EXECUTIVE SESSION WITH PORTER BERRY

TVN Executive Session | FoxNews.com Touts Its Digital Lead

Coming off a record overall month this January in digital traffic according to Comscore data, Fox News Digital’s VP and editor-in-chief says FoxNews.com’s consistently strongest story is its home page.

Before the coronavirus pandemic inexorably transformed the news landscape in ways we still can’t fully grasp, Fox News Digital was doing a victory lap.

Fox’s digital network saw its best-ever numbers in January 2020, including 1.9 billion multiplatform views and over 114 multiplatform unique visitors, up 24% and 8% respectively year-over-year according to Comscore. Those numbers continued strong into February, where a news release touted 110 multiplatform UVs and 4 billion multiplatform total minutes, the network’s 17th consecutive month surpassing CNN.com and the 15th month in a row it had passed CNN’s mobile app with its own, where it saw 7.8 million unique visitors.

The release’s CNN comparison was a reminder of the bitter rivalry that has become seemingly definitional for the respective networks.

In an interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp, Porter Berry, Fox News Digital’s VP and editor-in-chief, downplayed that rivalry as just part of its overall media beat. Speaking just before the scope of coronavirus’ threat had all but ground American life to a standstill, Berry said FoxNews.com’s homepage is perpetually the source of its strongest traffic, and he insisted that the proximity of the site’s news and opinion content doesn’t create conflation problems for its visitors.

As coronavirus began to eclipse all other stories, Berry acknowledged the politics around it, but insisted “our first and primary mission is to give accurate information as it comes in to us.”

An edited transcript.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

Fox News Digital is coming off a banner month in its audience metrics according to Comscore. To what do you attribute the increased traffic?         

January was our best month ever coming off 2019, which was our best year ever. January was attributed to us staying true to who we are and doing what we do best. There was the impeachment, the situation in Iran, the State of the Union, the lead up to the Super Bowl, the Kobe Bryant tragedy. Fox News Digital [takes] the best content from anywhere in Fox News Media, which includes the channel, video clips and write-ups, Fox Business, Fox Radio, podcasts, Fox Nation.

We are in the business of serving our audience and doing it in a way that nobody else does, and that strategy has been building over the last year. We continue to see growth.

Let’s drill down into some of the site’s most popular content. Where does most of that happen? Is it stories and videos from your pundits and your opinion-based hosts or is it on specific reported stories?

The No. 1 story every day is FoxNews.com. People come to us directly because they want to know what is going on. They come to us because they know us, love us, trust us and they know when they come there that whatever is important or interesting in the world, we are going to deliver it for them in a multifaceted way whether it is digital reporting, covering breaking news, video from the channel, write-ups from the channel, opinion pieces.

Are you saying you buck the trend then of people generally coming into news sites through side doors on stories and that your homepage is consistently your strongest single performing page?

Exactly. We do not rely on social media to build our business. People come to us because we have a brand that has been built up over 20-plus years that people know, love and trust and they know they can’t get it anywhere else.

What is the average engagement time on site?

[Editor’s note: Comscore data for January 2020 indicates Fox News’ homepage had 624 million views and 1 billion minutes, averaging 42 multiplatform minutes on the homepage per unique visitor.]

The numbers show that the audience who comes to us stays with us for a very long time, which means they are consuming massive amounts of content.

Video is obviously very important to the site. How much of that video that is on your foxnews.com or the digital apps is uniquely created for that versus coming in from the cable channel?

It is a combination of both. We are creating or curating video headline pieces on a daily basis that are updated multiple times a day. We did an investigative series around homelessness where we did our own original videos investigating the situation in Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco. But there is no question that we are curating from Fox News, Fox Business, Fox Nation, Fox Radio and the Fox news podcast.

How big is your own team for digital?

It is a lot smaller than some of our competitors. In terms of video curation, we have two units. We have a web video unit that is assigned to clipping and cutting moments from the channel or from Fox Nation, Fox Business, radio or podcast, and we also have an original video unit. The web video team may be a little bit bigger than the original video team, but that is because the channel is live 24 hours a day and there is just more content that they have to be responsible for curating.

Can you say how many people?

I don’t have an exact number.

Roughly how much video content do you produce each day?

Over 200 pieces a day. We try and curate these things normally under two minutes [and] obviously the shows in their entirety are available on the website. But in terms of curating them we are looking for shorter clips, big interviews, interesting moments, interesting angles, whether [they’re] coming from the campaign trail or one of the shows or a live press conference or speech.

It depends on what the moment is. On Super Tuesday, we aired the Biden speech in its entirety in the number one slot, meaning, you pull up the app and you could watch Biden give his speech or Bernie give his speech as if you were watching it on TV. That would be sort of longer-form live news that we are providing.

In terms of curating the website on a day-to-day basis, we are turning around stuff from the channel both through video clips and write-ups that tend to be shorter.

What is your presence on social? What is your most important platform there and where do you concentrate your efforts?

Social is not under part of my operation. It is a different entity in and of itself. The good news for us is that the number one story every day is FoxNews.com, so people are coming to us directly.

Your digital platforms seem to be in a very direct and pitched battle with CNN. For instance, your press materials touting the Fox traffic increase do so in comparison with CNN, your homepage often calls out the network and specific anchors and journalists there. How does what CNN does or doesn’t do constitute news for Fox?

