader opinions to be used in articles. “My ambition is to build an audience-driven newsroom that’s really powered by a close relationship with its readers," he says.
"That relationship has to be two-way and really has to be based around shared values. The key one, which has really been the driving force behind the i’s success, is the idea of being open-minded.”
The i’s non-partisan principles can serve as an “antidote” to a media world that has become “increasingly polarised, increasingly emotional, increasingly venomous”, according to Lewis. To counteract that, he is considering experimenting with something he calls “constructive news” as a way to give readers an outlet for the “powerlessness and anger” they feel reading a “torrent of negative news”.
“Maybe after you’ve read an article that really gets you fired up and gets you angry we can recommend actual things that people can do to channel that anger – groups that they can join, events that they can go to just so we can make a positive difference in people’s lives rather than just amplifying bad things happening in the world," he explains.
Part of the desire to double down on audience engagement on i’s own site stems from the bubble bursting for news brands on platforms like Facebook, where recent algorithm changes have hurt publisher traffic. Unlike at BuzzFeed, Lewis says his role at i will be focused less on building readership on social networks and more on the “owned” audience. “It’s definitely made us more focused on building a deeper connection," he says. "In common with every other publisher we’re keen to not be too reliant on platforms."
The largely regional publishing group Johnston Press is a much more traditional environment than that which Lewis has been accustomed to at his last two employers: trendy BuzzFeed with its bright yellow ‘OMG’, ‘WTF’ and ‘LOL’ signs on the walls and the weathered rock 'n' roll of NME.com. But while it might have a staider reputation, it has one secret hi-tech weapon that those digital darlings lacked.
On Lewis’s first day in the job, after he’d been through the formalities of being issued with his company laptop and logins, he was introduced to something altogether more compelling. It was a dashboard showing all of the trending stories from Johnston Press’s entire network of 200 or so regional newspaper websites across the UK, including The Yorkshire Post and The Scotsman. “I think that’s a real area of opportunity,” Lewis says. “We can use that as a trending content tool, as a source of amazing stories.”
Who’ll be creating those stories remains to be seen. Lewis says he’s looking for people with “broad content skills, ideally people who can turn their hand to video” but won’t be drawn on whether any of his former BuzzFeed colleagues will be joining him at i. Plenty of them are looking for new jobs – Lewis himself was one of 45 staff who left BuzzFeed UK following a job cuts edict from its parent operation in the States.
Asked to reflect on his experience at BuzzFeed, Lewis takes a long pause. “It was an incredible adventure, and I’m really grateful for my time there,” he says at last. “The most enjoyable part of it was building that team. Identifying talent and giving talented people the room to flourish and develop really, that’s the bit I’m most proud of.”
Now, he’s setting out to do it all over again.