Tips for running a news desk with Rohini Chatterji

How to navigate algorithm changes and understand what the audience wants to know.

We called in a favour with our long-time friend Rohini Chatterji to understand what it takes to run a leading national news website.  Rohini is the News Editor - Nation of News18. Before that, she was the General Assignment Editor at HuffPost India for 4 years, and Executive News Producer at The Wire. Rohini started her digital journalism career in 2012 at Firstpost, when it was in its early days as India’s first digital-only publication. In her current role, she manages the news desk that looks after the home page, India, Politics and World verticals. 

We’ve edited our conversation with Rohini for brevity because we spoke to her for about an hour. 

In Old News: What are your day-to-day responsibilities?

Rohini: There are a lot of responsibilities. So I would begin with setting the agenda for the day, going through the news cycle and figuring out what we would cover and how we would cover it. And then discussing it with my editors, and then figuring out a plan for the day. And since we are connected to a TV channel, we do get updates on what the day would look like so we can plan ahead. So if it's a big day, obviously, we plan ahead of time. But if it's a regular day, we plan on that day. There is usually a meeting, someone from my team attends it and I know what vertical is publishing what, what kinds of copies. And then we discuss with the desk, what to do, what kind of copies to do whether we do a live blog, or a listicle or like a live copy, which is a copy that is updated less frequently [than a live blog]. An example would be today, a Mumbai building caught fire where a man jumped off the 19th floor. So we did obviously breaking news copy, and then suddenly we decided, okay, now we need to do a live updates copy because this is big, there is a person who's jumped off the roof. Then we did a small copy on past instances of such fires in Mumbai. And then we will probably get in touch with reporters to figure out if the story can be taken forward in terms of fire hazards. Mumbai has a history of buildings not following fire regulations and stuff like that. So basically, through the day, I’ll just be planning, obviously I have to keep an eye on the homepage to look at whether all the headlines, excerpts, stories are reading fine. If they have any grammatical errors. If the headlines are okay, with SEO.

In Old News: Where do you see the impact of your work the most? Where do you see your efforts reflected? 

Rohini: I think it reflects in very many different copies, especially on the homepage. News18 has a main news desk and then it has several different verticals. And the desk that I manage is responsible for the homepage. So even the other verticals that send us links, we decide what will go on the homepage at one point. So yes, the efforts do show up on the homepage, the efforts do show up on how we are covering [stories]. And not just mine, of course, the entire team’s.

In Old News: Sometimes you have to do multiple copies of the same story or you have to commission multiple copies or multiple takes. How does it serve different kinds of people who actually come to News18?

Rohini: I would say that it's not just News18, but in my experience of having worked in different digital newsrooms across the board, people who are online look for more than just ‘this has happened.’ They want to know more when they are coming online. They would want to know why this happened? Or, what does this mean? We have to answer those questions. Say if there's a cyclone, and it has a specific name, you would see that there are queries [on Google trends] around who named the cyclone? Why has this been named this? Right? So it makes sense to answer those questions.

In Old News:  How do you gauge what the audience is looking for?

Rohini: I think there are ways to kind of significantly measure those things. In terms of what are the terms people are searching for. If you go to Google Trends, you will find related breaking news terms, so we make copies surrounding that. At HuffPost, the global SEO team would kind of give us long tail information on what worked for HuffPost historically. So that kind of helped us, but I think especially at HuffPost, having been there for four years, I kind of also intuitively learned what would work and what wouldn't. And I think that comes from being in the same job for that long. I've been [at News18] for 10 months, and I'm learning that bit by bit. But yeah, you can say it's intuition. It's your experience and it's all these Google Trends-type platforms telling you that this is what people are searching for and of course traffic — site traffic. You know that if you publish something on a particular keyword, it will do well for a certain website. And that is different for different websites.

In Old News: How has your approach to the audience changed based on where you’ve worked? 