We are in the business of covering things that are interesting and there are a lot of interesting things happening on the world. We cover a lot of other news sites. We cover a lot of things that are going on in the world of media. One of the biggest growth pieces for us has been media, whether that is content from our channel whether it is an interesting moment on The View, from talk radio [or] from one of the morning shows. If there is something that is interesting and relevant to our audience we want to make it available.

Your own background at Fox most recently involved being an executive producer at Sean Hannity’s show.

I have been at the channel for 15 years and have a long history on the TV side. I produced Hannity and The Five. I worked on a couple of other shows. Additionally I produced the New Year’s Eve Show for the channel. On election news night, I produced digital shows for the website from the channel.

The network’s opinion-based hosts and pundits seem to have a consistently high profile and placement on FoxNews.com both in the center section and on the left rail of video clips. What are the implications of juxtaposing those news stories and opinion content in that way?

Whatever is interesting we are covering, and we do news, opinion, sports, weather, health, science, entertainment … we cover it all. Opinion content is labeled as such and the audience wants to hear all perspectives on what is going on in the news.

The implications are we are giving our customers a wide variety of content, which is one of the core reasons that they keep coming back. It’s sort of like a newspaper. You have got the news page, the opinion page, the sports section, the business section, the lifestyle section…. Just like newspapers, we do the same thing.

Is it a concern to you that the proximity of news and opinion next to each other creates a conflation of the two for your audiences?

I think the audience is really smart. If they see something from Sean Hannity, they know he is an opinion guy. And if they see a news piece, they read it as a news piece. The audience is really savvy and able to read a lot of news, information and analysis and make an informed decision because we are giving them every angle, comprehensively, on every story both from the news side of it and the analysis side.

When you look at your competitors — CNN.com, MSNBC.com or any other major news site — do you see them as deliberately creating that same kind of conflation themselves?

To be honest with you, I don’t spend much time looking at what the competition is doing. We are really good at what we do and our mission every day is to come in and report the news fairly, accurately and comprehensively and find stories and angles and analysis on things that are relevant to our audience. My focus is on the audience and delivering product to them in a way that nobody else does.

Tell me about the demographics of your digital platforms. Do they mirror the cable audience or are you making efforts to broaden those demographics digitally beyond your core cable audience?

It’s funny, I have heard that brought up over my entire career and I have never spent a significant amount of time sitting down and looking at demographics. Is this person X, Y or Z, how old are they, what is their gender…? People are people, and if you deliver a good, compelling, interesting product to them, that is something that they can’t get anywhere else and done in a way that pursues excellence and accuracy, that is what will keep them coming back. It is more focusing on high standards and a unique product than it is a particular demographic.

You see the same reports that we all do about eroding trust in the press, especially in national news organizations. What do you see as your own role in addressing that problem?

Constantly focusing on getting things right, doing things accurately, delivering reliable information to our audience. The core foundation of the relationship is that they know us, trust us and frankly they love us. Focusing on being accurate is the key to us maintaining that relationship and trust with the audience that keeps them coming back.

How much autonomy do you have as the editor and chief of FoxNews.com? Are your editorial decisions ever superseded by anyone at the organization?

No.

So the buck stops with you on an editorial decision?

Yes. I mean sometimes, we are a multiplatform organization so we have the channel and radio and podcasts, and there are times where we communicate with each other to make sure that the information that we are delivering is accurate. For example, on coronavirus you are seeing all of these stats that are coming out from a variety of different places, the CDC, the WHO, the states are reporting individually [and] we want to make sure that we are delivering accurate information to the audience. So there is communication about that obviously just so we make sure that we are being accurate.

We hear cries of fake news echoing everywhere starting very frequently with the president. What are your efforts that you take internally to verify news content before it is published and especially now as we are in the run-up to the election and coronavirus and the stakes around this are all so high? What does that verification process look like?

Obviously it is on a case-by-case basis. Broadly speaking, we always want to be accurate first before being first meaning double-check, make the call, if you see something that is controversial or provocative or may not be true, make a call to this office or that office to make sure that whatever we put on the site is accurate.

It becomes more and more complicated in the era of social media, where news and information can get out there that is not accurate. What we do is go back to the sort of fundamentals of journalism by double-checking, calling the primary source if there is a situation that warrants that and you follow best practices.

Deep fake videos are a part of the fake news threat and they are growing both in sophistication and volume. What are you doing to detect and debunk them?

You go back to best practices. You have to verify before you put it up on the website whether it is a written story or a video, a photo, a tweet.

The coronavirus story is accelerating as we are sitting here. There are concerns from the outset it is already a politicized issue with politics running through every facet of it. How are you going to depoliticize the issue and convey information in the most straightforward way?

Let’s start with the news that is breaking around coronavirus wherever it’s coming from, whether it’s California declaring a state of emergency, new cases in Washington or around the globe, our first and primary mission is to give accurate information as it comes in to us. There are some politics around it.

Our job is to cover the news and analyze it. If the president says something, we are going to talk about it. If Chuck Schumer says something we are going to talk about it. If the task force led by Mike Pence says something, we are going to cover it comprehensively with an eye towards facts, accuracy and good information that is useful and helpful to the audience.

None of us know where this is going. What the audience is looking for is: what is going on? Is it a threat to me? If it becomes a threat, how do I deal with it?

We know the president is a very big daily consumer of your television channel. Do you also have his ear?

I don’t know the answer to that. Bernie Sanders said that we were more fair to him than one of our competitors. We want everyone — Democratic candidates, the president, the Republican candidates, powerful people wherever they are — to come to our site because I think we do a good job of covering the news from all sides in a way that others don’t.


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