Rohini: In a smaller newsroom like HuffPost, we constantly experimented. I think it was the same at Firstpost. When we started at Firstpost, there were no viral videos, there were no trends. There was nothing. This was 2012. And at that time, we would just go by whatever is getting indexed on Google. And it doesn't work like that anymore. Earlier, what would happen five years ago, was that you got indexed on Google and that’s it, your traffic is set. But it doesn't work like that anymore. Changing Google algorithms play a huge, huge role. Because this year, this is working, and then six months later, Google has changed its algorithm and then you have to figure it out from scratch. 

In Old News: What have been your strategies to cope with algorithm changes?

Rohini: I would say, just keep looking at Google Trends. See what people are searching for. Then use your own intuition to figure out what will work. I'll give you an example, like a straight breaking news copy will work for a News18. But it wouldn't work for a HuffPost because nobody comes to HuffPost for a straight news copy. 

Obviously, Google itself gives you a set of rules and tells you ‘Okay, this is what we are looking for.’ And then you try to follow that, you try to follow trends and you hope to god that will work.

In Old News: Do you find a disconnect between what a platform says its best practices are and what is actually working in practical day-to-day?

Rohini: Oh definitely. You’d be surprised by the things that people want to read about.

In Old News: Since you started at Firstpost till now, so let's say 2012 to 2022, how do you think the digital tools to understand what audiences are looking for have transformed? How useful (or redundant) have they become?

Rohini: You have to remember that when I joined Firstpost in 2012 I was not exposed to so many tools even if there were tools that existed because I was much, much younger. I was like the bottom of the barrel. But I really do think that things have become much more clearer right now. When there are algorithm changes you do know that, ‘okay, this is coming.’ There are these niche tech websites which will tell you algorithm changes are coming, be prepared. In India, at least you all didn't have so much competition [at the time] because big players like HT or Indian Express were still coming to terms with being online. At that time, when I joined Firstpost, everybody was like, ‘Oh my god, this is like, ruining your career.’ So it was not taken seriously. Firstpost was not taken seriously at that time.

In Old News: How did you feel about that, at the time, when people were saying things like that?

Rohini: I was too young to think so much about my career, I was like, ‘I have a new job in Bombay, I'm leaving. Bye.’ But now, in hindsight, I realised that that was the best thing I did for my career. To have left a newspaper and join [Firstpost]. Because we were literally the native digital journalists in India. Because after Firstpost became the big deal that it was at that time, we would be offered jobs every month. Everybody was like, we want to hire you. Because nobody knew what the hell to do with digital.

In Old News: Do you feel like your college experience prepped you for what you do now? 

Rohini: The only way it actually did prep me was the rigour of it. And I did a television journalism course, which was like being in a television newsroom, even when we were in ACJ [Asian College of Journalism]. So it's just kind of pushing you into the lifestyle that you would lead as a journalist where you have no time. You're always doing something or the other, where you've always got to be tuned in. That’s about it. I don't think that, when I went to ACJ in 2010, even the professors had the tools to teach us what digital journalism would look like today. Because it's constantly changing. So you learn on the job. Of course, like writing a basic news copy? Yes [I learned that at ACJ]. Fact-checking? Yes. But other than that...

Because when I went into journalism school, the TV journalism course was the most expensive one. And you had to have the best marks on the interview and on the test to get into TV journalism because at that time TV journalism was at its peak. But yeah, things changed very quickly. And I'm really glad that I went with the flow. To sum it up, I didn't learn digital news in journalism school.

In Old News: Anything else you’d like to add?

Rohini: What I've noticed, from my experience of almost nine years in only digital newsrooms, is that what holds true today may not hold true tomorrow. Like by 2025, what I'm saying right now may not be relevant at all. So I think that's the nature of the game. Because you're learning so much. All the time.

If you'd like to share your journalism experience, or you'd like to suggest who we should interview next, reply to the newsletter or reach out at editor@inoldnews.com